SALVADOR DALÍ (1904-1989) Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages 94.5 x 74.5cm (37 3/16 x 29 5/16in) (left panel, including the artist's frame) 87.7 x 65.8cm (34 1/2 x 25 7/8in) (right panel, including the artist's frame) (Painted in 1937)

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Lot 14AR
Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages

Sold for £ 8,171,062 (US$ 9,854,732) inc. premium
SALVADOR DALÍ (1904-1989)
Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages
signed, inscribed and dated 'Gala Salvador Dalí 1937' (lower right on the left panel); signed, inscribed and dated 'Gala Salvador Dalí 1937' (lower right on the right panel)
oil on two panels within the artist's frames
94.5 x 74.5cm (37 3/16 x 29 5/16in) (left panel, including the artist's frame)
87.7 x 65.8cm (34 1/2 x 25 7/8in) (right panel, including the artist's frame)

Painted in 1937


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    (Possibly) Paul Éluard Collection, Paris.
    Giacinto Scelsi Collection, Rome.
    Fondazione Isabella Scelsi Collection, Rome (bequeathed by the above in 1987).

    Venice, Palazzo Grassi, Dalí, The Centenary Retrospective, 12 September 2004 – 16 January 2005, no. 155 (later travelled to Philadelphia).
    Rovereto, Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Cent'anni 1900 - 1950. Opere dalla collezione permanente del MART, 2008 - 2009.
    Rovereto, Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Tra avanguardia e tradizione 1912 - 1945 e oltre. Opere dalla collezione permanente del MART, 2009 - 2010.
    Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Dalí Dalí featuring Francesco Vezzoli, 19 September 2009 - 17 January 2010, no. 18.
    Milan, Palazzo Reale, Salvador Dalí, il sogno si avvicina, 22 September 2010 – 30 January 2011.
    Vienna, Kunsthalle, Le Surréalisme, c'est moi! Hommage an Salvador Dalí, 22 June - 23 October 2011.
    Rome, Complesso Monumentale del Vittoriano, Dalí, un artista un genio, 9 March - 1 July 2012, no. 25.
    Dublin, Irish Museum of Modern Art, What We Call Love, From Surrealism to Now, 12 September 2015 - 14 February 2016.
    London, Royal Academy of Arts, Dalí/Duchamp, 7 October 2017 - 3 January 2018, no. 137.
    Barcelona, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Gala Salvador Dalí, A Room of One's Own at Púbol, 7 July - 14 October 2018.

    L. Martinis, 'A proposito di un dittico di Dalí', in I suoni, le onde. Rivista della Fondazione Isabella Scelsi, no. 9, Rome, April - June 2002 (illustrated on the front and back covers).
    Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí (eds.), Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings by Salvador Dalí, online catalogue, 2004, no. P 508 (illustrated).
    R. Descharnes & G. Néret, Salvador Dalí 1904 - 1989, The Paintings, Vol. I, 1904 – 1946, Cologne, 2007, no. 612 (illustrated p. 272; dated '1936').
    M. Draguet, W. Jeffett & D. M. Johnson, Dalí & Magritte, exh. cat., Brussels, 2019 (illustrated p. 69).

    'How can one forget that constant play between the interior and exterior worlds created by the large windows facing out on the ruins of the Imperial Forum; the palm in front of the French windows; the American vine on the facade, its fiery red colour in autumn ... The exterior creeping in, regularly interspersed with musical instruments, the creative disorder of the scores and books on the piano and on the tables, the drawers overflowing with recording tapes, the ancient objects, the portraits of the Yoga Masters and the Ascetics – a corner of mysterious Icons - the discreet tapestries, the worn rugs and, on the sofa in a visual axis with the palm, under two golden silhouettes, Giacinto Scelsi' - Luciano Martinis (translated from 'A proposito di un dittico di Dalí', in I suoni, le onde. Rivista della Fondazione Isabella Scelsi, no. 9, Rome, April - June 2002).

