Unlikely Painting was Favorite of Dali’s Leading Patron
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
When I was director of publicity for the world’s first Salvador Dali Museum – then located in Beachwood, Ohio, near Cleveland and since relocated (in 1982) to St. Petersburg, Florida – one question was probably posed more often than any other to the collection’s owners, A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse: which work in the collection is your favorite?
Mine is and always has been “The Hallucinogenic Toreador.” Mrs. Morse’s was “Velasquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadow of His Own Glory.”
I would have guessed Mr. Morse’s pick would have been one of the large-scale masterworks. Or perhaps one of the most famous double-image works ever created in the realm of surrealism and visual perception: “Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire.”
So it came as quite a surprise to me – and I’m betting to most others – when the answer was “The Javanese Mannequin,” a 25 in. by 21 in. oil on canvas.
The work is at once both obscure and fascinating. When you take in the whole of the incomparable Dali Museum collection in Florida, “Javanese Mannequin” is not exactly a picture that jumps out at you, that screams “Hey, look at me!” It doesn’t have the electric color scheme of the huge “Lincoln” painting or the brilliant “Hallucinogenic Toreador.” Nor the impact of the sheer size of “Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus,” or the photographic quality of “Nature Morte Vivante.”
But “Javanese Mannequin” is nevertheless a remarkable little work. Its essential imagery of decomposition relates to the quintessentially surrealist etchings Dali did to illustrate Les Chants de Maldoror, the 1869 novel by Isidore Ducasse.
The upper “body” of this bizarre human-like kneeling figure recalls the hull of a boat, with its ribs doubling as human and wooden parts of the ruined vessel. Something hangs from the curved top – appearing to be a worm or maggot (yuck!).
The reconfiguration of a human body gets perhaps even more bizarre as we consider the legs of this…creature! Its right, grossly elongated buttock recalls that seen in Dali’s more famous “The Enigma of William Tell,” and like the very large earlier painting, a crutch is employed to prop up the unwieldy phallic protrusion.
The left leg, meanwhile, seems to become bone and flesh as our eye moves downward toward where his foot would be. Several birds appear to be pecking at crumbs of the decomposing figure.
A remarkable use of dark and light here lends intrigue and technical brilliance to this Dali painting. A light source creates an eerie illumination of parts of the figure and leaves a ribbon of light on the ground below him. It is unclear from the dark palette of the background whether this curiosity is in a room or outside in a haunting darkness.
Why it is called “Javanese Mannequin,” and why it was the favorite of Dali patron Reynolds Morse, remains a mystery to this Dali historian. What’s clear is that you’re not likely to just pass this work by the next time you tour the Dali Museum in St. Pete. It’s definitely worth a much closer look.