Author: Marijke Peyser
In 1939 André Breton expelled Salvador Dalí from the group of Surrealists. Breton thought that Dalí was becoming too commercial and his multiple images were no longer provocative and innovative, but routinely produced work. In the decades that followed Dalí went even further in crossing the boundaries between art, publicity and commerce. In the 1940s he worked with the film director Alfred Hitchcock (Métronome), the photographer Philippe Halsman (Midsummer Night's Mare) and the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (Le Roy Soleil). In the 1960s he really let himself go; Dalí designed posters for SNCF, the French railway company, and featured in numerous television advertisements for products ranging from chocolate bars by Lanvin to the new Nissan Datsun in 1972.
The commission to design an ashtray for Air India in 1967, intended as a promotional gift for a select group of first class passengers, has to be seen in this context. The ashtray was produced by Royal Limoges and made by the decorator Jules Teissonniere. The circumference of the part that held the ash was topped with a turquoise snake. The whole thing was ‘supported’ by three swans. When the ashtray is turned round, the swan in the middle ‘transforms’ into the head of an elephant. According to reports, Dalí asked for a baby elephant as his fee. This very unusual request by the artist was wholly in line with his eccentric image. The artist greeted the animal in Port Lligat in the presence of many curious onlookers. Eventually Dalí gave the elephant, which he had called Surus, to Barcelona Zoo in 1971.
Dalí used the swan motif frequently, as in Cygnes réfléchis en éléphants from 1937. The bodies of the three swans in the water by the bank are reflected as elephants on the opposite bank. This double image stems from the ‘paranoiac-critical’ method Dalí had invented (see Le grand paranoïaque). In the mountains on the left a man stands deep in thought; he fails to notice the miraculous metamorphosis of the birds. It could be a portrait of Edward James, Dalí’s patron, with whom the artist entered into a financial agreement in 1937.
The swan motif also features in the scenery Dalí designed for the ballet Bacchanale, which premiered in New York in 1939. The cave-like space in the swan’s body either displayed a fragment of an old castle or a mysterious emptiness. During the performance the dancers emerged from the opening. Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo led by Leonide Massine performed the work. The theme of the swan continued to occupy Dalí. In Leda Atomica (1949) his mistress Gala, the ‘goddess of my metaphysics’, was the protagonist in the depiction of the Greek myth Leda and the Swan, which tells how Jupiter, in the guise of a swan, has intercourse with her. The swan was not the only creature that continued to fascinate Dalí; the elephant is just as dominant a presence in his oeuvre.