This article was featured in RVAMag #25: Summer 2016. You can read all of issue #25 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
It wouldn’t be the first time, with a stay in in Bowling Green, Virginia from 1940-1941 at Caresse Crosby’s Hampton Manor estate and a stint in 1966 highlighted by a (then) preposterous proposal for Monument Avenue. But this most recent visit might have been Dali’s most intimate, even if it comes decades removed from his lifetime.
From the 23rd to 30th of this past April, Chasen Galleries on West Cary Street exhibited the private collection of Dali’s publisher and confidant of more than 50 years, Pierre Argillet. Dali met M. Argillet before the Second World War through the Surrealist circle of artists and writers in Amsterdam. After the war, they reunited to embark on over a decade of fruitful projects and exhibitions. Now, in 2016. Pierre’s daughter Mme. Christine Argillet — curator of the collection, as well as a premiere scholar of Surrealism — is proud to honor this relationship with a collection that offers a truly singular take on Dali’s renowned work.
“This presentation of Dalí: The Argillet Collection,” Mme. Argillet details, “is a tribute to the work of my father, Pierre Argillet, as an extraordinary publisher of the Dada and Surrealist group. This collection reflects a constant endeavor, a very personal archive of not only Dalí’s finest etchings and tapestries, but an intimate glimpse into my family’s personal and cherished photos, films, anecdotes, and memories of life with Dalí and [his wife] Gala.”
While most are familiar with Dali’s early painting career, recognizing notable pieces like The Persistence of Memory (1931) and The Great Masturbator (1929), the Argillet Collection provides great insight into his post-war productivity. “There was this long maturation for the body of work we have here,” Mme. Argillet explains. “[With] the exception of three drawings which are older, these are all mostly works of the ’60s.” Influenced by the work of notable writers, artists, and popular figures outside of the Surrealist tradition, it’s evident where Dali uses his own iconographies to comment on many cultural and political themes.
Each of the eight series in the exhibition were curated by suite — Mythologies, Faust, Bullfights, Venus in Furs, Apollinaire, Mao Zedong, Don Juan, and Hippies — as well as a suite of ceramic vessels and two large tapestries. The Argillet Collection captures a number of stylistic developments in Dali’s works on paper. As Mme. Argillet points out, “There is really a shift in his work [from the early] ’60s where it’s very meticulously drawn like the Mythologies, to the end of the ’60s where it’s very spontaneous.” She further identifies, “In the beginning of the ’60s, he would throw acid on covered plates, and then draw around the abstract shape created by this motion, being inspired by the given smudge. Then we have the mid-’60s where he reworks Picasso’s Bullfight series. [He] brings this sort of burlesque, humorous touch because he didn’t like the bullfights so he made fun of them.” Then in the late ’60s, his Hippies series was the “most immediate and spontaneous of them all”– at times he would mark the plate without even a sketch.
The collection shows off this pulsating period of Dali’s late career in a vibrant fashion, but it’s the personal aspect of Dalí: The Argillet Collection that renders it spectacular, impactful, and truly singular. We talked with Mme. Christine Argillet herself to gain more insight into the intertwining history of the two families as well as what really drove the artist in this inspired moment.
What brought Dali and your father together after the war? What halted their working relationship after 15 years of publications?
Dali was so happy to escape the disaster in Europe, that’s the reason my father reconnected with him not before the end of the ’50s. When my father restarted to work with him, he decided to put aside the other artists to work with Dali. It brought him much pleasure to work with Dali… they were great friends! So, that’s why a large part of the work shown here is from the ’60s. Then in 1973, Dali said to my father, “I cannot etch anymore, it’s too much work. My eyes water after 5-10 minutes… I cannot work on a copper plate because it’s so shiny; the work is too small and tedious… I have to finish projects and paintings… I would like you to go for lithographs and printing afters.” My father said, “No, never. I have beautiful, genuine original etchings that you did working directly on the copper plate. I don’t want anything that would be ‘afters’ with a photographic medium in-between. For me, it has no more interest than a poster, and if you don’t mind, we stop our publications here. But let’s remain friends.”
And they remained very good friends, my father organized a huge Dali exhibition in Moscow at the Pushkin Museum in 1980, one year before Dali passed away. He did not come because he was ill at the time — but it was prepared by Dali, I saw those meetings. They went on some projects, but our collection stopped in 1973, and we are very happy for that because later on there were a lot of problems with the lithographs that were over produced and over numbered — so that is why we are safe and happy with that.
How did your father become involved with this line of work?
He started as a journalist very early on. He was very lucky that the first years where he was involved in journalism, a very well read guy involved with the surrealist movement took him to his various events and happenings; they were great friends until the end of his life. My father had no family to take him to those exhibitions and new movements, he completely opened [my father’s] eyes. [His working relationships with artists] started with Jean Arp, who was a great friend of Andre Breton (leader of the Surrealist movement), and that took him to Marcel Duchamp, and then from Duchamp to Dali, then to other associated writers and philosophers.
Did your father identify as a surrealist?
I would say that he was a very free thinker, but at the end of his life he was always telling me, he was 92 when he passed away, “Oh, it’s not like Surrealism.” Nostalgic of that time. You know, when you are so part of a movement and have seen all that, and then people pass away one after another… it’s quite difficult I would say, quite sad for him… but yes, he was very linked to Surrealism. We had long talks about this, but I had difficulty taking him out of [the melancholy]. I’d tell him, “Why don’t you come out and see? There is a beautiful exhibition here.” He’d reply, “I don’t want to see anything anymore — I saw so many things!” That’s the age I think, but he was very linked to Surrealism, that was his passion and I think it became difficult for him to escape from that dream world, to deprogram himself. I think he appreciated very much the freedom of the time, the challenges. It would push him to work more, and do things that weren’t always easy with Dali and with others, to push certain limits. He had a very rich and full life in that time of Surrealism and I think probably he stayed with that, I’m quite sure.
