Hysterical Arch

Edward James, Salvador Dali and the International Surrealist Exhibition 1936

In late 2016, the discovery of a few sheets of paper in the Edward James Archive at West Dean College suggested a rare and important find. The previously uncatalogued pages combined sections of neatly transcribed text consistent, it would later transpire, with having been taken by dictation, with urgent brightly-coloured pencil scribbles in another hand. It soon became clear that the two texts constituted an English translation of the lecture given by Salvador Dalí at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in July 1936, together with notes for his introduction to the audience by his friend and patron Edward James. Even incomplete, the importance of the document reflects the fact that few details of Dalí’s lecture have been known since the event, with inconsistent press reports giving only partial clues as to what its subject, ‘Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’, might have involved. It also showed the degree to which James was involved in Dalí’s introduction to the public at the first major exhibition of Surrealism in Britain. Of course, James’ association with Dalí is well known, yet it was clear that the details and significance of his role at the International Surrealist Exhibition were still coming to light. James not only introduced Dalí but translated his infamous ‘diving suit’ lecture (indicative of his close relationship with the artist at the time) – the newly-discovered transcript allowing us to hear the artist’s words, albeit at one remove. James would also purchase many of the works on display at the Burlington Galleries, helping to establish what would become one of the most significant collections of Surrealist art in the world. By July 1936, James had been a keen supporter of Dalí for a number of years. Along with Gala they had travelled together, enjoyed a similar circle of friends and associates, and would soon cement their relationship of patronage with a year-long contract giving James first refusal on Dalí’s output for a consistent salary. It is not surprising that James would have been heavily involved in an event so important for Dalí’s career, nor indeed that the document would somehow survive in his Archive. What is less expected is the fact that other material found in the Archive has connections to the 1936 exhibition via an artist not usually associated with James, but whose relationship with Dalí was recently the subject of a major exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.1

A few months prior to identifying the transcript of Dalí’s lecture, what was thought to be a partial set of Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs (1935) was found to be complete, the three missing discs tellingly found amongst James’s collection of long-playing records. The provenance of the acquisition were difficult to determine, as was its place in the context of James’ established tastes and the artists he supported. Other possible acquisitions James made at the International Surrealist Exhibition go some way to underlining this: two works by Paul Nash, Harbour and Room (1932-1936) and Encounter in the Afternoon (1936); the portrait by Picasso he had already lent. In any case, the Rotoreliefs are the only substantial evidence of Duchamp within James’ files of personal effects, correspondence, publications and artworks, only a signed note from Teeny Duchamp in the 1980s suggesting any association over time.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to contrast James’ close relationship with Dalí with the relative incongruity of the Rotoreliefs being in his possession, both through the lens of the 1936 exhibition. Numerous connections behind the scenes suggest potentially productive coincidences. For one thing, Duchamp’s playful experiments with precision optics had featured on the 1934 cover of Minotaure, the lavish Surrealist journal that, only two years later, James buy out. The eighth issue was published on 15th June 1936, coinciding with the exhibition, with a cover by Dalí and with Duchamp’s painting, About a Young Sister (1911) (included in the show), reproduced inside. Duchamp would be represented by three other works, some created some twenty years before – King and Queen Crossed Rapidly by Nudes (1911), a watercolour, and Pharmacy (1914) [charmingly listed as ‘Chemist’s Shop’ in the official catalogue], an adjusted readymade engraving, both lent by Man Ray. The Rotoreliefs were described in the catalogue as a ‘machine’. Compared with Dalí’s ten works, Duchamps essential yet slightly distanced presence in the Surrealist orbit is made clear. It is also worth noting the proximity of Duchamp’s exhibited works with those of another imminent enthusiasm of James: the work of René Magritte. About a Young Sister was positioned one work away from Magritte’s The Red Model (1934), and the Rotoreliefs spun on a bespoke panel just to the right of On the Threshold of Liberty (1936). James would commission new versions of both these canvases the following year.

Assuming then that James purchased the Rotoreliefs during the International Surrealist Exhibition, the question remains as to why he would have been drawn to them – not simply because of the friendship and mutual admiration between Dalí and Duchamp, although that may indeed have had a bearing on James’ decision. He was a man of strong opinion and emotion – he rather defensively acknowledged Dalí’s friendship with Duchamp but would no doubt have listened to his friend’s enthusiasms with sympathy.2

As devices concerned with optics, the Rotoreliefs were often discussed by Duchamp in a matter of fact way, the artist describing how “when you turn them at a certain speed like thirty-three and a half turns a minute you get the effect of a growing form like a cone or corkscrew […] when it turns this comes up like in the third dimension.”3 As much as perceptual manipulations, if Duchamp’s experiments were informed by an interest in early entertainment devices such as nineteenth century phenkistiscopes and stereoscopes, this was a fascination shared with both Dalí and James, the former incorporating all manner of visual trickery in his ongoing work, the latter acquiring a collection of anamorphic art as late as the 1970s. Of course, Duchamp’s interest was partially commercial, even though Paul Roche’s account of the artist failing to interest the public from his booth at a Parisian inventor’s fair undercuts this view with an unreliable irony.

