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Salvador Dali met Harpo Marx during the summer of 1936. This unlikely pair actually turned out to be very compatible. Dali realized the creative genius of the Marx’s particular class of comedy, and Harpo Marx was completely breath taken by the Spaniard’s immense energy and vision. That Christmas Dali sent Marx a harp stringed with barbwire; Marx, whom was an accomplished harpist, (That’s where his nickname came from), later posed for Dali with the instrument. The sketches from that session are some of the most famous Dali drawings from the 30′s. The two decided to produce a film starring the Marx Brother with a script by Dali. In January of 1937 Dali began work and finished a screenplay titled Giraffes on Horseback. The story is a comedic surrealistic apocalyptic vision, which involves Harpo Marx playing the Emperor Nero. It concerns a Spanierd who meets a “Surrealistic Woman” while encountering a multitude of surreal events. MGM, whom the Marx Brothers were contracted under at the time, rejected the script for being too off the wall. This devastated Dali whom desperately wanted to work with a genius of his level.
During the development of the script Dali produced several detailed drawings and some magnificent watercolors to storyboard the bigger scenes. One of these original paintings depicted the final scene of the film, where an orchestra plays a Wagnerian composition while thousands ride bicycles below. Thirty-three years later, in 1970, this painting would be brought back to life in the form of a limited edition graphic.
Symphony Bicyclette is a print of the highest level of surrealism. It is a work that takes on epic proportions. The lithography shows a coordinated everlasting system of men riding bicycles while balancing a stone on their head. Painted almost entirely in black and white, Symphony Bicyclette resembles the cartoonish look of an old comic strip. The few colors that exist come from the towers of orange and red flames and the apocalyptic sunset at the end of the landscape. The cyclists seem to be riding for no apparent reason. Perhaps the dawn of man is coming to an end accompanied by the melodramatic melodies of Wagner. Dali wonderfully designs this work with a style of romantic obsession. Here is how Dali describes the scene:
“There is a competition for the person who can ride a bicycle the slowest with a stone balanced on his head. All the participants have to grow beards. In the middle is a tower in the form of a boat’s prow to be used as a judge’s box. Before the spectacle begins, the vegetation around the fields is set alight. This prevents the spectators in the stands from seeing anything at all. From the top of the tower the sight is wonderful, with columns of smoke going up vertically, surrounding hundreds of cyclists – each balancing a rock on his head – threading their way with the sun setting behind. In the tower, Harpo is playing his harp ecstatically, like a modern Nero. By his side, his back to the spectacle, Groucho is lying, smoking lazily. Nearby, the “Surrealist Woman” and Jimmy watch the spectacle, lying side by side. Behind them, Chico dressed in a diving suit, accompanies Harpo on the piano. Scattered across the gangway leading to the tower, an orchestra plays the theme song with Wagnerian intensity as the sun sinks under the horizon.”
The stellar sun appears as a monumental event all on its own, like the last sunset that would ever happen. Dali showcases his ability to portray a setting beyond observation. Symphony Bicyclette is like a cosmically unimaginable historical event that has already happened or is waiting to happen. Dali accomplishes his goal in trying to convey the grandness of symphony through pictures.
Symphony Bicyclette urges us to celebrate our dreams, because through them we can imagine the triumph of humanity.