Nicolas and the late Robert Descharnes have confirmed the authenticity of this work.
One of the best known, instantly communicative images in Dalí’s extensive, typically bizarre iconography is the female body no longer organically integrated and whole, but configured as if sectioned into a bureau of drawers, signifying the disjointed, compartmentalized state of the modern psyche. ‘The only difference between immortal Greece and the present,’ Dalí believed, ‘is Sigmund Freud, who discovered that the human body, purely platonic at the time of the Greeks, was now full of secret drawers that only psychoanalysis could pull open’ (Dalí, quoted in R. Descharnes & G. Néret, Salvador Dalí: The Paintings, Cologne, 1994, vol. 1, p. 276). Among the artist’s various renderings of this idea, the present Figure aux tiroirs most tellingly reveals its feminine subject as the fraught victim of her male beholders. Taking the form of a surrealist assemblage of phallic edibles thrusting through the legs of a wicker stool, her admirers emerge from their own drawer as a disembodied clump of roots and branches that terminate in desperately grasping human hands, brandishing a fork and spoon, as they press forward to consume the contents of the opened drawers.
Dalí conceived this idea of the drawers from a play on words, heard quite by chance while staying in London during November 1935 with his primary patron and collector Edward James. ‘At that time, his English was practically non-existent,’ the British surrealist painter Conroy Maddox wrote, ‘which would account for the misunderstanding that arose upon hearing someone talk of a “chest of drawers” [a commode in French]’ (C. Maddox, Salvador Dalí, Eccentric and Genius, Cologne, 1970, p. 78). The following year, back in Paris, Dalí exploited this confusion – a verbal formulation of his new paranoiac-critical method, in which one might visualize multiple representations in a single image – to create an astonishing surrealist object, Vénus de Milo aux tiroirs. Marcel Duchamp, who had recently begun assembling his portable museum, La boîte en valise, assisted in producing the five drawers that Dalí inserted into a half-scale plaster reproduction of the iconic marble sculpture in the Louvre collection, discovered in 1820, which has ever since epitomized for the modern mind the classical Greek ideals of beauty and love. Dalí embellished each drawer with a fur pom-pom as its pull, a reference to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel of female domination Venus in Furs, from which the Austrian psychiatrist Krafft-Ebbing derived the term ‘masochism’, a subject he included in his book Psychopathia Sexualis, 1886. Literature of this kind, and most recently from Freud, was always of paramount interest to Dalí in his life and art.
The female image in Figure aux tiroirs appears to have come from an incident – however real or imagined, one can only guess – that Dalí later fully elaborated in Chapter 5, ‘True Childhood Memories,’ of his memoir The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, New York, 1942, as ‘The Story of the Linden Blossom Picking and the Crutch’ (pp. 89-111). He developed the theme and chief characters from his confessional text Daydream, which met with widespread disapproval, even among the Surrealists, when it was published in 1931 (H. Finkelstein, ed., The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, Cambridge, UK, 1998, pp. 150-162). In The Secret Life version, Dalí refers to the summer holiday he spent, at age twelve (or ten, so he claimed), on the estate of the painter Ramon Pichot, from whom he first learned about Impressionism. Pichot gave the beginning boy painter a room in his Muli de la Torre (‘Tower Mill’) to use as a studio. As he related in his memory narrative, Dalí became enchanted with the young country girl he called Dullita, whom he believed to be his earlier fantasy of the little Russian girl Galuchka (a premonition of his eventual lover and wife Gala), come to life – ‘Galuchka Rediviva’, Dalí was also attracted to the girl’s mother (‘Matilde’ in Daydream), especially her ‘large breasts, extremely beautiful and turgescent…her arm-pit presented a hollow of great softness,’ as she climbed a ladder to collect the linden tree blossoms. ‘The three images of my delirium,’ Dalí wrote, ‘mingled in the indestructible amalgam of a single and unique love-being’ (Dalí, op. cit., 1942, p. 91).
Dalí devised an intricate scheme intended to entice the woman to place her ladder against the tower, on the pretext of disentangling the string of his toy diabolo from the thorns of a rose vine that clung to the wall. As she ascended, her breasts and armpits would appear framed in the tower vestibule window. While Dalí gazed upon this obsessively anticipated sight, he would use the crutch he had discovered in the tower attic to prod three large, ripening melons that hung in nets from the vestibule ceiling. A frequent motif in Dalí’s oeuvre, the crutch is the symbolic instrument of the artist’s manly, imaginative, and creative powers – ‘this object communicated to me an assurance, an arrogance even, which I had never been capable of until then’ (Dalí, ibid., p. 90).