In her examination of the Rotoreliefs in relation to tracing an ‘optical unconscious’ in Modernism, Rosalind Krauss emphasised how “little attention” had been paid to them in the “mountainous literature” on Duchamp, summarizing critical descriptions of their seemingly obsessional, libidinous optical movements.4 Krauss describes the effect of the spinning discs in terms of an evocation of ‘part-objects’, ‘body fragments’, and the sexualised pulse, and it is not impossible that something of this fragmentary optical desire stirred something for James – in fact, a theme of the fragmented body recurs throughout his life and work. Yet his childlike temperament and (occasionally prudish) innocence suggests not. There are other unlikely associations too. If, for Krauss, the Rotoreliefs “participate in the iconography of abstraction”, it is all the more interesting that James would have acquired them given that he was notably sceptical of abstraction in painting, music and, most pointedly, poetry.5 His satirical doubt about Gertrude Stein, for example, features in many of his funniest writings, questioning the commitment of many of his friends’ avant-garde sensibilities, notably Igor Stravinsky. Yet James also seemed able to recognise innovators, even if he was quick to call out ‘imitators’: a dedication on the flyleaf of a book (addressed to composer Wallace Bower in the 1970s) specifically names Duchamp before offering a scathing opinion of those that James considered fashionable hangers-on.6 This point would seem to be connected to the importance of ‘technique’ or craft for James, a quality he consistently valued throughout his life. Even if Duchamp had long abandoned any conventional commitment to being a specialised painter (who never possessed the raw talent of someone like Dalí), James may well have recognised and admired his meticulous precision, whether it be in relation to readymades, optics, chess, or a precisely sceptical conceptual attitude that is itself difficult to ‘follow’. Arguably, what connects Dalí, Duchamp and James could be something like an absolute belief in the individual, albeit complicated by James’ philanthropic charitable donations, his engagement with social philosophy and his idealistic intentions to follow through on Aldous Huxley’s proposals for model creative communities, ultimately leading to the founding of West Dean College on his family estate.

It may be more instructive to relate James’ fascination with the optics of the Rotoreliefs with another type of vision. In 1937, James published his most successful novel, The Gardener Who Saw God, the climax of which expands upon a vision he himself had had some time in 1935, when he was recovering from his traumatic divorce from Tilly Losch at West Dean. In his dictated memoirs, James describes his vision as being something like a “Tintoretto heaven” – with concentric circles of spinning flora and fauna, all organised according to species and genuses, surrounding a central light. This vision, which in many ways led to his establishing the so-called Garden of Eden at Las Pozas [‘The Pools’] just outside Xilitla, Mexico, constituted James’ own version of an obsessive spiral, an apparition in this case that assumes the role of a holistic vision of the natural world organised by culture. There is also in Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs a silent evocation of music and theatricality, both of which played a huge role in James’ creative patronage. James claimed that his West Dean vision was accompanied by the quickening pulse of Beethoven’s Eroica, and one cannot help but consider the appeal of Duchamp’s optical effects in terms of theatrical illusion and lighting effects. James was familiar with many of the most innovative staging techniques of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, absorbed from his friendships with luminaries as Max Reinhardt, Charles Gordon Craig, Stanislavsky, Diaghilev, Sir Charles Cochran, Norman Bel Geddes, Jose Maria Sert, Christian Bérard, Oliver Messel, Rex Whistler and Orson Welles, essentially granting him a highly developed understanding of stagecraft.

There is another evocative possibility: Krauss reminds us that some of the Rotoreliefs have an “anodyne, childlike quality”, notably the “constantly rising” Montgolfier balloon.7 This brings to mind another anecdotal reference: James recalled his father reading him stories from Hans Hoffman’s darkly comic children’s book Shock-Headed Peter (1845), and being particularly struck by the story of ‘Little Flying Robert’.8 James marvelled at how the boy “was carried up into the heavens and on into space, and he never came down […] only five and I was obsessed with the idea of going on forever.”9 As well as the sardonic, impish humour, there are serious links to ideas (both Duchampian and Dalí-esque) concerning infinite extension in space, perpetual motion, eruptions of the marvellous, regression and escapism – instances where conventions of time and space are undermined, along with the expectations of duty and perception. In one of his copious letters, James recalled a similar fondness for a H. G. Wells short story, ‘The Truth About Pyecraft’, in which the title character, after having taken a weight loss remedy, floats helplessly on the ceiling, having lost weight but not volume.10 Ultimately, what may have been evident for James in the effects of Duchamp’s optical machine would relate to the poet’s own pathology, for which Dalí would offer a diagnosis: his friend was “suffering from a complex of space”.11

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The International Surrealist Exhibition opened at Burlington Galleries on Thursday, 11th June 1936 with a speech given by André Breton. The exhibition’s organising committee consisted of various figures from the Surrealist movement’s fledgling British contingent, with Hugh Sykes Davies, David Gascoyne, Humphrey Jennings, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read being actively ‘advised’ by Breton, Paul Eluard, Charles Hugnet and E. T. L. Mesens. It was only in early July that the official formation of an English Surrealist Group took place, the ceremony inevitably overseen by Breton. Up until that point Surrealism had little sustained presence in Britain, for reasons varied and speculative, ranging from an English emphasis on individualism to the pervading influence of social hierarchies and class structures. Gascoyne’s A Short Survey of Surrealism had appeared in 1935, the same year in which Sykes Davies’s surrealistic novel, Petron, had been published, yet the general public were not as aware of Surrealism’s subversive power as audiences across the channel. The scale of the International Surrealist Exhibition, therefore, signalled a major event. Some sixty artists from 14 countries (23 of them British) exhibited 390 works across drawing, painting, sculpture and objects. Plans for the exhibition had been developing for several months. From its first meeting at Penrose’s home in Hampstead on Monday 6th April 1936, the organising committee (now including Man Ray and Roland Lee) made plans to attract sponsors, contrive publicity stunts, as well as schedule screenings courtesy of loans from the London Film Society. Notably, the group were committed to the presentation of a lecture series, often used by the Surrealists as powerful means to expound their political and philosophical positions, as well as being demonstrations of creative theoretical work in themselves.

