A surreal double image that combines both fantasy, memory and childhood anecdote, Salvador Dalí’s Bouche mystérieuse apparaissant sur le dos de ma nurse was painted in 1941, at the same time that the artist was writing his semi-autobiographical book The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, in which he subsequently reproduced this work. Here, Dalí has metamorphosed a photograph of the actress Betty Stockfeld, whose image was featured on the cover of a 1939 issue of Pour Vous, a weekly film magazine, into a coastal landscape. The nose, mouth, and chin of the actress form a seated figure seen from behind, while the eyes and brow become the rolling hillside beyond, the lashes lines of trees and ploughed fields, the whites of her eyes white-washed houses tucked into the landscape. With its repoussoir-like archway and tree, this gouache is the most complex, colorful, and fully realized iteration of this motif. Along with an earlier study, Dalí had created another closely related, though less intricate version of this composition the same year (Sold Christie’s, New York, 11 November 2018, lot 2A).
The subjects of Bouche mystérieuse apparaissant sur le dos de ma nurse are, as the title suggests, figures from Dalí’s own life. The setting is the beach at Cadaqués in Spain, where his family spent summers; the boy with a hoop is young Dalí himself, and the seated woman is his beloved nursemaid Llucia, “immense in stature...like a pope...with the whitest hair and most delicate and wrinkled skin I have ever seen,” he recalled (op. cit., 1942, p. 67). Both figures appear repeatedly in the artist’s spare, melancholy beach scenes of 1934-1936, but they take on new significance here—seemingly conjured forth from the oneiric text of The Secret Life, in the midst of the artist’s wartime exile in the United States.
This image also evokes a highly charged boyhood episode from The Secret Life—a false memory, encapsulating Dalí’s innermost anxieties and fantasies—in which the artist encountered the object of his erotic desires, a girl called Galuchka, at a military parade. “Seized with an insurmountable shame, I immediately hid behind the plump back of a big nurse sitting monumentally on the ground, whose corpulence offered me refuge from Galuchka’s unendurable glance,” he wrote. “I felt myself stunned and dumbfounded by the shock of the unforeseen encounter, a shock which the lyrical impact of the music amplified to a state of paroxysm. Everything seemed to melt and vanish around me and I had to lean my little head against the nurse’s broad insensitive back, a parapet of my desire” (ibid., p. 51).
“Each time I stole a furtive glance at Galuchka,” Dalí continued, “to assure myself with delight of the persistence of her presence I encountered her intense eyes peering at me. I would immediately hide; but more and more, at each new contact with her penetrating glance, it seemed to me that the latter, with the miracle of its expressive force, actually pierced through the nurse’s back, which from moment to moment was losing its corporeality, leaving me more and more in the open and gradually and irremissibly exposing me to the devouring activity of that adored though mortally anguishing glance” (ibid., p. 52). In the present gouache, the features of the screen siren represent both the object of the artist’s powerful desires (the eyes) and a bulwark against them (the nurse), staging the conflict between maternal attachment and sexual development that constitutes the principal Freudian drama of adolescence.
Dalí had first explored this double image two years prior, in a 1939 study that also takes the Pour Vous cover as its starting point (Descharnes and Néret, no. 767; Fundación Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueras). The next year, he used the motif as the central vignette in an oil painting entitled Les trois âges (La vieillesse, l’adolescence, l’enfance) (Descharnes and Néret, no. 744; The Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida), where it is flanked by the representation of a bearded man whose features—recognizable as those of Richard Wagner, the composer who was beloved by Dalí—are formed from a rocky outcrop and by a smaller, inchoate face that emerges from the figure of a woman mending a fishing net. “As these images come in and out of focus through the push and pull of foreground and background elements,” Robert Lubar has written, “Dalí in effect stages the temporal experience of subjectivity: the persistence of memory” (The Dalí Museum Collection, St. Petersburg, 2012, p. 170).
The double image, by destabilizing the supposed veracity of external appearances, was central to Dalí’s “paranoiac-critical” method, which induced the viewer to read meanings under meanings by a sequence of highly subjective associations. Dalí inscribed this process within the context of the surrealists’ persistent denunciation of reality. “I believe the moment is at hand,” he wrote in 1930, “when by a paranoiac and active thought process it will be possible (simultaneously with automatism and other passive states) to systematize confusion and contribute to the total discredit of the real world” (quoted in Dalí’s Optical Illusions, exh. cat., Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 2000, p. 26).