Created in 1937, Bust à tiroirs explores one of the fundamental obsessions which occupied Salvador Dalí during the late 1930s – the motif of the human body punctuated by drawers, each of which could be unlocked and pulled open to reveal the interior ‘landscape’ of the figure. The theme had first emerged several years before, often in hybrid creatures, or semi-human mannequins, and evolved further during Dalí’s stay in England, where an unfamiliar phrase piqued the artist’s interest. The artist, who still understood only a little English in 1936, heard someone use the typical British phrase ‘chest of drawers’ in passing and, unfamiliar with the term, was immediately struck by the image of a human being with drawers in his or her rib cage. This poetic slippage sparked Dalí’s imagination, resulting in a flurry of drawings and paintings that explore the motif in a variety of guises, most notably in a series of elegant figures with torsos subdivided into a series of open drawers, such as The Anthropomorphic Cabinet (1936). The present work is a rare example amongst this group, as it is the only such drawing to focus on a male figure. Here, Dalí presents the man in a tormented, frenzied state, his head tossed violently downwards to reveal an open drawer that springs from his forehead.
As with The Anthropomorphic Cabinet, the figure in Bust à tiroirs dips its head in an effort to hide from our gaze, allowing their curly hair to fall forward, covering the face and obscuring their expression from view. However, in doing so, the bust causes a hidden drawer in the centre of its forehead to pop open, revealing their internal musings and thoughts to us, which we may examine and pick through. The treatment of the hair is reminiscent of Dalí’s earlier drawings and paintings of the figure Gradiva, which had arisen from his interest in Wilhelm Jensen’s 1903 novel and Sigmund Freud’s subsequent psycho-analytic interpretation of Jensen’s story. Indeed, the motif of the drawers may be seen as a metaphor for the manner in which Freduian psychoanalysis may open the hidden areas of the subconscious, revealing the mysteries and secrets which lay buried in the human psyche, revealing them for others to see. Dalí, who was an enthusiastic follower of Freud, explained this affinity: ‘The only difference between immortal Greece and contemporary times is Sigmund Freud, who discovered that the human body, purely platonic in the Greek epoch, is nowadays full of secret drawers that only psychoanalysis is capable to open’ (Dalí, quoted in ‘Notable Acquisitions at the Art Institute of Chicago,’ in Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 32, No.1, 2006, pp. 64-65). In combining the motif with the idea of a sculpted figure, Bust à tiroirs may be seen as an important continuation of the concept originally explored in Dalí’s famed Surrealist object, the Venus de Milo aux tiroirs, conceived in 1936. Defying the logics of its materiality, the sculpture’s dramatic movement to avoid our gaze simultaneously suggests animation and solidity, causing us to question our understanding of the bust’s very substance, an effect typical of Dalí’s playfully subversive aesthetic.
Almost immediately after its creation, Bust à tiroirs entered the collection of the renowned British eccentric, poet and patron, Edward James, who used much of his inherited fortune to support artists and projects associated with Surrealism. Cultivating close friendships with many of the principal protagonists of the movement, James became a pioneering collector, and was a driving force behind the pivotal 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries in London. Counting Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Leonora Carrington and more amongst his friends, by 1939, James had amassed one of the greatest Surrealist collections in the world. Dalí had first met James in 1934, and the pair enjoyed a lasting and fruitful friendship. In 1936, during a visit to James’s London home, they conceived of elaborate Surrealist project that would transform the interiors into an eclectic, imaginary environment. Furthering the idea of a Surrealist object, a concept Dalí had proposed in 1931, they collaborated on a range of highly theatrical, surreal interior schemes, objects and pieces of furniture, transforming the rooms of James’s country home, Monkton, into fantastical surrealist visions: a sofa became a pair of scarlet red lips inspired by a photograph of screen siren, Mae West, a pair of lamps was created from a tower of golden Champagne glasses, and in Lobster Telephone, a phone has metamorphosed into a lobster. With these surreal objects, assemblages and paranoiac-critical interiors, Dalí significantly expanded the artistic possibilities of Surrealism, pushing this groundbreaking movement into an experimental new dimension.
It was during this period that James became concerned that the artist was struggling to make a living with his art. In December 1936, a contract was drawn up between the two, in which James committed his financial support to Dalí’s artistic vision. Under its conditions, James would take sole ownership of Dalí’s entire artistic output from June of the following year, through to the summer of 1938, in exchange for a generous allowance. James believed that the agreement would allow Dalí a new sense of liberty, unburdened by financial worries, that would allow him to fulfil his true creative potential. Bust à tiroirs most likely entered James’s collection as a result of this agreement, and remained in his collections for over forty years.