Posted by: PaulChimera
“Swans Reflecting Elephants” (1937, private collection), is one of those magical Salvador Dali paintings that virtually everyone falls instantly in love with! It’s a stunning work by any meaasure: beautiful color scheme, super-fine draftsmanship, smooth, fluid tone to the composition – and simple but irresistible double-imagery.
As the title promises, the three graceful swans’ reflections in the shimmering turquoise lake become…elephants! Not only is their mirror images at least partly plausible, but it points up a favorite obsession of Dali: the ambivalence and paradox of unlikely pairings. In this case, the lightness of the delicate swan contrasted with the tonnage of the world’s heaviest land animal.
A very interesting debate, of sorts, has ensued with respect to the lone man standing off to the left, in white shirt and brown pants, looking away from the scene. Some have claimed the figure is that of artist and Dali friend Marcel Duchamp. However, in the mid-‘70s, a Sotheby’s catalog stated the following fascinating information from a letter of May 2, 1976, written by Dali collector/patron Edward F.W. James, referring to the man standing at left as “quelque petit bourgeois” and that “he was intended to resemble a chemist in a neighboring village called Ampurdan, north of Barcelona.”
The letter went on to say, “I believe from what Dali once told me, that such figures are recollections of uncles and cousins from his early childhood – or simply sometimes just of business associates of his father’s; in fact, the sort of people who dominated a dry, materialistic and prosaic world from which he was already a small boy fighting to escape. He is thus defeating them, getting the best of those ‘petits bureaucrats’ by putting them in landscapes and in situations where they would find themselves totally lost.” Of course, it could also be, in fact, Duchamp.
Of the sinewy trees, the one at left appears to morph into the figure of a woman, nearly identically to the way a woman emerges from the trunk of the tree in “Asher,” one of the graphics in Dali’s popular “Twelve Tribes of Israel” print suite.
Interestingly, “Swans Reflecting Elephants” sold some years back for about $3.7 million at auction. In the aforementioned Sotheby’s catalog from the mid-1970s, the work was priced by Sotheby’s at $142,000. I saw the painting once – at the 1990 Dali retrospective in Montreal, Canada. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it!