    For the fortunate visitor to Giacinto Scelsi's home in the historic centre of Rome, the sight of Salvador Dalí's Surrealist masterpiece Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages would have been an unforgettable one. In the midst of the composer's many scattered instruments, notes, recording tapes and antiquities, hung these exceptional panels in hand-carved shaped gilt frames: a couple, leaning contemplatively towards each other, their torsos filled with the unmistakable dreamscapes of the Spanish painter's finest work.

    The enigmatic and revolutionary composer Giacinto Scelsi Conte d'Ayala Valva (1905-1988) dedicated his life to writing innovative music, only achieving critical acclaim a few years prior to his death. Scelsi was born into a noble family in the South of Italy, and started playing the piano at the early age of three. After studying composition and harmony in Rome, Scelsi travelled abroad extensively and moved within Europe's avant-garde elite. Whilst living in Paris in the 1920s he encountered the Surrealists. Notable among these artists, writers and poets was Paul Éluard, the first husband of Gala Dalí and to whom, according to Scelsi, Dalí's stunning diptych Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages first belonged. He recounted to his biographer Luciano Martinis that the work had been gifted to Éluard by Dalí as a wedding present, and that he had in turn acquired the diptych from the French poet. Scelsi keenly followed the currents of Surrealism, and wrote Surrealist poetry in French – he often declared his love of Éluard's poetry to close friends and maintained links to the group, spending time with Salvador Dalí and Gala during their travels in Italy during the Spanish Civil War.

    Scelsi was a true innovator, and developed an idea of a 'spherical' sound which he translated through microtonal elements in his music. Much like the Surrealists before him, Scelsi was fascinated by the concept of automatic and intuitive improvisation, which he used to create works such as La nascita del Verbo (1948), Quattro pezzi su una nota sole (1959) and String Quartet No. 4 (1963), recorded séance-like on a tape recorder. He collaborated with American composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown, and became a source of inspiration for Ennio Morricone's Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza. However, Scelsi remained largely unknown for most of his career and he stopped composing in the late 1970s. The Parisian group Itinéraire declared Giacinto Scelsi the father of the avant-garde in 1982, and a series of concerts in the late 1980s debuted many of his pieces to great acclaim shortly before the composer's death. The impact caused by the late discovery of Scelsi's works was described by Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich: 'A whole chapter of recent musical history must be rewritten: the second half of this century is now unthinkable without Scelsi [...] He has inaugurated a completely new way of making music, hitherto unknown in the West' (Halbreich quoted in P. A. Castanet, Giacinto Scelsi aujourd'hui: actes des journées européennes d'études musicales consacrées à Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), Paris, 2005, p. 191).

    In 1987, Scelsi founded the Isabella Scelsi Foundation and presided over it until his death in 1988. He named the Foundation after his sister Isabella, to whom he had remained close throughout his life. The Foundation is dedicated to the study and dissemination of his work, and the support of new music.

    Issuing from the height of his Surrealist period, Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages foregrounds some of the most iconographic elements of Salvador Dalí's best-known works. Painted at a time of huge personal and political change, the innovative format of the present work and the fascinating provenance place it as one of the most important works by this extraordinary artist ever to appear at auction.

    The Catalan artist's involvement with the Surrealist movement and his passionate relationship with his future wife Gala both began in the same year, and from then on, his romantic life and his practice would forever be entwined. Dalí first met the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard (thought to be the first owner of the present work) in early 1929 whilst staying in Paris to film Un Chien Andalou with Luis Buñuel. Through Éluard, Dalí was introduced to the wider Surrealist circle and he invited members of the group to stay with him in Cadaqués that summer. Amongst the party who visited were Magritte and his wife Georgette, along with Éluard's wife, the Russian-born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, known as 'Gala'.

