One of the most eccentric and talented figures of the international avant-garde movement known as Surrealism, Salvador Dalí filled his works of art with striking, unforgettable dream-like images that earned him a reputation as one of the most revolutionary voices in twentieth-century art. An egocentric genius with an obsessive imagination, Dalí developed a personal mythical world in his paintings and sculptures, animated by recurrent symbols, complex associations and phantasmagorical scenes that, still today, impress viewers from around the world. Describing his three-dimensional work as ‘transformations’ rather than sculptures, Dalí sought to produce objects in which the idea was the most important aspect of the work rather than its aesthetic form, often casting familiar motifs or everyday items in strange situations which cause the viewer to question their understanding of the object in the process.
Cast in bronze in 1984, Surrealist Piano is a prime example of the strange juxtapositions of the familiar with the impossible that characterise Dalí’s sculptural work. By replacing the traditional wooden legs of the grand-piano with the shapely legs of a female dancer, Dali transforms the instrument into a strange hybrid creature that can not only play music, but also dance to it. The conflation of the human body with a piece of furniture was a motif that had occupied the artist for years, most famously in his designs for the Mae West Lips Sofa (1938), and the numerous drawings and sculptures of torsos and heads punctuated by drawers which culminated in his iconic sculpture, Venus de Milo aux tiroirs (1964). The image of the female body conjoined to a musical instrument was a central feature of Dalí’s infamous pavilion, The Dream of Venus, at the Universal Exhibition in New York in 1939 - one vignette featured a female performer, known as a ‘siren’, draped across a piano, her whole body painted to resemble the iconic black and white keys of the instrument. Although subsequent paintings explored this concept of the conjoined human-instrument further, such as in the human ‘cello’ featured in Music–The Red Orchestra–The Seven Arts (1957), it was the piano which recurred again and again in Dalí’s art as a sight of mysterious transformation.
Part-human, part-furniture, the instrument in Surrealist Piano appears simultaneously inanimate and alive, as if it may kick up its heels at any moment and lose itself in the music. This impression is enhanced by the frilly petticoats that frame the connection between the legs and the body of the piano, an undergarment traditionally revealed in the raucous, fast-paced whirl of the Can-Can or a burlesque
performance. These details lend the sculpture a lighthearted atmosphere, suggesting that if we were to hear the tune being played on the piano, we would find it to be a fast-paced, jaunty number familiar from popular music halls. Although Dalí’s youth had been dominated by classical music, his time in Madrid as a student led him to develop a new passion for the frivolous tunes and fashionable dances in vogue during the early 1920s. The lively, modern rhythms of the tango, the foxtrot, the Can-Can and the Charleston captivated him, their energy and frenetic movements standing in complete opposition to the Romantic compositions of Schumann or Beethoven he had grown up with. However, the graceful figure atop the instrument may be a subtle reference to a more traditional form of music, her lyrical, almost balletic, pose suggesting she is performing to a piano concerto or a symphonic composition, rather than one of the frenzied dance crazes that often flitted in and out of fashion so swiftly.