A Dali ‘Disappears’ for 70-Plus Years!
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
There I was in 2005, working through the spectacular Salvador Dali centennial retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – a great museum that owns, among other Dali’s, one of the greatest Dali paintings ever: “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans; Premonition of Civil War.”
What a delight seeing so many impressive paintings by the Surrealist master in honor of the 100th anniversary of Dali’s birth in 1904.
But nothing prepared me for what I was suddenly to come upon.
It was a 1940 oil that was quintessentially Dali, yet, in some ways, not typical of Dali. It was masterfully painted, carefully thought out. It hadn’t been seen publicly for decades. And it was utterly unknown to me.
The work is “Book Transforming Itself into a Nude Woman,” and, while relatively small at 16 in. x 20 in., it was a big hit at the show and made a huge impression on me.
Nothing excites me more at a Dali exhibition than discovering a work for the very first time. Many of us who think we’ve seen it all marvel time and again when something unknown suddenly emerges, making us reevaluate just how well we really do know this master of surprise.
Invariably such works ended up in private hands, often for decades, completely off the grid and unavailable for reproduction in books about Dali. In the case of “Book Transforming…,” the picture had been exhibited a year after it was painted, but then purchased by an anonymous collector, where it remained all these years.
Judging from a reproduction alone, you can see the work exudes that perfectionist quality that typified virtually all Dali paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints. Impossible images seem real, thanks to Dali’s photographic technique. Untypical, however, is the faceless male figure holding what looks like a skull; he seems alien and not consistent with how Dali usually handled human figures.
It was believed Dali painted this curious work while staying at Hampton Manor in Virginia – the place where he penned his autobiography, “The Secret Life of Salvador Dali.” Some theorize this may account for the literary subject of the present work.
Of course, the key element here is not just a book, but the double-image of blank pages of a book that, at the same time, form the buttocks of a reclining woman – or at least the beginnings of one. There’s an interesting kind of dual energy and sense of movement here – the book morphing into a human being, while the ball-headed figure across from it seems to be energetically reaching out toward the woman’s body. (The butter knife slicing into human flesh calls to mind Dali’s “Autumn Cannibalism” of 1936).
This human- yet alien-like form recalls the enigmatic male figure in “Philosopher Illuminated by the Light of the Moon and the Setting Sun” (1939), while the pen and inkwell have come to symbolize two basic thoughts: Dali’s allusion to his notary father; and the male sex and female breast, represented by the pen and inkwell, respectively. At least one author advances the idea that the ribbon hanging over the page in the open book connotes a flaccid penis.
Painted in the early years of World War II, this canvas seems to evoke a disquieting, subtly sinister mood – a kind of eerie dream that might consume the thoughts of someone living during a foreboding time in world history.
What other unknown Dali’s are out there, long in private hands but destined to appear out of nowhere?