    Dalí's relationship with the growing Surrealist group was subsequently cemented by his first solo exhibition in the November of that year, held at the Galerie Camille Goemans in Paris. Accompanied by a catalogue prefaced by André Breton ('it is, perhaps, with Dalí, the first time that the mental windows have opened wide' – Breton quoted in D. Ades, Dalí, London, 1982, p. 84), it was heralded as a great success. Aged just twenty-five, Dalí was now regarded as one of the leading lights of the Surrealist circle.

    Breton, who had formed the heart of the Surrealist group since writing the First Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924, had originally been inspired by the writings of Sigmund Freud, who suggested that our unconscious mind contains unspoken desires and thoughts that our conscious self refuses to acknowledge. The Surrealist group sought to unlock these through automatism and the analysis of dreams, embracing and celebrating the accidental and the irrational. Dalí met Freud in person in 1938 to sketch his portrait, but sought to interpret his ideas in his own unique way, which he coined as the 'paranoiac-critical method'. The artist sought to play with the viewer's own paranoid and subjective mind to read alternative meanings into the images presented in a composition. This freely-associated imagery differed from the automatic method of other Surrealists, as in Dalí's work each motif or nuance was carefully staged and planned to provoke a desired reaction.

    By the time Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages was painted however, Dalí's relationship with Breton was showing signs of tension, anticipating his eventual expulsion from the Surrealist group in 1939. By then, Breton had named Dalí 'Avida Dollars', a derogatory anagram of the Spanish artist's name referring to the French phase 'avide à dollars', meaning 'eager for dollars'. His growing derision for Dalí stemmed from the latter's increasing focus on commercial commissions and his fondness for fame and celebrity which Breton believed was due to the increasing influence of his wife Gala.

    Gala and Dalí had fallen in love that summer of 1929 in Cadaqués, and she remained there with him, established as his constant muse. Their relationship was one of passionate obsession, with a sense on the part of the artist that she represented his destiny: 'As for Gala, she was a revelation – the revelation Dalí had been waiting for, indeed expecting. She was the personification of the woman in his childhood dreams' (R. Descharnes & G. Néret, Salvador Dalí, 1904-1989, The Paintings, Vol. I, 1904-1946, Cologne, 2007, p. 149). The present work is signed 'Gala Salvador Dalí' on each panel in homage to his wife, as with many of his masterpieces in the 1930s and beyond. The first appearance of this double signature is thought to have been in 1931, immediately after Dalí's father disinherited him in protest against his relationship with a divorcée.

    Theirs was a controversial relationship – Gala was divorced and ten years his senior, and many like Breton saw her as the controlling force behind the increased commercialisation of Dalí's work. Her role became that of his manager, from handling all negotiations with dealers and galleries to selecting the best paints, brushes and frames for his work. The pair also maintained ties with her first husband, with rumours that Gala had an extra-marital affair with Éluard, amongst others, with Dalí's full consent and knowledge. The poet even served as one of the witnesses to their first marriage ceremony in Paris in 1934 (subsequently followed by a Catholic ceremony in 1958).

    The present diptych was preceded by a sister work thought to portray this unique marriage: Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages of 1936 hangs in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and is widely acknowledged to reference Dalí and Gala in the innovatively shaped panels and frames, echoed in the present work. The 1936 diptych shows a calmer sky above a similarly bleached desert scene and eerie citadel. Table tops draped with stark white cloths dominate the foreground of each of these panels however, upon which are placed a glass, a bunch of grapes and a weight. A reclining figure, cap placed over his head, lies in the vast emptiness of the right-hand panel, echoing the suited sleeping man in the 1937 panels. His slumped form is mirrored by the shape of the grapes below.

