Dalí painted Chevaliers en parade during his wartime exile in America. With German armies on the march during the spring of 1940, there was no question that he and his wife Gala had to leave Europe--she was Jewish, and the artist would have had a difficult time surviving under any totalitarian regime. There were other motivations, as Dalí readily admitted in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí: "I needed, in fact, immediately to get away from the blind and tumultuous collective jostlings of history, otherwise the antique and half-divine embryo of my originality would risk suffering injury and dying before birth in the degrading circumstances of a philosophic miscarriage occurring on the very sidewalks of anecdote. Ritual first and foremost! Already I am concerning myself with its future, with the sheets and pillows of its cradle. I had to return to America to make fresh money for Gala, him and myself..." (New York, 1942, p. 390).
Arriving in New York with Gala on 16 August 1940, Dali made himself at home in a city already familiar to him--as well as with him--from previous stays, and immediately hurled himself in into new projects. He made preparations for a solo exhibition at The Julien Levy Gallery, which opened on 22 April 1941. Léonide Massine of the Ballet Russe commissioned Dalí to design the sets and costumes for his new ballet Labyrinth, based on the myth of Theseus and Ariadne, which premiered on 8 October. John Briggs wrote in his review: "Mr. Dalí tossed in a fruity bit of symbolism here and there, but for the most part his sets concerned themselves strictly with the business at hand" ("Ballet Russe Opens Season," New York Post, 9 October 1941). Dalí worked apace on his autobiography, the aforementioned The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, which was published in October 1942 and made the best-seller list. In conjunction with Miró, Dalí was given a retrospective exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, which thereafter traveled to eight cities across America.
In April 1942, Massine tapped Dalí once again to provide set designs for his next ballet, Mysteria, set in Renaissance Spain. A helmeted horseman wielding a lance and rearing up on his mount--recalling paintings of Saint George slaying the dragon by Raphael, Rubens and Delacroix--features prominently on the right side of an oil painting that Dalí executed and dated 1942 in preparation for this project (fig. 1). Plans for the ballet came to naught, however, when Massine had a falling out with the chief administrator of the Ballet Russe--he quit the company and moved on to the newly reorganized Ballet Theater of New York. Later that year, Antony Tudor, a British choreogapher who had recently joined the same troupe, chose Dalí to design costumes and sets for his new production of Romeo and Juliet, the only ballet version of Shakespeare's play to be set in one act, to the music of the British composer Frederick Delius, from his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet and other scores. Tudor recalled, "I originally wanted sets and costumes by Salvador Dalí because I had conceived the décor in terms of Fra Angelico and Dalí handles those notions very well" (quoted from www.antonytudor.org).
Dalí painted a half dozen set designs for Tudor's Romeo and Juliet (see R. Descharnes, op. cit., pp. 352-353, nos. 796-801; two of these pictures have been sold at Christie's London--see sales 10 December 1998, lot 531; and 2 February 2010, lot 128). The horseman with lance appears again in one of these designs (Descharnes, no. 800; fig. 2). Tudor, however, rejected Dalí's sets--"Dalí's ideas did not harmonize with mine," he said (ibid.). In a letter to Tudor, Dalí defended his approach to Shakespeare's play: "Apart from the scene of the balcony... nearly all the rest of the play is filled with violence, street fights, the violent hatred of rival families, death and necrophllic [sic] sentiments far from veiled" (quoted in M. Etherington-Smith, The Peristence of Memory: A Biography of Dalí, New York, 1992, p. 291). To replace Dalí, Tudor chose Eugene Berman, whose designs more obligingly drew inspiration from Botticelli and other Renaissance masters. The first performance of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, with Tudor's choreography not yet quite complete, took place at the Metropolitan Opera House on 6 April 1943. Berman's sets met with a favorable response from audience and critics alike.
It is unclear whether the present Chevaliers en parade precedes or follows the two set designs which incorporate the horseman with lance, although it does seem most likely that Dalí painted it afterwards, perhaps toward the end of 1942, to preserve this striking image in an independent painting that would not be subject to the uncertain fate of his theater designs. The bellicose theme of this painting was certainly appropriate for the times: twin ranks of knightly crusaders, their banners held high and streaming in the breeze, muster for a review before setting out, as a noble lady of the realm passes among them. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of allied forces, later titled his book about the Second World War Crusade in Europe. The presence of the cathedral at the end of the avenue suggests that the crusaders' quest has been sanctioned at the highest level, while a skull lying on the ground serves as a memento mori.
During this period Dalí was wont to practice a kind of optical illusionism in his imagery, as seen in Disappearing Bust of Voltaire, 1942, in which three walking figures in Renaissance costume merge to create the semblance of Houdon's bust of Voltaire. The artist invokes his paranoid-critical method, and in his "delirium of interpretation" creates a dual image from a single configuration of forms. Dalí has incorporated the illusion of a double image in the present Chevaliers en parade: the head of the horseman is also the eye of a larger grinning head seen in profile, wearing a kind of close-fitting helmet or chain-mail coif. Reaching for a ball--an abstraction of the world, or some ideal at stake in it--a feminine, braceleted arm extends from the side of this mysterious, sphinx-like androgyne, whose wide-eyed smile, the lines of which extend into the horse's reins, is either a benediction in approval of, or a puzzled response in reaction to the belligerent enterprise at hand.
Salvador Dali, New York, 1943. Photograph by George Karger, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
(fig. 1) Salvador Dalí, Set Design for the Ballet "Mysteria," 1942. Private collection.
(fig. 2) Salvador Dalí, Study for the set of "Romeo and Juliet", 1942. Private collection .