SALVADOR DALÍ (1904-1989)
SALVADOR DALÍ (1904-1989)
SALVADOR DALÍ (1904-1989)
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SALVADOR DALÍ (1904-1989)
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SALVADOR DALÍ (1904-1989)

Surrealist Gondola above Burning Bicycles (Drawing for a Film Project with the Marx Brothers)

SALVADOR DALÍ (1904-1989)
Surrealist Gondola above Burning Bicycles (Drawing for a Film Project with the Marx Brothers)
signed 'Dalí' (lower right)
watercolor, pastel and charcoal on laid paper
30 x 22 in. (76.4 x 56 cm.)
Executed in 1937
The Marx Brothers, Los Angeles.
J.M. Tessone, New York (by 1989).
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 10 November 1992, lot 57.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.
R. Descharnes, Salvador Dalí: The Work, the Man, Lausanne, 1984, p. 210 (illustrated; with incorrect medium).
R. Descharnes and G. Néret, Salvador Dalí: The Paintings, 1904-1946, Cologne, 1994, vol. I, p. 296, no. 657 (illustrated in color).
M. Gale, ed., Dalí and Film, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007, p. 148, no. 90 (illustrated in color).
Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and Kunsthaus Zurich, Salvador Dalí: Retrospektive, May-October 1989, no. 173.


Margaux Morel
Margaux Morel Associate Vice President, Specialist and Head of the Day and Works on Paper sales


Created by Salvador Dalí for a proposed film collaboration with the legendary Marx Brothers, Surrealist Gondola above Burning Bicycles is a rare piece of cinematic history, representing a moment in which the intrepid Surrealist had fully immersed himself in the glamorous world of Hollywood. Dalí was endlessly fascinated by the cinema. In a 1937 essay titled “Surrealism in Hollywood,” he declared, “Nothing seems to me more suited to be devoured by the surrealist fire than those mysterious strips of ‘hallucinatory celluloid’ turned out so unconsciously in Hollywood, and in which we have already seen appear, stupefied, so many images of authentic delirium, chance and dream” (“Surrealism in Hollywood” in Harper’s Bazaar, 1937). Eager to build on his early success in America, Dalí made his way westwards to California, and the heart of the film industry. “I’m in Hollywood where I’ve made contact with the three American Surrealists, Harpo Marx, Disney, and Cecil B. DeMille,” he wrote to André Breton shortly after his arrival. “I believe I’ve intoxicated them suitably and hope that the possibilities for surrealism here will become a reality” (postcard to André Breton, February-March 1937; quoted in Dalí & Film, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2007, p. 43).
Dalí was an ardent admirer of the Marx Brothers—having seen their film Animal Crackers in 1932, the artist explained that he felt a deep kinship for their “concrete irrationality,” and the ways in which the anarchic, comedic antics of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo reminded him of his own Surrealist activities (quoted in ibid., p. 140). He was particularly enamored with the silent genius known as Harpo, whom he had met at a party in Paris in 1936. Dalí subsequently cemented his friendship with the American actor by sending him a specially designed Christmas present—a cellophane wrapped harp with strings made of barbed wire and great clusters of forks and spoons for tuning pins. Delighted by Dalí’s subversive take on his signature instrument, Harpo responded by telegram: “IF YOU ARE COMING WEST WOULD BE HAPPY TO BE SMEARED BY YOU HAVE COUNTER PROPOSITION WILL YOU SIT FOR ME WHILE I SIT FOR YOU HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM GREAT ADMIRER OF PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY” (quoted in R. Descharnes, Dalí: The Work, the Man, New York, 1997, p. 158).
When Dalí arrived in Hollywood barely a month later in January 1937, he arranged to sketch Harpo with his “instrument of torture” while continuing to work on a script and sensational scenarios for a comedy he had begun writing titled La femme surréaliste, which would later be renamed Giraffes on Horseback Salad. Dalí summarized the premise of the project in a series of notes: “a hugely rich woman … reconstructs with minute exactitude the images of her dreams and of her imagination, helped by a band of fanatic and loyal friends who surround her with an atmosphere only comparable to those of the most dazzling, decadent periods of history” (Dalí, “Sketch for a scenario,” quoted in E.H. King, Dalí, Surrealism and Cinema, Harpenden, 2010, p. 62). As his ideas evolved, the plot pivoted to a character called Jimmy, a young Spanish aristocrat and businessman, who is forced to live in the United States due to a catastrophic civil war raging in his home country. Though engaged to Linda, a character who represents the “world of convention,” Jimmy falls in love with the immensely rich, mysterious Surrealist Woman, who personifies the “world of fantasy, dreams and the imagination” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2007, p. 146). In Dalí’s plans for the project, the real protagonists of the film were the Surrealist Woman’s band of merry friends, played by the Marx brothers, who would imbue his fantastical imagery with their own unique brand of madcap humor.
In Surrealist Gondola above Burning Bicycles Dalí details a scene he had dreamed up for the film. The titular Gondole Surréaliste, a vessel of epic proportions captured in sinuous lines of charcoal, charts a seemingly death-defying course towards the setting sun as flames threaten to engulf the landscape and sooty smoke rises through the air. At its prow, Harpo performs on the harp, accompanied by Chico on the piano wearing a diving suit reminiscent of the one Dalí himself had worn while delivering a lecture at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London the previous year. Around them, seen and unseen members of a mysterious orchestra would play “with Wagnerian intensity,” while Jimmy and the Surrealist Woman dance (“La mujer surrealista” in S. Dalí, Obra completa: Poesía, prosa, teatro y cine, Barcelona, 2004, vol. III, p. 1182). A sea of slow-moving, suit-wearing bicyclists—each with a stone inexplicably balanced on their head—drift across the planes below, engaged in a race to see who can cycle the slowest.
Dalí believed that Giraffes on Horseback Salad was not only “hallucinatory” and “amusing,” but also capable of making “a successful revolution in the cinema” (quoted in M. Etherington-Smith, The Persistence of Memory: A Biography of Dalí, New York, 1993, p. 220). However, although Harpo liked Dalí’s concepts, Groucho felt the Spaniard’s surrealist movie “wouldn’t play” (G. Marx quoted in The Groucho Phile: An Illustrated Life, New York, 1976, p. 147). Purportedly too surrealist for contemporary audiences, the film was ultimately never made, and so drawings and studies such as Surrealist Gondola above Burning Bicycles offer the only tantalizing proof of the fantastical, absurdist comedy that may have arisen had the Dalí-Marx Brothers collaboration come to fruition.

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