    The uniquely shaped composition was partly inspired by the work of one of Dalí's favourite artists, Jean-François Millet. L'Angélus (1857-1859) was celebrated as a national masterpiece following its acquisition by the Louvre in 1889, and showed a farmer and his wife bowing their heads in prayer in a field, reciting the Angelus prayer to mark the end of the working day. Dalí saw a print of this painting whilst at school and insisted that it was actually a funeral scene with the couple stood in mourning over a buried child. At his insistence, the Louvre X-rayed the canvas and revealed a small coffin-like shape by the basket, since painted over. Dalí's lasting fascination with the composition can be seen in works such as his own L'Angélus from 1932, and his publication of Le Mythe tragique de L'Angélus de Millet: Interpretation 'paranoïaque-critique' of 1933-1934 – in which he reinterpreted the hitherto innocent image of rural piety not as husband and wife, but rather as mother and son, the composition now tense with Oedipal undercurrents.

    The Museum Boijmans' Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages pays homage to L'Angélus in the reverent tilt of the figures' heads, with Gala's head inclined more deeply towards that of Dalí's than in the 1937 reinterpretation. The devotion here lies not with God, but between the two lovers. Preliminary studies for the work, such as a 1936 drawing, show the two heads originally fused as one, equal in size and stature, with a reclining female nude drawn within their shared frame.

    The present work, issuing from 1937, shows a much more dramatic sky contained by the tilted busts. Dalí's masterful painting technique can be seen in the virtuoso modelling of the tumbling storm clouds blowing in from the top left corner, the swirling brushwork contrasting with the smooth desert foreground. The jewel-like cerulean sky also provides a stunning complementary contrast to the luminous blonde, sandy ground. Further movement is created through the bowed skeleton of the tree in the left panel, the tension in the skipping girl as she attempts to swing the rope against the wind of the storm, and the delicate curlicues of flames and smoke rising from the seemingly oblivious giraffe.

    The skipping girl is a motif used by Dalí throughout his oeuvre, beautifully illustrated in his 1936 triptych Paysage avec une jeune fille sautant à la corde, which also explored the concept of a composition split across multiple panels. This large triptych was painted for Edward James, the English patron who had supported the artist financially, and to whom Dalí also gifted the 1936 Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages. The girl playing rope is thought to symbolise a happy childhood memory and in both compositions she leans in a strikingly similar pose, wearing a flowing white gown, her blonde hair streaming outwards in an imitation of the flames rising from the giraffe. In the present work however, she is delicately painted with thin translucent layers, lending her a more ethereal air.

    This subject also looks back to Giorgio de Chirico's Mystère et mélancolie d'une rue of 1914, in which a young girl chases a hoop through a deserted city, its shaded buildings looming above, a cart parked to one side with its doors open, and the threat of the looming shadow of an unknown figure around the corner ahead. The Surrealists would use this very work as a 'game' of sorts, asking members 'such questions as 'What is in the van parked in the street' and 'What is about to happen to the little girl?'' (R. Radford, Dalí, London, 1997, p. 108). The influence of de Chirico is surely further felt in the reclining male figure in the lower right of the second panel of the present work, his face an unreadable mask, echoing the mannequins de Chirico would place in his empty streets. Human presence is suggested, but almost removed through this surrogate form. This unknown figure could well be Dalí himself, asleep, dreaming these otherworldly scenes.

    One of the most eye-catching motifs within Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages is undoubtedly the burning giraffe in the lower right of the first panel. This incongruous image first appeared in Dalí's 1930 film L'Âge d'Or and re-emerged in 1937 in compositions such as Inventions de monstres. When the Art Institute of Chicago acquired the latter work in 1943, Dalí wrote to them to explain, 'the canvas was painted in the Semmering mountains near Vienna a few months before the Anschluss and has a prophetic character [...] Flaming giraffe equals masculine apocalyptic monster' (Dalí quoted in M. R. Taylor, Dalí, Venice, 2004, p. 274). This statement typically contradicts his later assertion that 'I was definitely not a historic man. On the contrary, I felt myself essentially anti-historic and apolitical' (Dalí quoted in R. Descharnes & G. Néret, op. cit., p. 284). It is hard however not to read a sense of anxiety about the current political climate into the present composition, painted as it was during the Spanish Civil War and in the midst of events building up to the Second World War.

