La Maison sans Fenetres
(“The House Without Windows”)
Book by Maurice Sandoz, Illustrations by Salvador Dalí
Original watercolor, 1949

by Paul Chimera

Salvador Dali. A Spanish genius who took the art world – and the world in general – by storm, practically from the moment of his birth on May 11, 1904. Throughout his 84-year life, Dali had a Midas touch. He was the leading figure in the art movement known as Surrealism, which took its main page from the psychoanalytical theories of Freud. No one explored the subconscious dream world as effectively as Dali. Among his most enduring images are his signature “soft watches” from his iconic painting, The Persistence of Memory of 1931.

His post-surrealist period, after about 1940, was marked by a turn to religious and historical themes, intermingled with science, and inspired primarily after the explosion of the atomic bomb and the ushering in of new discoveries about the discontinuity of matter. He went on to paint major works such as Tuna Fishing, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, Christ of St. John of the Cross, the Sacrament of the Last Supper, and Hallucinogenic Toreador.

Museums honoring Dali’s legacy and genius can be found in Figueras, Spain – his birthplace – and St. Petersburg, Florida. Less extensive museums and/or permanent exhibitions have been established in London, Paris, and Tokyo as well.

In addition to being the most successful surrealist painter of the last century, Dali also blazed trails in filmmaking, lithography, etching and engraving, theatre design, the literary arts – he wrote two autobiographies and the novel, Hidden Faces – and book illustration.

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La Maison sans Fenetres is a colorful example of Salvador Dali at his book illustrating best – loaded with imagination yet “staying on message,” in this case depicting a sensational, surreal scene, after we learn in author Sandoz’s story that a pianist has set foot in the mysterious Villa Niervana.

Dali thus paints several grand pianos on a plain, one of them ascending skyward – a perfectly logical detail when you’re a surrealist painter illustrating a sort of surrealist author’s book! Dali’s pianos, however, are just a few notes shy of conventional. His are partly made of bricks, overgrown with vegetation and featuring water pouring from beneath their lids.

Serpents tickle the ivories, as it were, with their forked tongues. Typical Daliesque images – a figure in the background holding a crutch; a crutch propping up background landscape; several lush cypress trees – also populate this interesting tableau.

Pianos, it turns out, figured with considerable frequency in Dali’s world of “hand-painted color photography,” as he once described his technique. Countless Dali works find the instrument in all manner of contortions and poses, from the provocative Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano to Six Apparitions of Lenin on a Grand Piano.

One early work that has never been reproduced in any significant study of Dali’s vast catalog is titled Piano Descending by Parachute (1941), shown being hung on a wall by Dali and his wife, Gala, in a snap shot in the book, Salvador Dali: An Illustrated Life. We can even go back to the 1920s and the medium of film and find a piano as a major prop in the bizarre, surrealist film – now a cinema classic – titled Un Chien Andalou.

The 1940s was a remarkable period in Dali’s career. Self-exiled to the United States during World War II, Dali paid the bills not merely through inspired easel paintings, but, indeed, through book illustrations, society portraiture, and a vast array of commercial endeavors – designing everything from dinner plates to neckties, chess sets to hosiery ads. Indeed, the present watercolor illustration for the Sandoz volume bears a striking resemblance to the sort of busy and colorful look of the wonderful series Dali painted to advertise Bryan Hosiery, and which were published in such magazines as Vogue and Harpar’s Bazaar.

Dali was commissioned not only to illustrate Sandoz’s House Without Windows, but also the Swiss author’s The Maze, On The Verge, and Fantastic Memories. His dust jacket designs and inside illustrations represent some of his finest work.

Finally, it’s rather fun to note that, when Dali and Gala were staying at the home of Caresse Crosby at Virginia’s Hampton Manor during the 1940s, Dali orchestrated a sort of surrealist happening by, among other things, hoisting a grand piano up into the trees!

He took the world by storm, indeed.