Prominent artists have long been involved in set design and in the 20th century Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Georges Rouault, Giorgio de Chirico and others saw the theater as a fitting venue to present large scale works of art. Sergei Diaghilev engaged Picasso between 1917 and 1924 to design the backdrops and costumes for his Ballets Russes, providing an opportunity for experimental design and close collaboration on ballets that were often choreographed by Léonide Massine.
Dalí was designing for theater productions as early as 1927 and later the extent of his involvement went beyond creating stage décor and costumes to providing the libretto for the ballet's Bacchanale (1939) and Labyrinth (1941). Massine, whom Dalí had met in the mid-1930s, choreographed these performances as well as Tristan Fou. Based on the opera Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner, it was produced by Ballet International and premiered at the International Theater in Manhattan in December 1944 before touring to London where the Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo performed it another five times.
It was described by Dalí as "The First Paranoiac Ballet based on the Eternal Myth of Love in Death." Tristan, in Dalí's conception, has been driven insane with love, and in this state he sees himself slowly devoured by Isolde's Chimera, a horrible and awesome transformation of his beloved. "Thus," the program for the ballet read, "in the sublimity of the human being, are reincarnated the perverse and tragic nuptial rites of the praying mantis, wherein the female devours the male as the consummation of their union." Dalí explained in a 1944 interview with Cue magazine that Wagner's opera is "presented from the angle of love in death and death in love, the great theme of life." In this way, Dalí brings together love and destruction and allows them to evolve into one another.
The present work, painted in circa 1944, was part of the extravagant décor for the performance: "Dalí's set depicted a fantastic island with three jutting masonried horses' heads rising up from the sea. On the periphery were a car flung out on a rampart, fleurs-de-lis sprouting from human eyes, crumbling balustrades and stairs winding up to nowhere. The ballet's highlight was the fantastic final section, when the large horses' heads on the backcloth parted for the death and transfiguration of Tristan... Overall, Robert Bagar found Dalí's work "superb, painted with Mr. Dalí 's wonted mastery'" (L. Norton, Léonide Massine and the 20th Century Ballet, Jefferson, 2004, p. 286).