The art world is a-buzz today after the rediscovery of a deceptively simple work by the great Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Currently referred to simply as “Untitled”, the 1932 painting was authenticated by Nicolas Descharnes, a leading Dalí expert whose name often pops up in discussions of the master’s work. It has been in a private collection for over 75 years, and is now up for sale at Heather James Fine Art in Manhattan. Whoever ends up owning this little jewel of a picture will be a very lucky individual indeed.
The small painting – only 9 inches tall and 6 inches wide – shows a long fisherman’s pole sticking out of a window; it is bathed in a strong, raking light that casts a deep shadow on the wall of the structure. Because it is lacking in the strange figures and details that usually populate Dalí’s work, it may not fit what most people think of when it comes to his art. However as pointed out by Descharnes in this article from ArtNet, given its size and intimacy the piece is most likely a preparatory study, since the same elements appear in his painting “Morphological Echo” (c.1934-36), which is currently on loan to the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.
To my eye, what is particularly engrossing about the picture is the way that Dalí treats the wall surface, which will look familiar to anyone who has spent time on the Costa Brava. Many thick layers of plaster cover the walls of rough brick or stone, and if the finished surface is not given a regular topcoat of whitewash to deal with the damaging effects of sun, salt, and wind, it begins to change color and flake off as mold and water have their way. You can see a real-life example here, in the exterior walls of this ruined farmhouse on the Costa Brava:
Dalí beautifully captures the effect of the crumbling wall surface, but gives it the unusual greenish-ochre cast of an approaching storm, which was characteristic of his work during this period. He was heavily influenced by the works of the earlier, Italian Metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), who often used this somewhat sickly lighting effect in his paintings. An example is his famous “Le Muse inquietanti” (“The Disquieting Muses”), painted sometime between 1916-1918, which is currently in a private collection in Milan. Note that the sky has a similar, greenish cast, as if a hurricane has just passed or is about to pass through, which was one of the factors leading poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) to write a poem about the piece.
Another influence here, I suspect, is that of traditional Spanish bodegón painting. These still lifes of common kitchen items and food, set against stark backgrounds, have long fascinated painters in Spain and elsewhere. To see what I mean, note these two paintings by Dalí showing a simple basket of bread, which bookend the date of the newly-discovered study. The earlier example from 1926 is in the Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, while the 1945 version is in the Teatre-Museu Dalí in the artist’s hometown of Figueres. Note how the use of strong lights and shadows creates an almost photorealistic quality, much as it does in his study of the pole in the window:
While this newly authenticated painting is not a major work by Dalí, I think it is an exceptionally charming one. It represents aspects of a place that he loved, the Catalan Costa Brava, and with which he identified on a deeply personal level throughout his life. In creating this vignette, he demonstrated his ability to be daring in composition, coloring, and light, while at the same time showing us that he didn’t need to paint strange, melting clocks or swarming ants in order to create a truly striking work of art.