The schedule of public lectures was advertised in advance, from Breton’s ‘Limites non Frontieres du Surréalisme’ [‘Limits Not Frontiers of Surrealism’] on Tuesday 16th June (in French); Read’s ‘Art and the Unconscious’ on Friday 19th June; Eluard’s ‘La Poésie Surréalisme’ [‘Poetic Evidence’] on Wednesday 24th June (in French) and Sykes-Davies’ ‘Biology and Surrealism’ on Friday 26th June. The content and publishing history of most of these presentations is well established. Translations of Breton’s and Eluard’s lectures would feature in Faber and Faber’s Surrealism (1936), with Read’s lecture almost certainly replicated in his introduction to that book.12  Davies’ talk appeared in the fourth International Surrealist Bulletin from September 1936, published a few weeks after the exhibition closed.13  The Bulletin came with the declaration of having been ‘issued by the Surrealist Group in England’ and offered a summary of the recent show, including extracts from Read’s concurrent speech at Conway Hall on 23rd June, at a debate organised by the Artists’ International Association. In the face of scorn surrounding the exhibition, Read sought to defend the political position of Surrealism, emphasising the movement’s call for revolutionary action by repeatedly appealing to Breton’s 1924 manifesto for an art that is “uncompromisingly aggressive”, where artists no less than socialists “work for the transformation of this imperfect world”.14 Dalí’s lecture, scheduled for Wednesday 1st July 1936, remained something of an exception in the run-up to the exhibition. The listings indicated that Dalí would speak on one of a range of subjects, including ‘Paranoia’, ‘The Pre-Raphaelites’, ‘Harpo Marx’, and ‘Phantoms’, with no indication as to which language it would be delivered in. No doubt Dalí was working on a range of ideas, finishing them at the last minute, likely not communicating his intentions to the organisers. The minutes of another committee meeting in May 1936 remained hopeful that a “lecture by Dalí on Harpo Marx might be arranged.”15  No doubt the artist was difficult to pin down. All this time Dalí was frantically corresponding with James via telegram, not only in relation to the lending of paintings – the selection of which Dalí was adamant about having final say – but also asking him for help in preparing articles for the latest edition of Minotaure.16 By this time James had become heavily involved with the journal, backing the publication financially before buying it outright, initially intending to keep Albert Skira as its Paris-based editor – an arrangement that would not last.17  On 20th May, Dalí complained that his original illustration for the cover had been lost but, encouraged by James’ telegrams, revealed that he had redone it, replacing images of labyrinths with those of clouds, described as “very rare from a morphological point of view (clouds have always been the sky’s labyrinths, for it’s through looking at them that one loses oneself in the sky)”.18  Dalí also requested a number of reproductions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings for an extended article, admitting rather dramatically that he was “counting a lot on [James] for the success of my collaboration […] you’ll do me much harm if you fail me on this”.19  Aside from specific requests – “I should like the famous ‘Flight into Egypt’ with balls of soap […] to reproduce details of the luxurious expressions of the angels – also some pictures with lots of folds of clothes in the form of ‘fire dogs’ […] this form is indispensable because people talk about it”– the choice of images was left up to James.20 The finished article, ‘La Surréalsime spectrale de l’éternal féminin préraphaélite’ [‘The Spectral Surrealism of the Pre-Raphaelite Eternal Feminine’], with illustrations by Millais, Hunt, Strudwick, and Rossetti, made it into Minotaure 8, along with James’ apocalyptic poem ‘Trois Secheresses’ [‘Three Drynesses’], illustrated by Dalí.21 A fresh copy of the magazine can be seen under the artist’s arm in a photograph taken at the Burlington Galleries, with James beside him in the Surrealist line up.22

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The tabloid press certainly anticipated Dalí’s arrival and had advance indication of his antics. A correspondent from The Star hyped the appearance of the so-called “wild man” of Surrealism, citing his previous involvement at an exhibition at which visitors were given an axe and invited to destroy any work they did not like. The same reporter seemed convinced that Harpo Marx was to be the subject of the artist’s scheduled lecture, claiming too that a ‘phantom’ would arrive in a hansom cab.23  Of course, Dalí had written on ‘phantoms’ in the past and included it as a possible lecture topic, yet the foreseen apparition had little to do with Dalí directly. In a stunt devised by poet David Gascoyne and performer Sheila Legge, a ‘surrealist phantom’ was photographed in Trafalgar Square [by Claude Cahun] wearing a long white dress shredded at the hem, its head obscured by roses. Gascoyne readily admitted that the image of a “rosebush growing out of a dress”, was taken from Dalí, most likely the 1936 painting Necrophiliac Springtime.24  At the opening ten days later, Legge would appear once more as the ‘phantom’, this time carrying a plaster leg (initially intended to be a thighbone or a leg of pork) and wandering around the exhibition halls.25