Did you hear any details about Dali’s excommunication from the Surrealist circle by the movement’s leader, Andre Breton?
Yes! What I heard from my father was [that] Breton wanted to frame anyone in that movement in a very strict way. Dali was a Surrealist, probably more-so than many of the other artists of the movement, but he wanted to be free. And for that reason, I think Dali came to a big meeting in Paris wearing about 20 pullover sweaters, one over the other. Each time Breton said something against him, he would take off one of the pullovers… and they went like that with all 20. Then he left the scene and was no more a part of the movement. That was around the end of the ’30s. My father tried to reconnect them during the ’60s, but that never happened and I think that Breton had become very bitter because a lot of artists had run away from him because of his [unwavering] idea of Surrealism. Whoever didn’t fit in his own vision wouldn’t be part of it and that was a little bit sad, especially for Breton. Dali was certainly not the type of guy to be limited in something.
What can you tell me about Dali’s creative process? Were there any ritualistic elements?
Ritualistic, I wouldn’t say so, other than he was always whistling. His idea was always to change with the topic he was working on. For instance, even in the late ’60s, he would read for a long time on the Faust series, on Apollinaire’s poems, he would read about Mao Zedong very much. He knew poems by heart in many languages… pages, entire pages. Then, in a movement like the flow of a calligrapher, he would work very spontaneously and let his imagination go. And in a way his imagination and ideas connected without him being totally controlling. He would love to be controlling and not controlling, work in-between those, let it naturally fill itself in. [Some of] his most happy moments that I noticed [were] when he saw connections that appeared in his works that he would notice afterwards. Yes, in the beginning of the ’60s, he would throw acid, but other times he would use nails, scissors, roulettes — it had no end. For the Medusa, he even used a real octopus that was there on the shore in front of his house in Spain. I saw him take the animal, put it in the acid, and onto the copper plate so it printed its own shape.
Do you recall any specific topics of conversation between your father and Dali about the relation of art and literature?
You know, they were very close, and so they would exchange books quite often. In 1968, my father found the beautiful poems of Mao Zedong [in a Parisian bookstore], which he did not know existed until that time. He brought them to Dali who said, “That’s extraordinary! I didn’t know this guy had done poetry!” It’s from there that [these projects] started. So often, they were exchanging books and ideas — when my father proposed Venus in Furs, Dali was excited. But sometimes my father proposed things that didn’t resonate with Dali at that moment, or through his views; and Dali proposed things to my father who was not enthusiastic about this or that, so it depended. But they had this free, back and forth, watching happenings, going to them together, or organizing them. My father did this many times so they had those exchanges of, “You should see this or that,” and then they would discuss.
Behind his public persona, which was a bit crazy, he was shy. He would overcompensate [in public] — my father was always afraid of where it was going to lead! But Dali was very bright, very well read, and with a sort of pirouette, he would come back. I think the public persona does not reflect at all who he was. He was a very easy-going simple person, but outside you saw a different man. At home, he was totally different — extremely human, simple, and charming. That’s something which has always touched me retrospectively, thinking of that proximity he had with everyone, and the way he would talk to the taxi driver asking if he had seen his last show, here and there, telling that he should come.
You know everyone was important for him, and I haven’t seen that in [many people] or in most artists. He had this vision that he had to talk to everyone to be universal, so I think that’s the best souvenir that I have of him is this openness to everyone, taking everyone on the same level. I think he had this intelligence to know that what is finally very important is the human nature over whatever you create artificially around yourself; so he had this vision, but in public he would not show that unfortunately.
What are your thoughts on developing journalists and writers alongside artists?
I think that sometimes the combination is marvelous because one corresponds with and complements the other, which is extremely beneficial. In the time of Surrealism, I think that many writers were there — like Paul Eluard and Andre Breton — and they would bring another complement of what a painter or etcher would do, and in that sense I think it was allowing everyone to go further on their own path. But in many cases, it distracts. I remember Giorgio DeCirco, I think it was in 1971 in Venice, Italy. He had been shown a film on Kandinsky and he said, “If I had known so well Kandinsky’s works before, I might have not been able to do what I did because it would have lead me somewhere else and distracted me from my own path.”
So, I think Dali was, for most of his life, very strong in his own research. [When you have Surrealism, there’s] an eclecticism so spread that it’s difficult to see [now]. But in those times, they would go to a café in Paris, they would agree or disagree, very strongly. Next day in the newspapers, you would see something against this one, and they would answer with another newspaper. In those times, everything was possible to be said… yet there existed this underlying respect for everyone’s freedom of thought. There were also very strong quarrels, but that brought fuel to the debate so it was beautiful. It’s ok to be upset with one another and have different views — it’s a learning experience.
Now it’s different unfortunately, a different way of life where everybody is connected but people are not together. When you are in front of a computer, you don’t have to listen to someone and envision another point of view, or cope with another point of view. You say yes or no, I don’t want this or I want that, so you don’t have this possibility of deconstructing and constructing yourself in the same way. It’s what is missing nowadays. It might be uncomfortable, but you have to face this discomfort and reflect on it. We need a contradictory eye sometimes to challenge and defend our thoughts. Truth lives in different ways, it is so important for people to envision something else, otherwise the learning process through life is held back.
Chasen Galleries also has a number of Dali pieces that have remained on the premises, on view by appointment.