Painted in 1957, the present work is a colourful and joyous celebration of music and life. A disembodied pianist and a cellist play against the background of a radiant red curtain, which transforms a landscape into a theatrical setting. The spring that flows into the open grand piano can be read as a delightful visual metaphor for the music that emanates from the instruments. The cello is formed from a truncated human body with sound-holes cut into its back, recalling that famous Surrealist photograph by Man Ray, Le violon d’Ingres
Dalí used the motif of musical instruments, and the piano in particular, in a series of important paintings beginning in the early 1930s, and the present work can be regarded as a powerful culmination of this great line of artistic enquiry. In these works with a musical motif, the piano is employed by the artist either as an object at the centre of a Surrealist-sexual encounter, such as Crâne atmosphérique sodomisant un piano á queue
form 1934 (Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida) or as the site of an historical ‘incident’, such as the ghostly faces of Lenin spread across the black and white keys in Hallucination partielle. Six apparitions de Lénine sur un piano
from 1931 (fig. 3). These paintings focus on the musical instrument as an object rendered surreal by the context into which it is placed; La Musique
, by contrast, celebrates the cathartic and transcendental power of music as its primary subject-matter, albeit a music conjured by three surrealist forms.
Dalí’s fascination with the image of a piano extended beyond the medium of painting, and he used it in a famous sequence in the celebrated Surrealist film Un chien andalou
(fig. 2) he did together with Luis Buñuel. According to Dawn Ades, the piano was used in the film to symbolise ‘the whole weight of a decaying society changing the free expression of the man’s desire’ (D. Ades, Dalí
, London, 1995, p. 53). In the present work, this message is reinforced by the imagery of the decaying bodies of the musicians and the piano which is displaying cracks and holes. A symbol of bourgeois entertainment, the piano stands for the society and its hierarchies, against which the Surrealists so vehemently and wonderfully reacted. Through the crack in the lid of the piano, however, a spring of fresh water flows into its body and the piano can thus be read both as a symbol of society’s oppressive weight and, paradoxically, as a sign of music-making and creativity, a means of possible escape from the contingencies of reality.
The first owner of the present work was William ‘Billy’ Rose (1899-1966), a New York impresario and theatrical showman who was a major force in the entertainment industry in the middle of the twentieth century and the author of a number of Broadway hits. ‘About 1956 or 1957 Dalí made a series of important paintings based on music and the theatre for the American producer Billy Rose. Le piano rouge
is without doubt the most finished of the group. “Unlike other contemporary painters,” notes R. Descharnes, “Dalí never rejected the caprices of his mind. He combined ingenuity and skill with his sincerity and cunning, he did not for a minute hesitate to mix elements that appeared to be opposites. Here, a piano is made into a source of fresh water, a black back becomes a cello and an intensely red drapery changes into a garden of cypresses and almost bare trees”’ (Trésors de Barcelone: Picasso, Miró, Dalí et leur temps
(exhibition catalogue), op. cit
., p. 186).
Dawn Ades explained the circumstances in which the present work was created: ‘In 1943, after buying the Ziegfeld Theater in New York, the American impresario Billy Rose commissioned Dalí to paint a series of canvases for the foyer. The theatre was inaugurated with Rose’s revue The Seven Lively Arts
, which also provided the subjects for the decorative cycle: The Concert, The Opera, The Ballet, The Theater, The Cinema, The Radio,
. Dalí executed the seven canvases in about six weeks in one of the offices of the Ziegfeld Theater, which was temporarily converted into a studio for this purpose. In his memories, Billy Rose recalls that, in the course of the decade, millions of people flocked to see these works.
In April 1956, the paintings were destroyed in a fire in Rose’s country house, where they had been taken. In 1957, in exchange for the compensation Rose received from the insurance company, Dalí repainted the entire series again in two months in his suite at the St Regis Hotel in New York, replacing, however, Boogie-Woogie with Rock and Roll. The new version of the allegory of The Concert was based on the composition of the 1943 painting – although there were a few minor variations – with the piano as a spring in the center of the work. This motif had already appeared in 1934 in the picture The Mysterious Sources of Harmony, and ten years later was the central element in the backdrop for the ballet Sentimental Colloquy, presented by the American Ballet Theater in New York in 1944’ (D. Ades, Salvador Dalí: The Centenary Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 384). In the painting he executed while designing the Colloque sentimental (fig. 4), the piano, a central feature of the composition, is surrounded by figures riding bicycles, carrying a rock on their heads. The veiled figure partially hidden by the piano in the present work echoes the ghost-like images in the earlier painting.
The passionate red of the backdrop in La Musique reflects both the erotic and the violent subtexts of Surrealism, and this dialogue finds its echo in the human form of the cello and in the sexualised context in which the piano is situated in other works by Dalí. In the present work, however, the mood is one of the celebration and joy above all else: the vibrancy of life, the eternal nature of creativity and the enduring passions of the Surrealist master.