    In true Dalínian fashion, the Surreal artist changed the symbolism of such motifs at will – when featuring giraffes aflame in a film screenplay he wrote the very same year with the Marx brothers, he declared them to be: 'Slapstick humour. How could that better be expressed than by these giraffes with their burning necks?' (Dalí quoted in M. Taylor, 'Giraffes on Horseback Salad, in Dalí & Film, exh. cat., London, 2007, p. 143).

    The mysterious citadel in the background of the left panel stands before a craggy rock face and reminds us of Dalí's homeland around Cadaqués, where he had spent his childhood summers. He and Gala had bought a fisherman's shack in 1930 in Port Lligat on the adjacent coastline, where the pair would repeatedly visit until Gala's death in 1982. The landscape here unites Dalí's diptych, as a larger composition can be read across the whole. Robert Radford believes that the geography of these highly important 1930s Surreal landscapes are a mix of both the landscapes of Dalí's youth, and those of his dreams: 'the bare, hard outlines of the cliffs and the crystal clear light of the sky are there, but the empty, desert-like expanses of the painting are much closer to the topography of the mind, to a dreamscape. The viewer's anxiety is fermented precisely through the lack of clues of distance, of recognisable landmark, of time of day, of temperature [...] We are in an arena of silence, a frozen nightmare' (R. Radford, op. cit., p. 146).

    The dramatic rock formations of the Catalonian coast are present in the current diptych, with the large arched rock in the left panel and the pitched rock in right panel formed with delicate layers of translucent paint, lending a ghost-like appearance to the boulders which shimmer on the horizon as if in our dreams. Their striations are delicately painted and float above their gauzy ground, reminiscent of fellow Surrealist Max Ernst's decalcomania technique.

    The overwhelming vastness of nature dwarfs the tiny figures dotted around and recalls 'the great tradition of European romantic painting founded by Caspar David Friedrich and Turner in the early nineteenth century in which the central theme is man's awed contemplation of his own appalling isolation in it [...] These paintings are characterized by an intense luminosity in which figures and objects appear with all the quality of a hallucination' (S. Wilson, Salvador Dalí, exh. cat., London, 1980, pp. 16-17). The disorientating atmosphere is heightened by the hauntingly long, spindly shadows cast by the tree, figures and giraffes, despite their own diminutive size. The skeleton-like family group, the mother and child, and the skipping girl are precisely modelled in miniature. Each group of animals or people appear unaware of the others, and look to be placed separately, tableau-like upon Dalí's stage. The young child reaching up to her mother's outstretched hand in the right panel should be a nostalgic, endearing motif, but their presence proves unsettling when viewed in such an unexpected setting. An air of vulnerability hangs over them like the storm above.

    Interestingly the inclined heads of the present work, denoting warmth and connection, have not always been read as a representation of Dalí and Gala, as in its sister work. The right-hand panel of the 1936 diptych is smaller in size and more feminine in shape, lacking the stature and more pronounced ears of the right panel in the 1937 work, leading Danielle M. Johnson to propose that it actually 'shows a pair of men' whose identities could be various (D. M. Johnson, 'Influence, Dialog, Rivalry' in Dalí & Magritte, exh. cat., Brussels, 2019, p. 68). Citing Dawn Ades, she suggests that the couple could be read as Dalí and his close friend, the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. Their intense friendship began whilst studying together in Madrid in 1919 and sparked rumours of a romantic relationship: 'the friendship was displaced by a more amorous interest on the part of the poet from Granada, and Dalí later recalled: 'When García Lorca wanted to possess me, I spurned him in revulsion'' (Dalí quoted in R. Descharnes & G. Néret, op. cit., p. 124). The truth of this statement is unknown, but what is clear is that the men's relationship cooled considerably as Dalí became more involved with the Surrealist group. However, Lorca's tragic death by firing squad at the beginning of Civil War in 1936 prompted the artist to write fondly of him in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942) and to portray him in many of his compositions from this time, such as his 1938 Afghan invisible avec apparition, sur la plage, du visage de García Lorca, en forme de compotier aux trois figues.