Of course, the expectation and hype surrounding the exhibition was not lost on those closely involved. In a letter to Dalí on 11th June, James speculated on a “forecast of the Surrealist Exhibition in the Times Agony Column”, quoting an apocalyptic verse from Acts 2:17: And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.26

Other reports, for example syndicated in the Cork Examiner and Northern Whig, gleaned from advance letters of invitation the assurance that Dalí would “present lectures on some authentic paranoiac phantoms”, adding that his “impediments” would include a “couple of wolfhounds, some water tanks and a high-power magic lantern”.27 They also noted the artist’s prior antics of “pouring milk into one of his boots during a talk; producing an omelette from his pocket and slapping it on the head of a woman in the front row […] It seems safe to say that something of interest will happen.”28 These incidents had indeed taken place, if not exactly as described, at the Vieux-Colombier Theatre in Paris, on January 24th 1936, as Dalí lectured on ‘Le Cannibalisme Surréaliste et le Surréalisme Hystérique’ [‘Surrealistic Cannibalism and Hysteric Surrealism’].29 Marie-Laure de Noailles, in a letter to Edward James written the day after Dali’s talk, described how the omelette was “fortunately dry and rather like a cataplasm. [The woman] poured milk on Dalí’s foot… I think the whole thing would have better been left undone.”30 In his own letter to James the next day, Dalí admitted that his lecture had “annoyed quite a lot of people,” but went on to declare that this was “very hygienic”, adding that the lecture “would have amused you very much”.31 The bond between James and Dalí was based in large part on a shared sense of humour, never far from the surface of all their joint endeavours.

On the day of Dali’s lecture, in stifling summer heat, the Burlington Galleries were crowded with some 300 people, making up what the Daily Mail called a “Mayfair modernist” crowd.32 Dalí arrived wearing “full diving regalia”, a fully-enclosed suit complete with heavy globular helmet and lead-weighted boots – the idea for which Gascoyne expressly remembered coming from James.33 The Evening Standard reported that the diving suit had been hired by Lord Berners (a close friend of James to whom the Dali’s had been introduced in Rome some time before) from a large department store. The paper provided one of many jokes on the situation, claiming that when told that the suit was required for someone to deliver a lecture, the shop assistant had impassively replied that the speaker “should on no account go below thirty metres”.34 The diving suit was accessorised with other strange features: a wineglass on top of the helmet with a spoon slanted in it (a motif seen in various Dali canvases, in particular Sun Table, painted that same year), flanked with stubby antlers. A decorative dagger was slanted into the leather belt. As well as a billiard cue, Dali also held two large Irish Wolfhounds on a leash – dogs that belonged to James.35 At the appointed time Dali laboured to the speaker’s platform, set up with table, conventional water bottle and tumbler, a microphone connected to loud speakers and a white sheet to catch images thrown by a magic lantern. At this point, and with some difficulty, James addressed Dalí in French through the visor of the helmet, asking something to the effect of: in spite of what [was] said in the taxi on the way to the gallery, does he wish to deliver the lecture? The muffled answer, inaudible to the audience, appeared to be yes. There then came a few effusive words of introduction from James, making a point to apologise (according to the note transcribed by his current secretary, Miss Andrade) for not having prepared a full translation. He complained that he had only received the text late the night before, then tailed off into a fragment of nonsense from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’, setting the absurdist tone for the evening. James warned that Dalí spoke French with a pronounced Spanish accent, where “b’s” and “v’s” were to be treated as interchangeable and the ear must follow as best it can.36 This was not an uncommon problem. Dali’s New York gallerist, Julian Levy, recalled how the artist often “bombarded [him] with staccato mispronunciations […] that would seem untranslatable and incomprehensible, except that their intensity propelled them directly from his conception to my reception – as if the words were not conveyors but merely an accompaniment of background noise.”37 With James acting as a “very charming chairman”, credited for doing his best in translating parts of the speech at fifteen minute intervals, Dalí’s lecture began. Immediately, however, it was clear that the chairman had “not done enough” or had “reckoned without the resonance of the headpiece”.38 The microphone, held before the visor “at no small physical inconvenience” to James, further distorted the voice exclaiming from within the spherical headpiece.39 Some in the crowd, sat in what the Daily Mail described as “rapt and admiring silence”, noted that it was never explained why Dalí was wearing the diving suit and soon assumed that it was “evidently not essential” – what they did not know, or indeed assumed to be part of the performance, was that Dalí was overheating and struggling to breathe.40 Having initially asked for more freedom, the speaker soon demanded to be let out. Realising that their friend was suffocating, James and Berners quickly leapt on stage and attempted to remove the helmet. With increasing panic, in what resembled an absurd “wrestling match”, the billiard cue [or miraculously located spanner, depending who tells the story] was used as an impromptu “can opener”, releasing the visor of the helmet.41

