Stolen Dali Painting, ‘Mystical Carnation’, a Beautiful Enigma
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Call it the “un-Dali.” But not the way the soft drink, 7-Up, was famously dubbed the “un-Cola.” Instead, I’m talking about a beautiful c.1950 painting by Salvador Dali, titled “Mystical Carnation.” According to the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation in Spain, “Mystical Carnation” is an oil on unknown support; of unknown dimensions; unknown location; unsigned; undated.
Unbelievable. And unfortunate.
It’s also unknown – to me, anyway – just how wonderful works like this manage to fall off the face of the earth. I imagine it’s often the case that a work changes private hands from one anonymous collector to another, and eventually the trail goes cold. There’s no public documentation of its whereabouts, no paper trail, no appearances in auction catalogs or art exhibitions.
Of course, it doesn’t help that, according to the Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali, the work was stolen from a London gallery in 1955. At least the thief had good taste.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen an image of “Mystical Carnation” in color, which would obviously add substantially to one’s appreciation of it. Still, we can admire it to the extent we know it.
The canvas was painted when Dali was immersed in his Nuclear-Mystical period, blending his thoughtful examination of the nexus between religion and science – nuclear physics in particular. Historical references were also making frequent appearances in his works.
Carnations, which symbolize admiration, were also used often in early Greek ceremonial crowns; Dali’s affinity for Greek history and culture threads throughout much of his art.
Of particular fascination to me are the four rays of light (is that what they are?) emanating from the carnation, which obviously is portrayed as a religious fixture as it hovers above a holy cloth or corporal. But are those really rays shooting from the flower, or actually four life-giving spermatozoa heading toward it? Sure looks like it to me. Take a closer look. Yeah, that’s what they are.
Interestingly enough, Dali’s fixation on the carnation as subject matter found expression, also in 1950, when the then 46-year old Catalan master executed the lovely canvas, “Carnation and Cloth of Gold.”
Its location, too, is unknown, although we know it’s an oil on canvas and measures about 13 inches x 17 inches. In this case, the vibrant red carnation rests upon a holy cloth whose handling is breathtaking, right down to the unraveling threads, behind which appears a stone ledge with chipped edges that are photographic in their realism. The olive branch is a traditional symbol of peace and victory.
Many scholars and critics seem to hitch their star to the tired belief that Dali’s best work was that of the 1930s, during the heyday of his surrealism. I’m one of a growing number who challenge that assertion. Indeed, I find some of Salvador Dali’s very best work that of his post-surrealist period – his Nuclear-Mysticism of the 1950s and beyond.
Friend and colleague Elliott King, Ph.D., an art history professor who curated the 2010-2011 exhibition, “Dali: The Late Years” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, agrees. In my view, that exhibition saw the congregation of the most impressive Dali paintings in a single show, including, among others, “Santiago El Grande,” “The Madonna of Port Lligat” (the large version), “Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina,” and “Christ of St. John of the Cross.”
Meanwhile, it’s regrettable that we don’t know where “Mystical Carnation” is today. Someone, somewhere, is enjoying it – and in color! But no doubt it will one day make its way onto the auction block. And hopefully to a more public home.