(CNN) — Caitlin Haskell and Jennifer Cohen were stumped.
The curators, both working on the Art Institute of Chicago’s first show dedicated to Salvador Dalí, were researching his painting “Visions of Eternity,” which was dated to 1936 and had been held in the museum since the late 1980s. A vertical composition, “Visions of Eternity” depicts an enigmatic, blue-ombre landscape with a shadowy, humanoid figure perched on top of a single arch to the viewer’s left and a pair of beans in the foreground.
But red flags were mounting; the painting seemed out of place in Dali’s larger body of work in that period, Haskell and Cohen explained during a joint call.
“We really couldn’t find anything like it across his work,” Cohen said.
For one, “Visions of Eternity” is exceptionally large — nearly 7 feet tall — but was created at a time when the famed surrealist artist was primarily painting delicate oil figures, animals and objects on small canvases and wood panels, the pair explained. His small-scale works brim with symbolism and double meanings, beckoning viewers to come in close; “Visions of Eternity,” meanwhile, is a sparsely populated scene, requiring observers to take a few steps back.
Dalí was known for recurring visual motifs — think flaming giraffes, deflated pianos, and, of course, melting clocks — but this painting didn’t seem to have any visual companions, said Cohen.
“We were like, ‘Is this a Dalí?’ We were really panicking,” she said. They knew the painting had been previously owned by the late Joseph R. Shapiro, a trustee at the museum and founding president of the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art, but before that, its provenance was unknown. Solving the mystery — and confirming the painting’s authenticity — was critical to placing it in the show.
The unusual painting was one of 25 Dalí artworks extensively analyzed in preparation for “Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears,” which opened Feb. 18 at the Art Institute. The show approaches Dalí’s practice through contrasting themes of visibility and disappearance: As the prolific Spanish artist became a leading figure in the surrealist movement during the 1930s, he repeated themes of vanishing, from wispy figures and optical illusions (like the actor Mae West’s face doubling as an apartment interior) to hidden portraits masked by paint.
“We noticed all of these different approaches to disappearance that were everything from material to metaphorical in his work,” Cohen explained of the exhibition’s theme.
Haskell and Cohen worked in tandem with the museum’s paintings conservators Allison Langley and Katrina Rush, who undertook technical analysis of the artworks, revealing insights into some of Dalí’s works that greatly shift their meaning.
X-Ray and infrared imaging, for example, uncovered a hidden graphite portrait of King Ludwig II of Bavaria beneath the surface of the 1936 artwork “A Chemist Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano.” (Ludwig was a patron of the composer Richard Wagner, who appears in the painting.)
In another instance, Langley and Rush analyzed the pigment of a nearly invisible dark blue dog in the bottom right corner of the 1937 painting “Inventions of the Monsters,” unsure if it had darkened with time. This confirmed the color was unchanged and intentional. Cohen believes the dog is a covert reference to the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Dalí’s close friend (who thought the artist’s 1929 short film “An Andalusian Dog” was about him) who had recently been executed in the Spanish Civil War.
A Dalíesque mystery
The puzzle surrounding “Visions of Eternity,” however, could not be solved only in the lab. As the artwork contained no hidden drawings or secret indicators that it was a Dalí, Cohen and Haskell began trying to pinpoint the work within his larger oeuvre. That meant casting a wide net on everything he worked on within the 1930s and ‘40s.
Cohen eventually found a small but powerful clue when she came across a Dalí illustration commissioned by Vogue magazine in 1939. There, tiny as could be, was a hunched-over person carrying a bindle — a twin to a second figure seen behind the arch of “Visions.”
The magazine feature was about the salacious surrealist pavilion Dalí designed for the World’s Fair in New York that year, a presentation which showcased topless women performing as mermaids, called the “Living Liquid Ladies,” inside an architectural funhouse. He decorated the pavilion with fish skeletons, coral appendages and images of Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint John the Baptist.”
“It was definitely supposed to be a spectacle,” Haskell said. “The pavilion was in the amusement zone... so it’s really trying to bring a little bit of surrealism to the public. Dalí makes it totally over the top.”
(Dalí’s plan to show Botticelli’s Venus as an inverted mermaid — with a fish head and human legs — was rejected by World’s Fair organizers, resulting in his issuing of an angry manifesto, “Declaration of the Independence of the Imagination and of the Rights of Man to His Own Madness,” which is also shown in the Art Institute’s exhibition.)
Cohen and Haskell examined photos of the pavilion taken by Dalí’s longtime gallerist, Julien Levy, searching for more connections. Their eureka moment came when they were inspecting an image of a massive mural Dalí painted for the pavilion, and spotted a familiar set of beans. A hodgepodge of his famous tropes, the mural includes the melting clocks of “The Persistence of Memory,” a pair of burning giraffes and an anthropomorphized set of dresser drawers. And to the left of the clocks, they realized, was the entirety of “Visions of Eternity,” partially obscured in the photograph by other decorations.
At first, the curators assumed Dalí had reproduced their painting for the mural, “quoting” the painting like the other recognizable scenes that made up the giant artwork, Haskell explained.
But when they brought their findings to the conservation team, the true nature of the painting revealed itself. “The conservators said, ‘No, that is the painting... that is the actual canvas,’” Haskell recalled. They could tell by the way the canvas had been cut from the larger mural — the edges matched up perfectly to the scene Dalí had painted for his pavilion.
“It was a shock,” Cohen added.
Now, “Visions of Eternity” has been renamed to “Dream of Venus“ — the title of the full mural — and redated to 1939, after decades of being misclassified within the Art Institute’s collection. While some of the mural’s sister panels are properly identified in the collection of the Hiroshima Prefectural Museum in Japan, others appear to be missing. Haskell and Cohen still have other questions, about why the mural was divided into separate pieces, why the Art Institute’s portion was renamed “Visions of Eternity,” and its whereabouts before 1966, when Shapiro and his wife acquired it for their collection.
In March, the curators and conservators will present their findings so far in a program at the Art Institute, but research will be “ongoing for a long, long time,” Cohen said.
In the meantime, “Dream of Venus” now hangs in the third room of “Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears” along with other freshly analyzed works, providing more insight into the 20th-century artist, whose enigmatic symbolism and larger-than-life personality have become legend.
Haskell says the exhibition is an opportunity to engage with the artworks with new understanding, paying attention to Dali’s remarkable techniques and the trajectory that brought him fame.
“I have always felt that people stopped looking at Dalí at some point along the way — his publicity, his persona, really did take center stage,” Haskell said. “He’s so popular, but have we actually maybe overlooked what made his painting so fantastic in their own time?”
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