Clad entirely in green and wearing a turban on his head, Salvador Dalí approached the seven-foot tall canvas. The smart, urbane audience, including film stars Joan Crawford and Zsa Zsa Gabor, as well as What’s My Line? stalwart panelist Arlene Francis, watched on with eager anticipation.
It was March of 1960, and the infamous Surrealist had promised to create a masterpiece under a self-imposed 20-minute limit to celebrate the redecoration of the Berkshire Hotel’s Barberry Room lounge in Midtown Manhattan.
The ensuing abstract composition of primarily black and white, with a few significant marks of green and yellow, was executed in a fury of gestures and splashes — some of which hit the walls, ceiling, and even close onlookers — and was completed in just half the allotted time.
Impression de Bouguereau, 1960, which will be offered on an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000 at the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale at Christie’s New York on 13 November, resulted from the time Dalí spent as a regular in the Barberry Room where a copy of William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1873 Neoclassical work Nymphs and Satyr hung.
Salvador Dali (1904-1989), Impression de Bouguereau, inspiré par le tableau Les nymphes et le satyre, 1960. Oil, acrylic and nails on canvas. 86 1/4 x 50 1/4 in. (218.7 x 127.4 cm.). Estimate: $300,000-500,000. This work will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Day Sale on 13 November at Christie’s in New York
VIEW MORE WORKSImpressionist and Modern Works on Paper, 13 November, Christie’s New YorkBrowse sale
While the original composition of a single male engaged in lascivious play with a group of comely females was (and remains) staunchly installed in the hallowed halls of the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, one can imagine Dalí seriously contemplating the copy before declaring that he could do better.
His proposal for the creation of a new interpretation of Bouguereau’s original entailed not only the performance of its making, but also that once his work had hung in the hotel for the period of a year, the copy of Bouguereau’s original would be given to him, and he would, in turn, destroy it, leaving his impression to be the one and only truly inspired work.
The spectacle was the sort for which Dalí, who nurtured a penchant for shock, became well known in the late 20th century before his death in 1989. ‘He had a childish streak that made him want to create a scene for the sake of creating a scene,’ says Alex Rosenberg, a former publisher of Dalí prints and chairman of the Salvador Dalí Research Center.
‘I once owed him $25,000,’ continues Rosenberg, ‘and [Dalí] insisted the amount be brought to him in single dollar bills. When I arrived in Port Lligat, his home in Spain, the mayor of the town was assigned the job of counting the money. This was the way he behaved, and it was this humour that overshadowed his brilliance as an artist.’
Only now are we starting to realise the real genius of this artist because the generation who saw him as a clown is gone
Indeed, while Dalí might be best known for his outlandish antics, his centennial retrospective, Salvador Dalí, organised by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2005; the 2011 unveiling of the St. Petersburg, Florida-based Salvador Dalí Museum’s architecturally distinctive new building; and Dalí: All of the Poetic Suggestions and All of the Plastic Possibilities, mounted by the Museo Reina Sofia and the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2013, are just of few of the events that mark the artist’s scholarly reassessment.
‘Only now are we starting to realise the real genius of this artist because the generation who saw him as a clown is gone,’ says Rosenberg. ‘The work is being reconsidered on its own merit. He’s one of the great Surrealists of all time.’
As such, the time is ripe for Impression de Bouguereau to reappear on the scene. Just as Dalí suggested destroying the hotel’s more imitative copy, the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation in Spain had been unsure of the work’s location (or existence) after it was removed from the Berkshire when the hotel owner, Manhattan Properties LLC, sold the holding in the 1970s and hung the piece in a modest office space.
‘They had no idea it was considered a lost work,’ says Vanessa Fusco, the department’s head of sale at Christie’s New York, of the sellers. ‘They felt it was being under-appreciated where it was and it was a good time to bring it out.’
William-Adoplhe Bouguereau (1825-1905), Nymphs and Satyr, 1873. Oil on canvas. 102 1/2 x 72 in. (260.4 x 182.9 cm.) Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1942. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
A newspaper story recounting the creation of the work, printed in The Berkshire Eagle on 20 August 1960
The timing is apt — many of the artist’s top prices have been achieved in the last five years, such as that for the 1934 oil on canvas Moment de transition, which realised $9,125,000 at Christie’s New York in May 2014. ‘Surrealism as a whole is gaining larger global fascination, which is resulting in greater collector interest,’ says Fusco. ‘Asia is becoming increasingly sensitive to Surrealism. There’s been quite a few Dalí shows in Japan and Surrealist exhibitions in China, so it’s growing into a global phenomenon whereas previously it was only appreciated in the West.’
That fascination rests in the movement’s original tenets to unleash the subconscious mind. As such, the performative nature of Impression de Bouguereau connects Dalí’s early Surrealist investigations to the happenings of the 1960s as perpetrated by Yves Klein, Allan Kaprow, and artists of the Fluxus and Gutai movements. ‘The notion of artist as performer was very prominent idea when the piece was made,’ explains Fusco.
The work shifted the notion of the artist from inspired practitioner to conceptual thinker. ‘Of course, it’s very cheeky as the Bouguereau is an academic Neoclassical work and Dalí boasted he could do better,’ says the specialist. What is captured, though, is the vitality of the Bougereau, the swirling movement of its energy as rendered in a modern abstraction, wrapped up in the tidy bow of historic documentation.
‘It’s a very unique piece both historically and stylistically,’ says Fusco. ‘Dalí is a great Surrealist and, technically, he’s extraordinarily skilled as a painter and draughtsman. But at this point in his career, he’s not being derivative of his early style. He’s tapped into the larger artistic culture at the time. It’s an opportunity to think about Dalí in a different light.’
Main image at top: Salvador Dali helps to load Bouguereau’s Nymphs And Satyr. Photograph by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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