‘Of a cubist picture one asks: “What does that represent?” – Of a surrealist picture, one sees what it represents but one asks: “What does that mean?” – Of a ‘paranoiac picture’ one asks abundantly: “What do I see?” “What does that represent?” “What does that mean?” It means one thing certainly, - the end of so-called modern painting based on laziness, simplicity, and gay decoration’
(S. Dalí, ‘Dalí, Dalí!’ in H. Finkelstein, ed., The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, Cambridge, 1998, p. 336).
Ballerine en tête de mort (Ballerina in a Death's-Head) emerged during one of the most productive periods of Salvador Dalí’s career, as the artist began to explore and experiment with the visual possibilities of his paranoiac-critical method of painting. This technique, which had first emerged in Dalí’s semi-autobiographical paintings on the theme of William Tell in the early 1930s, was defined by the artist as a ‘spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based upon the critical-interpretive association of delirious phenomena’ (Dalí, quoted in A. Breton, Surrealism and Painting, London, 1965, pp. 134-5). Central to this practice was the use of double or simultaneous images, which offered a multitude of potential readings, depending on the viewer’s own subjective vision. Rooted in the artist’s interests in the field of optics and perception, these highly inventive and suggestive optical illusions were intended to undermine the viewer’s unwavering acceptance of the rational world, throwing them into a state of confusion in which reality as they understand it is no longer secure.
Though signed and dated to 1932 by Dalí in 1967, Ballerine en tête de mort was actually created in 1939 at the peak of the evolution of the paranoiac-critical technique, and drew inspiration from the artist’s work on the ballet Bacchanale for Les ballets russes de Monte Carlo. Dalí had become involved with the acclaimed ballet company in the autumn of 1938, during a four-month stay at Coco Chanel’s villa, La Pausa, in Roquebrune, Cap Martin. Originally titled Tristan Fou, the ballet had its roots in an opera project Dalí had been working on in 1934, and was based on the opening scene of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser from 1845. The artist was fascinated by the composer and his great patron, the ‘mad’ King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and sought to present a frenzied, heightened vision of Wagner’s work, as seen through ‘the deliriously confused brain of Ludwig II of Bavaria, who “lived” all of Wagner’s myths with such profound hyperesthesia as to verge on madness’ (Dalí, quoted in D. Ades, Dalí: The Centenary Retrospective, exh. cat., London, 2004, p. 316). Subtitling Bacchanale ‘The First Paranoiac Ballet,’ Dalí threw himself into preparations for the production, designing the grand stage sets and even composing a libretto for the piece.
The female dancer at the heart of Ballerine en tête de mort is based on the character of Lola Montez, King Ludwig II’s lover, who discovers the monarch’s body towards the end of the ballet. Here, the ballerina’s supple body appears to meld with the cold, petrified skull that lurks behind her. Adopting a seductive pose, she raises her arms above her head, their shape echoing the curves of the eye sockets, while her willowy torso can also be read as an elongated nasal cavity. She appears to wear a version of Lola’s costume from Bacchanale – harem trousers beneath a hoop skirt adorned with teeth-like decorations along its circumference – though here, the entire costume is bleached to a luminous shade of white, emphasising the connection between the body of the ballerina and the skull. These striking costumes were designed by Coco Chanel, and were mostly likely conceived during the feverish months of creativity that marked the beginning of the project during Dalí’s stay at her home in the South of France. Praising the ‘wholehearted enthusiasm’ with which she embraced the Bacchanale, Dalí was clearly captivated by Chanel’s designs, and the ways in which they could interact and engage with the sets he was creating for the production.