Provenance is Everything

By Bernard Ewell

The authenticity of an artwork can only be proved by its provenance establishing ownership links directly back to the artist. In the surreal world of the art of Salvador Dali (Spanish 1904-1989), perhaps the most credible names in the provenance of his artwork are those of Dr. Giuseppe Albaretto and his wife Dr. Mara Albaretto. This pair of collectors from Turino, Italy amassed what is now the world's largest collection of original Dali artworks.

In 1997, I was invited to the Albaretto home to view their collection and provide my professional opinion.  Giuseppe had died a couple of months earlier but his presence was still palpable in the gorgeous multi-floor villa (almost a castle) in Turin, Italy, with floor to ceiling framed original Dali watercolors, oils, and drawings.

I was reeling from several overwhelming days of total access to the stunning artworks and the collection files as well as a huge number of photographs and memorabilia relating to the frequent visits of the Albaretto family with Dali over many years. Then there were the stories about the Catalan painter and his home in Catalonia, Northern Spain. Oh, the stories…

A large portion of the personal family collection of memorabilia consisted of photographs of the Master with Christiana Albaretto, reportedly the only child Dali ever liked. In fact, it was his delight with her that lead to the friendship with her parents, their purchases and commissions, the development of the Albaretto Collection, and the publication of tremendously important Dali print projects, and eventually, several beautiful catalogs.

One of the greatest pleasures of my visit was the opportunity to look through the autograph book Christiana (now a very attractive lady, who like the artist friend of her youth, lives with ocelots) kept throughout her youth. Each year when her family visited Dali and Gala at Port Lligat, Dali added an original drawing and dedication.

In subsequent years, Giuseppe commissioned sets of paintings by Dali on themes as diverse as The Thousand and One Nights, Hamlet, and Don Quixote and the great series of one hundred five illustrations for the Bible, published by Rizzoli as Sacra Biblia. Many of the original watercolors were translated into high quality lithographs which were published in small editions and signed by Salvador Dali.

Having examined the original watercolors, had access to the files, and seen the photographs, I had no doubts as to authenticity, but potential buyer's years later would be reassured. A good provenance is the only true guarantee. As my many years as an expert have taught me, a certificate of authenticity without a flawless provenance, particularly in the case of Dali, may be worthless and unfortunately, the art as well.

A selection of these lithographs, hand colored etchings and engravings is now being offered to collectors by Park West Gallery. These works are almost unknown. The two previous museum exhibitions were in Europe and it is only through the relationship of Dr. Mara Albaretto and Albert Scaglione of Park West that they are available for collecting anywhere in the world.  Even in Europe these works, except for the Albaretto family and a small group of friends, were unknown until the recent museum exhibitions in Turin and Brughes captured the attention of Dali aficionados and scholars.

The explanation for this is found in the relationship between the Drs. Albaretto and the great Spanish Master Salvador Dali and his wife Gala. Knowing that the Italian collectors were voracious, the Master would call saying he had painted ten new works that he wanted to sell right away because Gala's life style required large amounts of cash. That is precisely what Giuseppe and Mara (with Christiana) would take down to Spain in their automobile.

Over a many course dinner served by uniformed waiters on the Albaretto staff, Mara told me that many times they would arrive at the artist's hometown of Port Lligat on the Costa Brava, only to have Dali admit that in actuality he had not completed the new works that they had been told about by Dali. As usual, he invited them to be his guests at Port Lligat while he worked on completing the paintings during their stay of typically a week and often longer.  He told the family to settle into the hotel and enjoy time beside his swimming pool while he worked in his studio. The suitcases of cash were never returned to Turin.

While the Sacra Biblia paintings were commissioned by Dr. Giuseppe Albaretto in the hope that reading the Bible and developing the illustrations would bring the artist closer to God and back to the Catholic Church, the commissioning of images illustrating The Thousand and One Nights and The Odyssey gave Dali an open invitation to fully exercise his imagination, and did he ever! I am convinced that in developing some of the imagery he employed a technique that served to create some of the most fantastic of his images through the years.