After the drama subsided, the lecture eventually started again, with images from the magic lantern appearing sideways or upside down. Dalí vigorously claimed that this was unimportant and carried on regardless. Again, composite accounts from journalists give only a fragmentary sense of the occasion – they describe images by Holbein and da Vinci; mention of Lewis Carroll as one of the ‘les eccentrics Anglais dans leurs caprices quotidiens’ [English eccentrics with their daily whims]; Dali’s 1933 portrait of Gala with pork chops on her shoulder.42 The only time Dalí objected to the slides not being viewed properly apparently related to an image of Greta Garbo “pitting herself against journalists”.43 Despite James’s summarised translations many of Dalí’s arguments were difficult to follow, with only a few passing remarks hitting home. The newly discovered transcript begins halfway through the lecture and does not capture Dali’s initial emphasis on the image of a “sumptuous rotting donkey”, remembered by baffled reporters as something “his father endeavoured to prevent him seeing as a child”.44 This was immediately combined with “some other manifestation”, described by the correspondent’s pen as “white and extravagant truffles of death”.45 Of course, the image of the rotting donkey had longstanding currency in Dalí’s work, appearing in a number of paintings [Apparatus and Hand (1927), Honey is Sweeter than Blood (1927), Cenicitas [‘Little Ashes’] (1927-8), The Rotting Donkey [or ‘The Stinking Ass’] (1928)] and in many of his writings.46 Where the transcript survives Dalí starts by championing his own paranoiac-critical method, which he claimed to be the only method of straddling the two worlds of the objective reality and internal malleability – the tool by which it is possible for the artist to “attack and gnaw the bone of the objective world but also and above all to arrive at that additional, intoxicating, gelatinous softness which is to be found inside, this all-powerful mayonnaise sauce which is not added because it is already there”.47 Not only does this underline the culinary imagery prevalent in Dalí’s work and writing at this time, it also signals that the lecture extends the artist’s fascination with what he later called the “morphological aesthetics of the soft and the hard” – with flaccid forms, fossilisations of organic matter, ossifications of human anatomy, deformations and elongations of the body, and so on.48 Yet Dali’s emphasis immediately shifts to the subject of hysteria:

“My surrealist friends our attention is being drawn, ever since the beginning of the Surrealist Revolution to the surrealist actuality of hysteria, but this question has been looked upon chiefly from the poetic and moral aspect and not in relation to questions having immediate and practical consequences in the domain of knowledge itself.”49

Dalí’s intent is to formulate “strict figures” that constitute “structural realisations of hysteria” that can “guide our hunger for the irrational”, moving away from poetic or moral concerns and toward more tangible knowledge using the figure of some kind of (hysterical) architectonic actualisation – what he goes on to associate with the ‘arch of hysteria’.50 This marks a subtle but distinct departure from Dali’s position with regard to statements on hysteria, such as those in a report for the Catalan review L’Amic de les Arts in March 1929, which acknowledged the so-called “normal and poetic recourse to hysteria” whilst also suggesting that “while waiting for the moment to dwell on this issue at greater length, let us note also the moral sense of the question.”51 No doubt this was an addendum to Louis Aragon and André Breton’s celebration of hysteria as a “supreme means of expression” in their ‘Fiftieth Anniversary of Hysteria’ [Le Cinquantenaire de l’hysterie] in the March 1928 edition of La Révolution Surréaliste.52 Heralding what they viewed as the greatest poetic discovery of the late 19th century, Aragon and Breton associated images from Jean-Martin Charcot’s clinical case studies of female hysterics with the subversion of moral conventions, norms of bourgeois authority, such as the Catholic church and patriarchal family institutions – a reading that Dalí considered exemplary.53 Yet as Dalí’s attention moved to the architectonic applications of the extreme hysteric attack – a structural manifestation of both release and suppression in extremis – he arguably staged another subversion of Surrealist orthodoxy, evidencing another antagonism toward Breton and the broader tenets of the group. It is also another daring attempt to link theory and practice as part of his own anti-authoritarian, transgressive intervention within a Surrealist staple (i.e. hysteria) in order to position his self-declared genius within intellectual territories already conquered by the Revolution. One might also speculate as to whether Dalí considered that, on some level, a poetic victory had already been achieved (or was no longer important), echoed in his rather overwrought image of “victorious […] cavalcades of poetry” passing through the ‘arch of hysteria’ as if on parade.54 With other forms of knowledge seemingly neglected (perhaps anticipating his enthusiasm for atomic science or the future of quantum mechanics), the artist proposed an epistemological paradigm for hysteria beyond poetic release and subversive agitation in an attempt to find practical methods by which hysteric manifestations could advance the Surrealist project of mining the unconscious for new, revolutionary insight.