    Ades continues further, 'they may represent James and Dalí, in what would have been a fitting tribute to the artist's patron. Third, it is possible that the two men symbolize the father and son in the folk legend of William Tell, which consistently appeared in Dalí's paintings. A fourth possibility is that the two figures represent Magritte and Dalí' (D. M. Johnson, op. cit., pp. 68-69), an idea surely prompted by the artists' complex friendship of inspiration and rivalry which began with Éluard's introduction of the two that fateful summer of 1929. Magritte was openly influenced by Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages and referenced it with his own 1937 work, La Représentation. Here a woman's torso and hips are painted within a shaped frame, the first and only time the Belgian Surrealist had used one. The composition was originally square, but Magritte decided to cut it down and have a new frame specially made. His feelings towards the innovative diptych were mixed however, as he felt that Dalí had appropriated the concept of flaming objects from his own La découverte de feu, 1934-1935, which showed a tuba on fire. Writing in January 1959, Magritte complained that 'a few years after the birth of [his own work], Dalí painted a burning giraffe, and that owing to an intensive publicity campaign he is the one who is believed to have invented the notion of an unusual burning object' (Magritte quoted in Dalí & Magritte, exh. cat., Brussels, 2019, p. 71).

    Dalí's concept of using a couple's outline to shape the composition also inspired Marcel Duchamp. The latter was asked to design the Galerie Gradiva in Paris in 1937, the year the present work was executed, and where Breton was director. Duchamp wrote to Dalí on 5 April that year detailing his plan for the 'entrance to Breton's office inside the shop in the form of 'the cut-out profile of an individual' [...] In the end, Duchamp designs the main entrance to the gallery in the shape not of an individual but of a couple. Perhaps Duchamp's design was influenced by Dalí's shaped canvases of 1936 such as Couple with Their Heads full of Clouds' (Exh. cat., Dalí/Duchamp, London, 2018, pp. 199-200). The pair's close artistic relationship was celebrated with the London exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, Dalí/Duchamp, 2017-2018, in which the present work was shown.

    Known widely in artistic circles at the time, Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages, 1937, belonged to the collection of the ground-breaking Surrealist composer Giacinto Scelsi, where it remained for over fifty years. Luciano Martinis described visiting the eccentric musician at his home on the Via San Teodoro in Rome and seeing this diptych hanging in the living room: 'How can one forget [...] the discreet tapestries, the worn rugs and, on the sofa in a visual axis with the palm, under two golden silhouettes, Giacinto Scelsi [...] There, in a privileged place, above the sofa, the Dalí diptych, two silhouettes cut out on the wall, imbued with the mystery of the rugged cliffs of Cadaqués and the tormented skies of Cataluña. Masterpieces.' (L. Martinis, 'A proposito di un dittico di Dalí', in I suoni, le onde, 9, 2002). Scelsi told Martinis that the paintings had originally belonged to Paul Éluard who had received them from Dalí as a wedding gift, and that he had been told one of the two panels did in fact represent Gala. Éluard was one of the composer's favourite poets, and a meeting between the two men in Paris in the 1940s and 1950s is likely. Giacinto Scelsi also knew Dalí and Gala directly, having met them on their travels to Italy.

    Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages dates from a time of startling experimentation for Dalí, painted against a backdrop of great personal and political change combined with new-found global acclaim. The captivating dream-like landscape created within the diptych's innovative contours, peopled with Dalí's characteristically incongruous motifs and combined with distinguished provenance marks the 1937 work as a true masterpiece of significant art historical importance.
SALVADOR DALÍ (1904-1989) Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages 94.5 x 74.5cm (37 3/16 x 29 5/16in) (left panel, including the artist's frame) 87.7 x 65.8cm (34 1/2 x 25 7/8in) (right panel, including the artist's frame) (Painted in 1937)
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