With the crutch as his sceptre, wearing only a costume crown and an ermine cape that he had found with it, Dalí awaited the magic moment. When the woman’s breasts finally came into view, ‘their confused mass, seen against the light, only exasperated my libido. I accentuated my proddings while communicating a special rhythm to my crutch. Soon the juice of the melon began to drip on me… I placed my face beneath the melon… I caught the spatterings of juice, which was prodigiously sweet’ (Dalí, ibid., p. 101). As she descended, and was about to pass into view once again, one of the three suspended melons broke loose and struck the young artist on his head – he missed the repeat appearance of the woman’s breasts. ‘My enchantment had passed… The two black shadows of the melons appeared to me as a sinister symbol.’ Nor did Dalí win, at the Muli de la Torre that summer, the love of Dullita. The artist’s story reads as a paradigm of dream, delusion, fetish, anticipation, sacrifice, and loss, to which Dalí would thereafter subscribe as a fundamental life-lesson and his destiny. ‘And since then,’ Dalí concluded his tale, ‘that anonymous crutch was and will remain for me, till the end of my days, the “symbol of death” and the “symbol of resurrection!”’ (Dalí, ibid., pp. 102 & 111).
The key theoretical text of this period is The Spectral Surrealism of the Pre-Raphaelite Eternal Feminine, which Dalí discussed at The International Surrealist Exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries, London, in June-July 1936, and published in Minotaure, Paris, on 15 June (H. Finkelstein, ed., op. cit., 1998, pp. 310-314). He inveighed against the materialist tendency inherent in Cézanne’s influence on modern painting, noting the irony that one may love the artist’s ‘eternal’ apples only ‘platonically’, because they are ‘inedible par excellence…the structure and sex-appeal of the fruit in question allowed going no further’ (Dalí, ibid., pp. 310 & 311). He urged that one turn instead to the ‘flagrant Surrealism of English Pre-Raphaelitism,’ artists who ‘give us and make radiant for us the women who are all at once the most desirable and the most frightening in existence…the gelatinous meat of our most shameful, sentimental dreams. The Pre-Raphaelites place on the table the sensational dish of the eternal feminine, livened up with a moral and thrilling touch of highly respectable “repugnance”’ (Dalí, ibid., pp. 311 & 312).
‘Cézanne’s apple is a sort of “phantom sponge” that claims to have volume without weight, a “virtual volume,”’ Dalí declared. He preferred ‘the Adam’s apples of Rossetti’s luminous beauties… apples that are of necessity moral, subcutaneous, and spectral, covered with the ‘geodesic’ web of muscles and by the “catenaries” of translucent and lunar costumes’ (Dalí, ibid., p. 312). He might have presented his Figure aux tiroirs as a prime realization of the Pre-Raphaelite eternal feminine in modern, Freudian guise – rendered, moreover, in his newly conceived ‘geodesic’ manner of drawing, in which he represented convex volumes by means of a series of lines that adhere to the geodesic curvature of each form, as in the ‘skillful swaddling’ of Egyptian mummies (Dalí, ibid., p. 313).
Dalí had been reading Freud since the early 1920s, when the psychologist’s writings first appeared in Spanish translation. He longed to meet the author of The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899, which had played a decisive role in his understanding of himself and the evolution of his art. The writer Stefan Zweig, like Freud a Jewish émigré from Nazi Austria, living in London, arranged for an audience to take place 19 July 1938. Edward James was also present. Dalí brought along the painting Métamorphose de Narcisse, 1937, the first he had fully realized in his paranoiac-critical method; Zweig had written Freud in his introductory letter that the canvas was painted under his influence. Dalí had drawn some studies of Freud, and sketched another during the visit, while Zweig and James conversed with their host. ‘That boy looks like a fanatic,’ Freud whispered to Zweig in German. ‘Small wonder they have a civil war in Spain if they all look like that’ (S. Freud, quoted in M. Etherington-Smith, The Persistence of Memory: A Biography of Dalí, New York, 1992, p. 234). The following day, Freud wrote Zweig, ‘Until now I was inclined to regard the Surrealists – who seem to have adopted me as their patron saint – as 100 percent fools… This young Spaniard, with his ingenuous fanatical eyes, and his undoubtedly technically perfect mastership, has suggested to me a different estimate’ (S. Freud, ibid., p. 235).