Nicolas and the late Robert Descharnes have confirmed the authenticity of this work.
“The intelligent painters are those who will be able to integrate into classicism even the wildest experiments, the most disordered and chaotic of our time…My ambition is to incorporate, to sublimate, my experiments into the great classical tradition.” –Dalí (quoted in E.H. King, Salvador Dalí, The Late Work, exh. cat., High Art Museum, Atlanta, 2011, p. 13).
Dalí's Le mausolée d'Halicarnasse, painted in 1955, is a fantastical and atmospheric rendering of the ancient titular monument. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, located in modern-day Bodrum, Turkey, was an enormous funerary monument dedicated to Maussolus, Greek satrap of Carai, erected circa 367-353 BC (fig. 1). It is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and is the site after which we get the modern-day term for a stately tomb. Based upon the description of Roman author Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) in his famous literary work Natural History, the structure was comprised of a large square base that supported a grand Ionic colonnade topped by a magnificent stepped pyramid. Crowning the pyramid, stood a statue of Maussolus driving his quadriga, or four-horse chariot, an ancient emblem of triumph. Dalí's composition in the present work follows this description closely. Especially striking is the silhouette of the charioteer and his horses set against the starry sky. In classical mythology, the quadriga is the chariot of the gods; Apollo was typically described as steering his steed across the heavens, alternating between bestowing daylight and cloaking the mortal world with darkness. The transitional phase that Dalí illustrates in this painting suggests such an allusion to the god of the sun; we are presented with a seemingly fleeting moment at dusk or twilight as the sun either rises or sets over the line of Cyprus trees along the right side of the composition.
Although the viewer is provided with an aerial perspective, the mysterious shrouded figure who stands tall in the center of the foreground, with an elongated and exaggerated shadow cast by no identifiable light source within the composition, offers us point of entry into the painting. We are enticed to follow this being into the mythic scene, further beckoned by the grand gesturing of the classical equestrian statue positioned midway down the path, and eventually ascend the grand staircase towards the majestic edifice. The space the figure in the foreground inhabits is hardly terra firma; the atmospheric quality Dalí renders through his blending of the pink hues that comprise the path seamlessly into the grove of trees lining the way. The rose color seems to spread like mist emanating from of the enigmatic cloaked figure’s steps. This seemingly actively dissolving state of the foreground reflects Dalí's interest in atomic physics, and the continually changing states of matter. In his 1958 “Anti Matter Manifesto,” Dalí states: “If the physicists are producing anti-matter, let it be allowed to the painters, already specialists in angels, to paint it” (“Anti Matter Manifesto,” 1958, reproduced in H. Finkelstein, ed., The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, Cambridge, 1998, p. 366). On 22 April 1941, Dalí opened an exhibition of his new works at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. The invitation to the exhibit read: “Salvador Dalí requests the pleasure of your company at his last scandal, the beginning of his classical painting” (quoted in E.H. King, Salvador Dalí, The Late Work, exh. cat., High Art Museum, Atlanta, 2011, p. 13). Dalí's self-promotional antics during his previous stays in United States made him widely known in America where he had become the singular face of Surrealism, much to the consternation of Breton and his circle. Although many critics noted that the works in the show were still true to the artist’s surrealist stylistic roots, the subject matter of his artistic output had started to shift, and by the l950s, his artistic output displays his increasing preoccupation with the abstract realm of mysticism, theology and the physical sciences, as is evident in Le mausolée d'Halicarnasse.
Dalí painted Le mausolée d'Halicarnasse the year after he created similarly themed works as designs for Cinerama’s film The Seven Wonders of the World, which was released in 1956, including Le colosse de Rhodes (fig. 2), Les murs de Babylone, Les pyramides et le sphinx de Guizeh, Symphonie en rouge, Statue de Zeus olympien, and two paintings titled Le phare d’Alexandrie. Tragically, The Temple of Halicarnassus was destroyed during an earthquake between the 11th and 15th centuries leaving Dalí’s majestic scene as a means for us to experience this lost element of human achievement.
fig. 1. Wood engraving recreation of The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, first published in 1882.
fig. 2. Salvador Dalí, Le colosse de Rhodes, oil on canvas, 1954. Kunstmuseum Bern.