A well-read student of Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dali-who never used drugs and only drank alcohol (especially champagne) in moderation-turned to a most unusual way to access his subconscious. He knew that the hypnologic state between wakefulness and sleep was possibly the most creative for a brain. Like Freud and his fellow surrealists, he considered dreams and imagination as central rather than marginal to human thought.

Dali searched for a way to stay in that creative state as long as possible just as any one of us on a lazy Saturday morning might enjoy staying in bed in a semi-awake state while we use our imagination to its fullest. He devised a most interesting technique.

Sitting in the warm sun after a full lunch and feeling somewhat somnolent, Dali would place a metal mixing bowl in his lap and hold a large spoon loosely in his hands which he folded over his chest. As he fell asleep and relaxed, the spoon would fall from his grasp into the bowl and wake him up. He would reset the arrangement continuously and thus float along-not quite asleep and not quite awake-while his imagination would churn out the images that we find so fascinating, evocative, and inexplicable when they appear in his work.

Dawn Ades and Fiona Bradley note in Salvador Dali: A Mythology (Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1998), "Surrealism was an art form whose practitioners believed firmly in the creative power of the 'merveilleux' or marvelous, a state of limitless creative possibility found in childhood, the irrational and the dream."

Salvador Dali, like Sigmund Freud, often turned to the ancient world. The father of psychoanalysis frequently drew comparisons between his own work in exposing suppressed memories and experiences and that of archaeologists in discovering buried material belonging to lost civilizations.

Dali also used reference to myths throughout his career and was probably quite pleased when Giuseppe Albaretto commissioned him to create illustrations for The Thousand and One Nights and The Odyssey.

The career of Dali is filled from early to late with exciting, stimulating, and sometimes shocking images. It has been said of my cousin Orson Wells that he did his best work in his early twenties and was condemned the rest of his life to imitating himself. That could never be said of Salvador Dali. In the 1970s-when he was in his 70s-some pretty bad lithographs of Dali gouache paintings appeared on the market. Their poor quality was due to a number of factors that resulted in the artist dashing off quick, bold works for reproduction as offset lithographs.

At the same time, however, he was creating some exquisite paintings. Some of them were on the walls and ceiling of his wife Gala's castle at Pubol. He even did some truly remarkable trompe l'oeil (fool-the-eye realism) paintings of doorways and radiators.

The watercolors of the Albaretto Collection were mostly created the previous decade, the 1960s. Dali was at the top of his career, internationally recognized as a major artist of the century and, known by those who really knew him, as a genius. He expanded and greatly enjoyed his house (actually several fisher folk houses joined together) at Port Lligat, and entertained his "Italian Family". Giuseppe, Mara, and Christiana Albaretto visited often, bought on every visit, and commissioned the Master to do the large illustration projects already mentioned.

It is from this fecund period of high activity and creativity that the color lithographs from the Albaretto Collection emerged. Some are directly related to the suite commissions-The Thousand and One Nights, Hamlet, Don Quixote and others stand alone as individual images. The most impressive aspect of this period to me is the tremendous range of creative expression.

An old artist of my acquaintance speaking of art historians once thundered, "if they're dead, get out of their head!" He was irked by the practice of art historians, art writers, gallery owners, and others to second guess an artwork by speculating "what the artist meant" or "what the artist was saying". The next step-which has been taught to art history students in recent years-is to psychoanalyze an artist by reference to his work. I don't think this approach often has validity, least of all when the subject is Salvador Dali. It is not my intention here to express in detail what I think each image "means". It should be viewed as it appears and viewers should respond honestly to the image, colors, activity, etc.

This being said, I would also note that Dali himself, in his voluminous published writings, made remarks about the meanings of various symbols and images. As already noted, he also felt kinship with Sigmund Freud, especially when it came to the importance of dreams. He avoided answering those who asked about "meanings". When he did answer, his responses were frequently couched in terms that left the inquisitor even more baffled. Dali always had fun.