The ‘strict figure’ Dalí appealed to here was obviously based on the famous arc-de-cercle, often seen in Charcot’s patients as they compulsively adopted a posture in which their bodies arched backwards until supported only by head and heels.55 The strictness is absolutely linked with definite reality in Dalí’s thinking:

“Because the arch of hysteria presents itself to us primarily as the constitution and convulsive erection of a definite figure, sudden and circumscribed by its own material perimeter - that is to say a real structure in the Ultra-Gestaltist and Dalíen sense of the word.”56

In 1937 Dali produced a pencil sketch that explicitly referenced the arc-de-cercle position, yet it features more subtly in his 1936 painting Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) – the figure’s rictus grimace disturbingly combined with pallid limpness in a way that encapsulates Dalí’s obsessions with combined states of matter. Again, he had prefigured this in his 1933 article ‘De la Beauté terrifante et comestible de ‘architecture modern style’ [On the terrifying and edible beauty of 'modern style architecture’] in which he refers to the “Invention of the ‘hysterical sculpture’”.57 As well as citing “contractions and attitudes […] unprecedented in the history of the art of statuary ([…] referring to the women revealed and known from Charcot and the Saltpêtrière School)”, Dalí anticipates the sculpture known as Hysterical and Aerodynamic Nude (1934), to which he added all kinds of protrusions and bread-like forms.58

In the July 1936 lecture, Dalí contrasts the rigid, convulsive form of the arc-de-cercle with the soft, gelatinous architecture of Antoni Gaudí, emphasising how the arch of hysteria has a “contrary aim” whereby “life and spirit and a lyrical sense […] convulse the body almost to the extent of bursting the structure asunder.”59 The extreme convulsion emphasised here also relates to incommensurable states of matter:

“If the architecture of Gaudí is for Surrealism a magnificent lesson in comparative biology, the arch of hysteria offers us an equally lucid lesson of non-Euclidean physics and geometry which is indispensable today for the knowledge of and approach to the objective world […] not only the basis of the comprehension of matter but also and above all of all its states.”

Dalí’s own ambitions for Surrealist thought involves its use as a means to understand the material nature of the universe, to the extent that one can only imagine his delight at the future discoveries of quantum-level irrationality and how he would have developed his theoretical engagement with advanced physics in his attempts to become ‘classic’. The next phase of Dalí’s lecture relates the oft-mentioned account of the philosophy student who ate a looking-glass wardrobe, piece by piece, over an extended period of time. Again, this is an image of Dalí’s fascination with the interchangeability of matter and space. Dalí praises the wardrobe eater because, ultimately, “Time and Space occupy in the physical world such a material, personal and limiting place – matter itself becomes so homogenous, uninterrupted, continuous that one no longer knows where one passes because each interval each void in the body and flesh of matter becomes physically-speaking impracticable”, before comparing human beings to “tender, excessively smooth blackheads placed in the pores of the very nose of space”.60 What is laudable about the wardrobe eater is he demonstrates the understanding that “that which is void is as full as that which is solid [and] the only way to make a hole in the objective world is by eating it.”61

Such a consumption of matter/space leads Dalí to celebrate the jaws as the exemplary poetic/philosophic anatomical structure, before extending the image by comparing the Surrealists with the larvae of the Capricorn beetle, Cerambyx cerdo, eating through dead wood in their own conquest of the irrational. It is surely not accidental that these larvae feed on decaying wood of living oaks, hosts almost always already sick. Dalí had used similar images in the past, claiming that the Surrealists were like sturgeon, swimming between the warm water of science and the cool water of art, reiterating in 1936 that Surrealists “demand absolute authenticity of thought”.

* * * * *

After the lecture, Dalí emerged from the diving suit with his shirt wringing wet. He remarked that the ordeal had made him wetter than if he had been in the water.62 It was likely in the Q&A session that followed that the artist famously claimed that the suit was necessary for him to plunge deep down into the human mind, something of a glib answer given the complexity of his preceding lecture.63 Now that part of of its content has been revealed, the text delivered on 1st July 1936 arguably indicates something of a transition in Dali’s thought and career. From the mid-1930s it ispossible to outline a gradual shift toward focusing on an American public, a new English readership (often in commercial publications such as Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Esquire, etc.) and arguably a more “simplistic formulation” of his ideas.64

It is tempting to speculate on James’s role here, not only accompanying Dali as much of this transition took place, collaborating closely on projects such as the ‘Dream of Venus’ pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. James may well have fuelled the artist’s ambitions, even his showmanship and eccentricity, yet it is essential to recall that he also reprimand Dalí for his commercial focus and his evasive and troubling attitude to the Spanish Civil War. The verbal excesses and rhetorical devices used by Dalí in the lecture (including speaking of himself in the third person) are one that blurred distinctions between different states the artist made manifest: Dalí the anarchic clown and Dalí the incisive, radical thinker. This kind of balancing act was no doubt more than difficult to maintain and yet essential to the mercurial multivalent personality of Salvador Dalí in the 1930s. A telegram from James to Dalí in the aftermath of the International Surrealist Exhibition seems to sum up this extreme position:

24th July 1936. There is not in the world a deeper pleasure, etc. Really Dalí you are impossible. I am haunted by this phrase.65

