Long before Salvador Dalí’s name became practically interchangeable with Surrealism, the Art Institute of Chicago acquired several of his works, becoming one of the Spanish artist’s earliest institutional champions in the United States. As curator Jennifer Cohen says, the museum has had “Dalís on our walls consistently from the 1940s to today.” Still, “Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears,” on display now through June 12, marks the museum’s first retrospective of the artist.
However, it’s a narrow one, and intentionally so. The Art Institute focused “The Image Disappears” on a single chapter of Dalí’s life: the 1930s, the decade “Dali becomes Dali,” according to co-curator Caitlin Haskell. “He’s making his grand appearance on the scene in the United States—showing in American galleries, working in Hollywood and fashion, making a huge splash,” she says. “At the same time, as we studied our paintings, we noticed all these different kinds of disappearance happening. . . . We were really interested in drawing out that contradiction.”
The Art Institute borrowed 11 artworks from other collections for the occasion and took its own Dalís off the walls for closer study—which, in one case, led to the biggest Dalí-related breakthrough in decades. Below is a guide to a half-dozen of the 50 Dalí works in the exhibition, including the one about which Cohen and Haskell made their big discovery.
Mae West’s Face Which May Be Used as a Surrealist Apartment (1934–35)
This work is a manifestation of Dalí’s collage-like technique, though it isn’t, in fact, a collage. (You’d be forgiven for thinking it was, even when viewing the artwork in person.) In reality, Dalí clipped a magazine image of the actress Mae West and applied wash on the surface to lend it a collage-like appearance; Haskell considers it “an assisted Readymade.”
It calls to mind the magazine clippings held in a display case just paces away, all demonstrating Dalí’s newfound notoriety in the mainstream press. “Absolutely [Dalí is] interested in celebrity,” Haskell says, “but maybe the thing that’s more consequential is he’s interested in visuality and all of the different forms of visual culture that are permeating the modern world: film, photography, magazines, retail clothing, fashion. His is a very catholic interest.”
A Chemist Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano (1936)
This hyper-allusive work, like much of Dalí’s oeuvre, resists easy interpretation. The reclining figure in the foreground—a composite of Dalí, Dalí’s father, and Lenin—could command the artwork’s sightlines, but Dalí intentionally sheathes him in shadow and renders his features nondescript.
Instead, a bust of the composer Richard Wagner dominates the canvas, as does a deflated piano being examined by the titular chemist. (Wagner was something of a fixation for Dalí, who adorned his pool with busts of the composer.) The artwork’s other figures form a nostalgic promenade of sorts: the little boy is Dalí himself as a youth, and a figure resembling his cousin strides in the distance.
Recently, infrared imaging of the painting revealed yet another key figure. Dalí left a faint shadow of one of these underdrawings intentionally visible, at eye level with Wagner. X-ray and infrared imaging revealed a personage resembling King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner’s onetime patron and an infatuated acolyte of the composer.
City of Drawers (1936) and Venus de Milo with Drawers (1936)
These artworks are placed near each other in “The Image Disappears”and inevitably invite viewers to draw parallels: Both were created in the same year and evocatively depict women with drawers built into their torsos. Years later, Dalí explained to filmmaker Jean-Christophe Averty the impetus behind his concept of placing drawers within human figures: “The only difference between immortal Greece and the contemporary era is Sigmund Freud, who discovered that the human body, which was purely Neoplatonic in the time of the Greeks, is now full of secret drawers that only psychoanalysis can reveal.” A few months after it was first exhibited—but before Dalí added mink pom-poms to its handles—Venus de Milo with Drawers was displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, also the origin of the final artwork on our list.
Inventions of the Monsters (1937)
When the Art Institute acquired this painting in 1943, Dalí’s letter to the museum only deepened its enigma. “According to Nostradamus the apparition of monsters presages the outbreak of war,” he wrote. “The canvas was painted in the Semmering mountains near Vienna a few months before the Anschluss and has a prophetic character. Horse women equal maternal river monsters. Flaming giraffe equals masculine apocalyptic monster. Cat angel equals divine heterosexual monster. Hourglass equals metaphysical monster. Gala and Dalí equal sentimental monster. The little blue dog is not a true monster.”
That last part might be a head-scratcher at first glance. Much like the all-but-hidden Ludwig II encountered in A Chemist, this painting’s “disappearing” image is the long-eared dog faintly visible on the painting’s more vacant right-hand side; it is scarcely more perceptible when viewed in person. Haskell says that pigment analysis of the dog demonstrated that it was always meant to be “intentionally ghostly.”
Many suspect the dog is a reference to the poet Federico García Lorca, who had been assassinated the year before by Spanish Nationalists. Lorca and Dalí shared an emotionally and erotically charged friendship, explored at length in Ian Gibson’s 1997 biography The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí and the 2008 film Little Ashes. Lorca had bristled against Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), believing it was a coded depiction of himself. Around the same time the film was released, Dalí met his future wife Gala, only widening the chasm between Lorca and the artist. Dalí and Gala are seated together at the table to the left, their nearly blended visages based on a photograph of the two taken the same year as Inventions of the Monsters was created.They are arranged almost directly across from the spectral dog, left to stare at one another in perpetuity.
Untitled (Dream of Venus) (1939)
This artwork was formerly known as Visions of Eternity and was thought to have been painted in 1936. But exhaustive research in advance of “The Image Disappears”turned up a mysterious sketch printed in a 1939 issue of Vogue. In the magazine, Dalí outlined his plans for his Dream of Venus pavilion at the New York World’s Fair later that year; one of the figures in the background uncannily recalls a figure in Visions of Eternity.
Sure enough, Cohen found a photograph depicting Visions of Eternity as part of a greater backdrop of Dalí’s pavilion display, indicating it was only later repurposed as a framed painting. It explained why the canvas had no tacking edges and appeared to have been cut on three sides, as well as rolled and folded.
The discovery demonstrates anew how Dalí envisioned his work from the period as multimodal, multifunctional, and multicontextual. It is among the most significant strides in Dalí scholarship in years, and it started, much like Mae West’s Face, with a magazine clipping.