Several of these prints do reveal what I am convinced was Dali's extraordinary awareness of and ability to operate in alternative realities and experience other time and space planes. This is a very controversial concept, of course, but I know enough about it to recognize the evidence in some of these works. Many who do not understand such concepts have explained Dali's imagery as the result of the artist taking drugs or using alcohol as a catalyst. These explanations have no basis in fact.

Les Enchanteurs des Serpents (The Snake Charmers) is an excellent example. While the snake charmer, five cobras in baskets, and two musicians occupy the foreground (present) and are so realistically rendered that I originally thought they were collage, there are other wonderful things happening in the picture. They may represent past (more likely) or future (less likely) events.

A great phantom serpent (whose head seems to disappear in a mouth-like cloud) appears to bridge time and space plains and demonstrates that the musical magical activities have opened up a spiritual universe with a chariot pulled by both a horse and a great bird, a wizard-like figure, and a genuflecting servant. Just when the viewer has taken all this in, a very charming long-legged bird with showy feathers is seen exiting to the left. There are other indistinct figures, and, no doubt, interpretations.

To my eye, this work looks like the way in which a dream that has been painted might be represented. Aren't dreams full of time and space relationships unlike those in our conscious life? Don't we remember some figures and events with clarity while having vague or distant memories of others? I love this work and a copy hangs in my bedroom in Santa Fe.

Like Les Enchanteurs des Serpents, L'Orient is one of the illustrations done originally for The Thousand and One Nights. It also has (as the name states) an Oriental theme. That is, it depicts subjects and locales that were the focus of the Nineteenth Century "Orientalists"-North Africa, the Middle East, Persia, and Turkey. The title and subject do not refer to our current definition of The Orient-the Far East.

While The Thousand and One Nights is a story with Persian origins, Dali chose to depict Moors. That is, black North African desert dwellers with long Arabian guns and burnooses. This speaks more to the history of Dali's home country, which did not throw off the yoke of Moorish occupation until that fateful year for the world -1492. One of Dali's major paintings, in fact, is his interpretation of the Battle of Tetuan-featuring himself and Gala on charging horses in the middle of a charging Moorish hoard. The painting was completed in 1962 and the works comprising The Thousand and One Nights were done about 1970 through 1974.

L'Orient also has figures that look like they stepped out of Ottoman Turkey and a seductive reclining odalisque. Again, the figures seem not to be relating directly to each other and are floating on different planes. There is a dream-like atmosphere with clouds and soft shapes rather than landscape or figurative setting.

Two other Thousand and One Nights pieces are somewhat different because they feature strong central figures. Sinbad le Marin (Sinbad the Sailor) and Le Geant d'Aladin (Aladdin's Giant) have less dream-like atmospheres. Sinbad is depicted as a naked youth with a lance (shades of Dali's "Tuna Fishing" of 1966-1967) surrounded by octopus tentacles and a couple of flying fish. What is not clear is why he is depicted as standing in a martini glass with what is either an olive or the head of a supporting figure.

Le Geant d'Aladin seems at first look to be a fairly predictable picture of a great genie growing out of a goblet (not a lamp) and appearing to either threaten the figure of Aladdin or shake his fist in rage, presumably over his long confinement. There are a couple of other references that do not directly seem to support the scene at hand and may be references to other time and space considerations. These consist of two boats drawn up on ashore and a very Dalinian angel with a staff, sitting on the shore.

One of my favorite lithographs of this genre is Les Lions (The Lions). As with Les Enchanteurs des Serpents, the first time I saw a picture of the lithograph I thought it was based on a mixed media work that included collage. Why? The lions were so realistic and detailed it seemed that in the context of the large non-object areas of the picture, they were probably cut out of a magazine and pasted on the watercolor. Dali did that with a great many works, especially those for the Tarot card series and some of the butterfly (Papillons) pieces.

The relationship between the lions and the Moorish figure with Arabian rifle on a cushion is anything but clear-especially when you note there appears to be a pair of eyes below the figure. Explanations are hard to come by with much of Dali's work, but perhaps that is a good thing because it causes us to just look at a piece and react to its visual impact. To me, Les Lions is a beautiful work and while I think it is another example of Dali "time tripping", it doesn't matter.