1. Dali / Duchamp at the Royal Academy, 2017.
2. Dawn Ades and William Jeffett, ‘Introduction’, in Dalí / Duchamp (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2017), 15.
3. Marcel Duchamp, The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), 136.
4. Rosalind E. Krauss, Optical Unconscious, An October Book (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), 144.
5. Krauss, 205.
6. Copy of The Next Volume (1934) inscribed to Wallace Bower. Edward James Archive, West Dean College.
7. Krauss, 96.
8. Hienrich Hoffmann, ‘Die Geschichte Vom Fliegenden Robert ('The Story of Flying Robert’)’, in Der Struwwelpeter ('Shock-Headed Peter’) (Germany, 1845).
9. Edward James, Swans Reflecting Elephants: My Early Years (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), 18.
10. H. G. Wells, ‘The Truth About Pyecraft’, in Twelve Stories and a Dream (London: Macmillan and Co., 1903).
11. James, Swans Reflecting Elephants, 18.
12. Herbert Read, ed., Surrealism (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1936).
13. The first three Bulletins had been published in Prague, the Canary Islands, and Brussels in 1935.
14. Surrealist Group in England and New Burlington Galleries, The International Surrealist Exhibition ('L’Exposition Internationale Du Surréalisme) (London: A. Zwemmer, 1936).
15. Minutes of meeting Organising Committee of International Surrealist Exhibition, Thursday 14th May, 1936.
16. “As soon as I get to Paris I’ll come to London for a couple of days to arrange the final details with [McDonald] – another telegraphic drama ‘International Surrealist Exhibition in London’. Colle and Company are trying to exhibit old relics of pictures which they have, which would be very bad for mine and could do me considerable harm, 1) because they’re fragmentary pictures, and 2) because I can’t control the prices. I telegraph that I authorise the showing of three pictures only. The Dream of the Noailles; the first of the Eluard Pictures, which is very good; and your ‘car of Death’. Should they insist on or wish to exhibit other pictures of mine, I’ll withdraw from the exhibition. In other words, I beg you not to lend a single picture to anyone, until I’ve cabled or written to you to say that you may do so.” [Letter from Dalí to James, 20th May 1936. Edward James Archive, West Dean College]
17. In a long December letter to Osbert Sitwell, James recounted his trials working with Skira on Minotaure. When working on the 8th and 9th editions, Skira promised that James would be reimbursed for his support once profits were in, but did not fulfil that promise. James had in the interim bought the magazine outright, on the understanding that Skira was to be kept on in Paris as Editor, but subsequently decided to give him two-months’ notice. This had repercussions in relation to an agreement they had about future publication of the series Treasures of French Painting that Skira had been publishing. James, seemingly because he was unsatisfied with the financial guarantees and additional partners proposed by Skira, withdrew at the eleventh hour. The relationship with Skira deteriorated rapidly and led to a lengthy tangle of litigation for the next few years, which James would come to regret, if only for losing the chance to curate his own edition of the journal:
“The Christmas number might have been very good, as I was going to obtain an article from André Gide; Dalí also had written an excellent article in combination with Elsa Schiaparelli, with brilliant illustrations. There were articles by André Breton, Jacques Prévert, Roger Caillois, a photographic reproduction of the manuscript of Poulenc’s latest composition for choirs, together with an article by Henri Sauguet upon La Lumiere dans la Musique. It is extremely disappointing that it should have come to this.” [ref]
18. Telegram from Dali to James, May 21st 1936. Edward James Archive, West Dean College.
19. Letter from Edward James Archive, West Dean College.
20. Letter from Dalí to James, 9 May 1936, Port Lligat, Cadaqués, Spain. Edward James Archive, West Dean College. Dalí refers to William Holman Hunt’s The Triumph of the Innocents (1870-1903) Harvard Art Museum.
21. Minotaure 8 (June 15, 1936): 53-56.
22. For the subsequent edition of Minotaure, James contributed two articles, ‘The Marvel of Minuteness’ (a riff on miniaturism in early 16th century German portraits) plus ‘Le chapeau du peuple et les chapeaux de la reine’ (a farce on royal hats he hoped to publish under a pseudonym) (Minotaure 9, October 1936: 20-24 and 54-59). Dalí had been badgered by telegrams from James’, chasing him to deliver necessary documents to Skira; he eventually responded to say the he had sent an “article on ‘a day in the life of a bearded lady’, in which I recount in minute detail and with ‘precise details’ all this woman does from the moment she gets up until she goes to bed and also all the ideas more or less hairy which go through her head”. Dalí’s finished text, initially too long for the eight issue, would appear as ‘Premiere loi morphologique sur les poils dans le structures molles’ [First Morphological Law Concerning the Hairs in Soft Structures’].
23. The Star, 6th June 1936.
24. Interview with David Gascoyne by Mel Gooding, 11th July 1990. National Life Stories – Artists’ Lives, British Library transcript, C446/03. Two other paintings from that year contained similar figures: The Dream Places a Hand on a Man’s Shoulder and Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra.
25. An unpublished article kept in the archive of Sir Roland Penrose, written under the pseudonym The Phantom, suggests that on “such a plane [where anything is possible] belongs the ‘Phantom of Sex Appeal’, her face revealed by red roses, the apparition who stretched out her hands to the pigeons in Trafalgar Square and annihilated reality” – betraying a lack of understanding concerning Dali’s distinction between ‘spectre’ and ‘phantom’. Surrealism’ by The Phantom. Unpublished typescript held in the Roland Penrose Archive, National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh, pp4. Other antics were involved in the opening event and which have since turned into legends. Dylan Thomas moved through the crowd offering patrons cups of tea infused with string.
26. Letter from Edward James to Salvador Dalí, Edward James Archive, West Dean College
27. Cork Examiner and Northern Whig, 1st July 1936.
28. Cork Examiner and Northern Whig, 1st July 1936.
29. Lecture announcement from 18th January 1936. Edward James Archive, West Dean College.

