Please not the amended dimensions for this work:
85 7/8 x 75¼ in. (218.2 x 192.4 cm.)
Christie's is delighted to present three important backdrops by Salvador Dalí painted in 1944 for the set of the ballet Tristan Fou or Mad Tristan. Financed by the Marqués de Cuevas--host of some of the most glittering parties in Paris in the 1930s--these monumental works are consigned by the heirs of the Marqués and his wife Margaret Rockefeller, the granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller.
Prominent artists have long been involved in set design and in the 20th century Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Georges Roualt, Georgio de Chirico and others saw the theater as a fitting venue to present large scale works of art. Sergei Diaghilev engaged Picasso between 1917 and 1924 to design the backdrops and costumes for his Ballets Russes, providing an opportunity for experimental design and close collaboration on ballets that were often choreographed by Léonide Massine.
Dalí was designing for theater productions as early as 1927 and later the extent of his involvement went beyond creating stage décor and costumes to providing the libretto for the ballet's Bacchanale (1939) and Labyrinth (1941). Massine, whom Dalí had met in the mid-1930s, choreographed these performances as well as Tristan Fou.
Based on the hallucinations of the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, Bacchanale was the culmination of years of preparations. Robert Descharnes comments: "the passion of the Spanish for the ephemeral, but repeated conquest of space crystallized in France at the end of the 1930s when one of his most cherished projects, Venusberg, was performed by the Ballet Russes of Monte Carlo as choreographed by Léonide Massine to the music of Richard Wagner. The libretto, set and costumes were designed by Dalí. The costumes were to be made by Mademoiselle Chanel after Dalí's specifications. The ballet was planned for the 1938-1939 season. The impending war eclipsed the performance, and the ballet opened two years later on November 9, 1939 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, at which time it was entitled Bacchanale ("The Three-cornered Hat and other Ballets," Dalí and the Ballet: Set and Costumes for The Three-Cornered Hat, exh. cat., Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee, 2000, p. 14).
Tristan Fou continues the Wagnerian theme and is based on the opera Tristan and Isolde. It was produced by Ballet International and premiered at the International Theater in Manhattan in December 1944 before touring to London where the Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo performed the ballet another five times.
It was described by Dalí as "The First Paranoic Ballet based on the Eternal Myth of Love in Death." Tristan, in Dalí's conception, has been driven insane with love, and in this state he sees himself slowly devoured by Isolde's Chimera, a horrible and awesome transformation of his beloved. "Thus," the program for the ballet read, "in the sublimity of the human being, are reincarnated the perverse and tragic nuptial rites of the praying mantis, wherein the female devours the male as the consummation of their union." Dalí explained in a 1944 interview with Cue magazine that Wagner's opera is "presented from the angle of love in death and death in love, the great theme of life." In this way, Dalí brings together love and destruction and allows them to evolve into one another.
The stage décor for the performance was extravagant: "Dali's set depicted a fantastic island with three jutting masonried horses' heads rising up from the sea. On the periphery were a car flung out on a rampart, fleurs-de-lis sprouting from human eyes, crumbling balustrades and stairs winding up to nowhere. The ballet's highlight was the fantastic final section, when the large horses' heads on the backcloth parted for the death and transfiguration of Tristan...Overall, Robert Bagar found Dalí's work 'superb, painted with Mr. Dalí's wonted mastery'" (L. Norton, Léonide Massine and the 20th Century Ballet, Jefferson, 2004, p. 286).
The lilies sprouting from eyelashes are related to the flowering head motif which first appears in Dalí's work in the early 1930s--his portrait of the Viscomtess Marie-Laure de Noailles of 1932 depicts the beautiful young aristocrat with her head covered in colorful summer flowers and a rose emerging from her cheek--and forms a theme the artist would return to until late in life. The following three lots encapsulate Dalí's sensibility on a monumental scale and are a rare testament to his involvement with theater and ballet in particular.
Property from a Distinguished Collection