Le Reve Onirique (The Dream Remembered or A Dreamlike Dream) continues the Moorish desert dwellers theme from The Thousand and One Nights, but the imagery of snails, bugs, a cavalier, and a dreamer spread over it all is fairly elusive in its content. The tail to which it refers has not been recorded and once again the best thing is to respond to the total impact of the work and enjoy those images, strong color, and compelling juxtaposition of the figures that appeal to one. After all, who can truly experience another's dream?

Two of the works are clearly from one or more of Dali's Don Quixote suites. In both, the Don pays homage to his Lady, Dulcinea, whom Cervantes tells us was in actuality a swine herd, but to Quixote's addled perceptions, a lady in need of a champion.

In Hommage a Dulcineé the Don is kneeling with a staff and, as the title notes, paying homage to this most ideal of all womanhood. In the background faithful Sancho Panza holds a donkey and awaits his master's next whim. Dulcinea is depicted as Don Quixote sees her-she wears a fine gown, is attended by a lady in waiting, and offers Quixote her scarf as a token of his status as her champion.

Conversely, in Le Baisemain (Kissing of Hands), Dulcinea is depicted as the swine herd we and Sancho know her to be. She is a buxom peasant girl with a low cut bodice and an attendant hog. Even the style employed by the artist has shifted from the delicate, refined watercolor of Homage a Dulcineé to a much stronger palette of dark washes and heavy volumes.

When he wrote Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes was serving as a clerk in a small port where he was responsible for accumulating supplies for the Great Armada. Remember, that was the unvanquishable mass of fighting ships that was destroyed by Sir Francis Drake, weather, and a great deal of bad luck. The Armada did not survive long, but the epic poem lives on in literature and numerous illustrations, many of the most interesting of which are those by Salvador Dali.

Returning from literature to the dreams of Dali, we can consider one of several depictions he painted of a dream in which he considered the dichotomy of elephants on stork legs. This theme fascinated him and in Les Trois Elephants (The Three Elephants), Dali placed them as he always did, on a plain with distant mountains. This may represent the Plain of Ampurdam which he crossed whenever he traveled between his hometown of Figures (attached to which is Port Lligat) and Barcelona. We don't know whether he actually ever encountered these beasts on one of his journeys.

The Elephants on stork legs was a theme repeated numerous times and even resulted in the production of bronze sculptures which, like the watercolors and prints, represented the tall pachyderms with obelisks on their backs. These obviously exacerbated whatever problems were caused by great weights being supported by seemingly inadequate limbs. Again it is best not to get too analytical with the work. It will do no good to try and figure out how the multiple joints in each leg work and contribute to forward progress. Children just enjoy the absurdity. So did Dali and so should we.

Another recurring theme in Dali's work-so much so that it always leads to instant identification of the artist-is that of melting watches. Montres Molles (Melting Watches), painted in 1970, is far removed from the 1930 Persistence de Memoire (Persistence of Memory) that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is considered an icon of Twentieth Century art. Even so it continues the artist's speculation about the fluid nature of time-one of the most relevant factors in the lives of each of us.

The lithograph Montres Molles once again suggests the simultaneous existence of various time and space realities. One melted watch (showing the fluidity of time) lies on a crumbling ruin (the past) while being approached by a sorcerer figure brandishing a crutch. In the "sky" is a shadowy representation of another watch with a portion of stone wall, a ship, and other figures.

The adult and child pair at left is usually included in Dali images to refer to Dali and his father, a stern; Magistrate from whom the artist was estranged most of his life, including his youth. Perhaps the multi-colored butterflies are meant to suggest the transitory nature of time or life. After all, butterflies remind us of metamorphosis and finite lifespans. The edge of the picture is treated almost like that of a timeworn old map, or perhaps it is supposed to give the impression that the viewer is looking through a window in time. I would like to suggest than any "interpretation" one brings to or deduces from such a picture is all right.