30. Marie-Laure de Noailles to Edward James, 25th January 1936, Edward James Archive, West Dean College.
31. Letter from Dalí to Edward James, 26th January 1936, Edward James Archive, West Dean College.
Dalí also suggests that he was scheduled to contribute to a conference on Surrealism in Oxford in February 1936, most likely the immediate precursor to the event at Burlington Gardens. The details of what transpired in Oxford are sadly lost.
32. Daily Mail, 2nd July 1936
33. In an interview with Mel Gooding on 11th July 1990, David Gascoyne expressly recalled: “Well, when Dalí gave his lecture in a diver's suit: that was an idea of Edward James, with whom he was staying at the time.” National Life Stories – Artists’ Lives, British Library transcript, C446/03.
34. ‘Deep End Tactics’, Evening Standard, 2nd July 1936
35. After Wolfa and Houlihan were shot when chasing sheep, James would dedicate his 1937 novel, The Gardener Who Saw God, to their memory.
36. Liverpool Daily Post, 2nd July 1936
37. Julian Levy (2003) Memoir of an Art Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: MFA Press / artWorks, 72.
38. Liverpool Daily Post, 2nd July 1936
39. Liverpool Daily Post, 2nd July 1936
40. ‘The Surrealist Speaks’, Manchester Guardian, 2nd July 1936.
41. ‘Surrealist Set Free’, The Daily Sketch, 2nd July 1936
42. The Star 7th July 1936
43. Liverpool Daily Post 2nd July 1936. The movie star had become something of an enduring obsession for both Dali and James, the latter publishing a piece of Surrealist gossip when Garbo stayed at his rented Italian villa.[ref]
44. Liverpool Daily Post 2nd July 1936.
45. Liverpool Daily Post 2nd July 1936.
46. Although this is most obvious in the text called ‘The Rotting Donkey’ (Salvador Dalí, ‘L’Âne pourri’ in La Femme visible, Paris: Éditions surréalistes, 1930, pp.11-20; Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution (Paris) 1 (July 1930): 9-12) it also occurs in pieces written for L’Amic de les Arts in the late 1920’s; for example, in the text ‘...the liberation of the fingers…’ Dali writes:
“I recall with pleasure that in 1927, without the least contact, three persons, separated for a time one from the other, chanced upon a rotting donkey: I myself, in Cadaqués, carried out a series of paintings in which there appeared, as an obsessive theme, a sort of rotting donkey full of flies. Almost simultaneously, I received two letters, one from Pepín Bello in Madrid, in which he spoke of the rotting donkey, describing things that fully paralleled other things that I had recently written; several days later, Luis Buñuel wrote me about a rotting donkey in a letter from Paris. Pepín Bello subsequently recalled how, as a child, he walked more than a kilometre each day, coming out of school, in order to see a rotting donkey that he had discovered during a family outing, which on that occasion he could not see properly, his family having passed it by quickly. I now recall having seen, when I was 3 or 4 years old, a decomposed lizard bristling with ants.” (Salvador Dalí, ‘...L’alliberaments dels dits…’ L’Amic de les Arts (Sitges) 4 (31) March 31, 1929. Quoted in Finkelstein 100.) The manipulation of this memory and the shift in the type of creature seen rotting underneath the ants is consistent – in his later memoir, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, the image becomes one of a wounded bat bristling with frenzied ants. (Salvador Dalí (2000) [1942] The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (trans. Haakon M. Chevalier) Spain: DASA Editions, N. V. 14)
47. Salvador Dalí, ‘Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’, translated by Edward James. Unpublished manuscript, Edward James Archive, West Dean College, np.
48. Salvador Dalí (2000) [1942] The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, 304.
49. Salvador Dalí, ‘Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’, translated by Edward James. Unpublished manuscript, Edward James Archive, West Dean College, np.
50. Salvador Dalí, ‘Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’, translated by Edward James. Unpublished manuscript, Edward James Archive, West Dean College, np.
51. [Dalí – ‘Review of Anti-Artistic Tendencies’ (1929) Finkelstein, 103. quoted in Lomas 53]
52. Louis Aragon & André Breton, ‘La Cinquantenaire de l’hystérie, 1878-1928’, La Revolution Surrealiste no 11 (15 March 1928): 20-22.
53. Cf. Finkelstein, 103. The Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (1876-1880) by Désiré-Magloire Bourneville and Paul Régnard, students of Jean-Martin Charcot, constitutes a landmark in medical photography, documenting Charcot’s long-term clinical observations at the Salpêtrière and his theories on hysteria.
54. Salvador Dalí, ‘Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’, translated by Edward James. Unpublished manuscript, Edward James Archive, West Dean College, np.
55. The rigid contortions of the ‘opisthotonic position’ of the arc-de-cercle also featured in Otto Rank’s Das Trauma der Geburt [‘The Trauma of Birth’] (1924), which Dali would have known in its 1929 French translation. Rank specifically linked physical manifestations of hysteria to the “physical reproductions of the birth trauma”, as well as relating the torsion mechanism of the great hysterical attack as a defence mechanism “diametrically opposed to the doubled-up embryonal position.” (Rank 51) Dali would have been acutely conscious of the pangs such a shift in knowledge domain would have entailed.
56. Salvador Dalí, ‘Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’, translated by Edward James. Unpublished manuscript, