Author: Marijke Peyser
In early 1933, the then unknown and penniless Salvador Dalí was supported by a group of twelve art-lovers who called themselves the Zodiac circle and provided a monthly allowance so that he could work as an independent artist. His patrons, high-ranking French aristocrats, intellectuals and wealthy foreign amateur artists, took Dalí and his muse Gala into their circle and gave them access to their networks. On 28 January 1933 Dalí wrote an enthusiastic letter to one of his benefactors, Vicomte Charles de Noailles, telling him that the publisher Albert Skira had commissioned him to illustrate the hallucinatory, violent book Les chants de Maldoror (1868-69). This work of prose by the Comte de Lautréamont (the pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse) had been rediscovered by the Surrealists in the early twentieth century.
Dalí’s illustrations for Les chants de Maldoror were exhibited in the Paris bookshop Quatre Chemins from 13 to 25 June 1934. The exhibition catalogue was prefaced with an introduction text by the artist that began and ended as follows: ‘Millet’s Angelus. Beautiful as the chance meeting of a sewing-machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.’ This last sentence is a quotation from Les chants de Maldoror, which was a source of inspiration for the Surrealists, who often played with chance and contrasting elements in their work. Dalí used this statement to make a connection between Jean-François Millet’s painting L’Angélus (1857-59) and the ‘paranoiac-critical method’ he had devised himself and maintained was the essence of Les chants de Maldoror.
Most of the etchings for Les chants de Maldoror were based on Millet’s painting and concern sexual cannibalism, eroticism and death. In one engraving, number XVII, the central figures from L’Angélus are prominent in the foreground. Between them, in the background, two women are gleaning. Dalí again cited Millet, this time his painting Les glaneuses (1857). In his catalogue introduction Dalí referred to the women’s labour and made it clear that in this context it also reflected his phobias. The work of Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, a contemporary of Millet’s, also made a great impression on Dalí. The painting of Napoleon I and his Staff (1868) was one of his favourites. The figure of the emperor in engraving XVII of Les chants de Maldoror was derived from it. By his own account, Dalí wanted to be Napoleon when he was a child.
Dalí was not the only artist to illustrate Les chants de Maldoror; the first illustrated edition dates from 1927 and was made by the Belgian artist Frans De Geetere. René Magritte also made drawings for a 1946 edition of the book. The unusual cover of the edition in the museum’s collection was designed by Rose Adler in 1952. The book became a major source of inspiration for Surrealists such as André Breton and Max Ernst, in particular because of the black humour and the way the Comte de Lautréamont subverted existing conventions, norms, values and common sense.