Dali’s ‘Battle of Tetuan’ Seldom Seen but Makes Gigantic Impression!
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Perhaps the most seldom seen Salvador Dali painting – of the approximately 20 large-scale masterworks the Catalan genius created – is his monumental 1962 oil on canvas, “The Battle of Tetuan.” Its relative obscurity, tucked away in a museum in the city of Fukushima, Japan, is rather a shame. Because this massive canvas is one of Dali’s best and most intriguing works, while also one of the more complex and confounding.
I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in, 1990, as I recall (or was it ’92?) when I attended a Christie’s auction in New York City the night “Battle of Tetuan” went on the block; it would sell for $2 million before the night was through.
The enormous picture was hung in a room one had to pass through to get to the main auction floor. Unfortunately the room was cordoned off such that you had to stay very, very close to the wall on which “Battle of Tetuan” was hanging. As a result, you had no choice but to look up at the work, as if the galloping horses were trampling you!
I wish I’d stayed back and gazed upon it far longer. I remember how monumental and powerful it was, with earthy shades of brown and a palpable dynamism.
The subject deals with a battle of the 1859-1860 Spanish-Moroccan War, fought near Tetouan, Morocco, between a Spanish army sent to North Africa and the non-professional troops that made up the Moroccan army.
Dali was heavily inspired to paint this large work after admiring the gigantic painting of the same name, painted by Mario Fortuny, a leading Catalan painter of his time, and on permanent exhibition in Barcelona. But Dali’s work departs from that of Fortuny in several key ways.
Never completely disconnected from his surrealist roots, Dali injected a dramatic touch to the picture with the glistening sabre at right and the “flying” horse at left – the latter element lending an unusual sense of depth and height. Emerging from behind the horse is a Dalinian reference that recalls two other important paintings: “The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft, Which Can Be Used as a Table,” and “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans; Premonition of Civil War.”
Astute viewers will notice a series of numbers interwoven throughout the battle scene, whose meaning I confess is unclear to me. It could relate to numerology, or perhaps to science, as Dali had displayed reproductions of the work with the structure of the DNA molecule superimposed over it.
Gala appears twice in the painting – at the center top and astride a horse to the left of the artist’s self-portrait; he too is riding a horse.
A very unusual and esoteric detail is found in the middle right and far right distance – the suggestion of galloping warriors formed by the rivers of negative white space surrounding printed text. Dali included it to remind us how remarkable visions can be found in mundane surroundings. Enjoy these interesting photos of “The Battle of Tetuan,” including some rarely seen until now.