Heads in the Clouds - In self-imposed exile during the Spanish Civil War, Dalí painted an exquisite love letter to Spain – and his muse, Gala. Alastair Smart investigates
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)

In August 1929, Salvador Dalí invited a number of his Surrealist friends from Paris on a seaside holiday to Cadaqués. That was the pretty Costa Brava village, in his native Catalonia, where Dalí had spent almost every summer since his childhood. René Magritte came with his wife; so did the poet Paul Éluard with his, a Russian émigré called Elena Ivanovna Diakonova – though everyone knew her as Gala.

Dalí hadn't met Gala in Paris, but his first sight of her – in a swimsuit on the beach – left him immediately smitten. "A real-life Venus Callipyge had appeared before his eyes" is how Dalí biographer Ian Gibson described the moment, describing her pert buttocks, trim ankles and olive-shaped face.

She was no conventional beauty in, say, the Vivien Leigh mould, but the Spanish artist loved the confident spring in her step. He soon took to all manner of eccentric pursuits to win her attention: from painting his armpits blue and wearing a geranium over one ear to smearing himself in goat dung and fish glue.

Remarkably, Gala found this all very attractive, and the pair were lovers before summer was out. In 1934, following her divorce from Éluard, Gala and Dalí married – and went on to spend half a century
together (until Gala's death in the early 1980s). She was the great muse of his career, appearing in hundreds of works, in guises ranging from Madonna to whore. Among the most intriguing paintings she inspired is Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages ('Couple with their heads full of clouds'), which is offered in Bonhams Impressionist & Modern Art sale in London on 26 March.

Caption: Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala sail into New York aboard the SS Champlain in 1934 © PVDE / Bridgeman Images

The work is a his-and-hers diptych, which is painted on a pair of shaped panels: the one on the left takes the form of Dalí's face and upper body, while the one on the right takes that of his wife. The two heads lean towards one another in an intimate fashion.

Each panel has a gold frame and, within it, a desert landscape. Looking at them side by side is to see one continuous stretch of desert, broken only by the picture frames and the wall-space between them.

Both panels are signed 'Gala Salvador Dalí', as if to emphasise this work was an expression of the artist's love for his wife.

There is clearly much more going on, though. The outline of Salvador and Gala is derived from the pose of a peasant couple in Jean-François Millet's painting L'Angélus, who bow their heads slightly towards each other in prayer. Dalí much admired this work, a copy of which had hung in his childhood home.

Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages was painted during what is considered the key period of his career: the decade or so, from the late 1920s onwards, when Dalí made his best Surrealist work. It features several of his signature motifs – a disfigured tree, a skipping girl, a burning giraffe, and scattered rocks.

Surrealism's raison d'être was for artists to unleash their unconscious on canvas, so it never pays to analyse the results too closely. Given that the inspiration for a scene did not come from rational thought, even its creator was presumably unaware of what it 'meant'.

That said, one can often pick up on moods – and in Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages there is an atmosphere of emptiness and longing. The vast desert is all but depopulated.

The date of execution is of great importance here: 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Dalí would spend the three-year conflict in self- imposed exile, mostly in the US. He refused to run the risk of becoming one of the more than 200,000 Spaniards who perished.

His sister, Ana Maria, was jailed and tortured for 20 days of the war by the Republican secret service, on suspicion of espionage – before ultimately being found innocent. News also regularly reached Dalí of executions in Cadaqués and his hometown, Figueres, which lay 20 miles inland.

He called the former "the most beautiful place on earth". On returning to Spain with Gala after the Civil War, Dalí was shocked by the "ghostly walls" he found there, "which stood out in the moonlight like the horrors in drawings by Goya".

Might we see Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages, then, as an ode to his beloved Cadaqués?

Though it depicts a surreal landscape, there are more than enough 'real' elements in it to suggest so. They include the yellow sands; the Catalan-looking set of buildings in the left panel's background; and the oddly shaped rock-forms, which recall those carved out at Cadaqués over millennia by violent storms. (Dalí lovingly referred to those rocks as "geological delirium".)

It is telling, too, that he said his depictions of a girl with a skipping rope signified the happiness of youth. The dark clouds at the top of both panels create a contrasting sense of foreboding, while the giraffe on fire is interpreted by many as a symbol of war.

One might well see this painting in terms of Dalí's nostalgia – and fears – for a place he associated with a more innocent time.

His conduct during the Spanish Civil War has been the subject of considerable scrutiny over the years, much of it negative. Many cultural figures denounced General Franco publicly – in the case of George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, they fought against him – but Dalí never voiced an opinion either way.

The conflict prompted an indignant Picasso to create arguably his greatest painting, Guernica, which was shown in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World's Fair of 1937, alongside work by compatriots such as Joan Miró.

"Had Dalí wished or cared, there's no question he would have been included too," wrote Ian Gibson in his biography The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí. "His abstention... contained more than a hint of where his true sympathies lay."

This is a little harsh. Dalí was no fan of Franco. What seems most likely is that he was hedging his bets, depending on which side emerged victorious, so as not to jeopardise his return to Spain after the war was over.

Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages is a very rare example of a shaped panel or canvas by Dalí. Its only equivalent is a diptych of the same name and form, painted a year earlier, which now forms part of the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum collection in Rotterdam.

Though seen at a number of international exhibitions over the years, this is the very first time that the 1937 painting will appear at auction.

It is believed that Dalí may have given it to Paul Éluard, with whom he and Gala maintained decent relations.

Éluard had by now remarried and, one assumes, lacked the burning desire to keep an image of his ex-wife and the man with whom she had cuckolded him. It is thought he soon passed the work on to the Italian composer, Giacinto Scelsi – its first confirmed owner. Scelsi was a friend of both Éluard and Dalí's from his time spent studying in Paris in the 1920s.

Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages remained in his possession for 50 years, until his death in 1988. After that, the painting was bequeathed to a foundation named after Scelsi's sister, Isabella.

Caption: Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages hanging on the wall at Giacinto Scelsi's apartment in Via di San Teodoro in Rome, now the location of the Isabella Scelsi Foundation
© Foto Fondazione Isabella Scelsi

It is a work Dalí painted at a time of great trepidation and turbulence, capturing what the poet Robert Browning would have called his "home-thoughts from abroad". Above all, it reflects the fact that Gala, Dalí's other half, was all that he had left.

Alastair Smart is an art critic for The Telegraph, The Independent, and The Mail on Sunday, among other publications.
He is writing a book on Raphael.


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