In an even more representational style-"realistic" hardly seems the right word-Baie de Port Lligat (The Bay of Port Lligat) depicts the harbor on the shores of which Dali and Gala lived and where young Salvador played in his childhood. We also know from letters, writings, and photographs that it was in boats on the bay and on the rocks of Cap de Cruz (at the right) that a more mature Dali played with Gala Eluard (who became Gala Dali), Gala's first husband Paul Eluard, film maker Luis Buñuel, poet Garcia Lorca, and other boyfriends and associates.

While we don't know the intended meaning of the three figures on the beach in this lithograph, they and the colors in the sky bring a somewhat celebratory tone to the scene.

Les Hydres (The Hydras) and La Sirene (The Siren) are both from the Odyssey series Dali did for Giuseppe Albaretto. One is the very epitome of fearful violence and threat of horrible death in the beast's six sets of jaws. The other depicts Odysseus' ship with reefed sail on a calm sea. It has not yet been lured to destruction on the rocks by the seductive songs of the siren.

While leaving Le Victoire (Victory), Les Cheveaux Surrealistes (Surrealistic Horses), and Mayflower to the interpretations of the viewer, I would point out that each is in a different style. This is typical of the artist genius that was capable of almost as many styles and approaches as he was capable of creating or dreaming stimulating images.

Salvador Dali is justifiably well regarded as an extraordinary draftsman. One engraving in the collection demonstrates his virtuosity, but does exhibit one visual anomaly. St. George et le Dragon contains very familiar Dalinean images. The stallion and rider are among his best; with the exception of the anomaly-the conformation of the horse's head. The dragon is ferocious, threatening, and apparently hermaphroditic. How like Dali to specifically make a startling sexual reference as a footnote.

The nude St. George figure may be having less than saintly thoughts as he raises a rose (rather than a lance) and salutes a curvaceous nude lady shackled to a rock. Clearly in creating this work the artist defaulted to the Romantic.

The rose-cavalier imagery used repeatedly by Dali seems to be a part of the landscape of rocks, trees, ruin, ribs, figure with net and lady in distress. The dragon, on the other hand, appears to be outside the picture and only the horse exhibits any evidence of awareness there is danger close at hand.

St. George et le Dragon is obviously an allegorical interpretation rather than traditional representation of a well-known myth. After all, St. George is the patron saint of England and people in England don't just walk around nude. Of course there was that Lady Godiva (was she a chocolate maker?).

On a rock near the dragon is the artist's signature - "Gala Dali". That's not meant to suggest that Gala (somehow it does not feel right to say "Mrs. Dali") was involved in creating the image. It is, rather, the artist's way of paying homage to his muse to whom he frequently gave joint billing.

From the careful draftsmanship of St. George et le Dragon, it is interesting to turn to the soft watercolor washes of Les Liaisons d'Amour (The Liaisons of Love). The subject figure stands amid biological shapes that suggest hydras, brittle stars, and anemones. Hydras are, of course, the class of multi-headed organisms named after the mythological multi-headed monster depicted in Les Hydras mentioned earlier and a part of the Albaretto Collection.

These biological appendages are all symbols of entanglement. The figure appears more disturbed than seductive, but clearly this is the partner who clutches, binds, and even suffocates. It is not the partner who is bound. Out of the mouth comes a snake-like line of insincerity.

This picture is a representation by one who has suffered at the hands (or tentacles) of love, not one who has been in an open, nurturing, and mutually-supportive relationship. Painted in 1974, it is consistent with the artist's position at the time.

Society contains various types of geniuses, free-thinkers, and visionaries who see the world differently. It is our blessing that not only did Salvador Dali have the gift of creative perceptiveness, but also the tools to share his vision.

Whether painting landscapes, dreams, allegorical history, mythology, or the future, Salvador Dali always brought to the process unique ways of seeing and interpreting his subjects. This is amply demonstrated by the lithographs from the Albaretto Collection. The watercolors and engravings carry evidence of Dali's use of dream imagery and multiple time and space realities.

Throughout his life, in his art, his writing, and his lifestyle, Salvador Dali was always in the process of writing The Dali Myth. The process continues.