Dalí was introduced to the United States by the art dealer Julian Levy in 1936, shortly before the opening of Alfred H. Barr's seminal exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. This was the beginning of an incredibly productive phase in Dalí's career that saw him diversify his work, taking on commissions for advertising and working on numerous design projects for the theater, cinema and ballet. An expansion of thematic schema introduced in the artist’s 1939 presentation at the World’s Fair and an exploration of his fervently felt Catholicism, this work was produced for Dalí’s successful 1943 exhibition at Knoedler Galleries in New York, a show which cemented his importance on an international scale.
Conceptualized by Dalí, this highly religious spectacle was largely based on medieval morality plays which would have been performed outside cathedrals as an educational tool for the largely illiterate peasantry. Over the course of Mysteria, the dance of the demon and the angel, both of which exist in one bifurcated form, undergo a transformation in the same vein as that of a religious conversion. The diabolical force takes over the nude, innocent figure, but is eventually trumped by the angel as it moves through the didactically numbered segmentations. Intended to be viewed from both sides, the highly structured yet oddly diaphanous costumes allow the main action to be performed by a single dancer. Speaking to the fundamental Freudian theme of the subconscious versus the cognizant, it is an intimate examination of the motif which never ceased to obsess the artist.
Iconographically rich, the present work displays several recognizable motifs from the artist’s oeuvre such as the horned skull, the hollowed face and the chimerical wings, the formal aspect of which suggests Dalí’s own upward-turned mustache. Prefiguring the renowned set creation Dalí produced for Hitchcock’s 1945 thriller Spellbound (see fig. 1), the wide glassy eye in conjunction with the crimson lips in the final section of the dance and of the composition demonstrates Dalí’s unequaled ability to mutate forms so that they may be read synchronically as more than one being. The rotten teeth taking form in the final cadre may reference the influential Surrealist playwright Raymond Roussel, a friend and intellectual compatriot of Dalí who tragically took his own life in 1933, and who frequently used teeth as an enigmatic symbol of both brilliance and decay.
Typifying Dalí’s sheer creative energy, the design is executed with sensitivity and delicacy, while maintaining the elements so celebrated in his oeuvre that have come to define him as a pioneer of Surrealism.
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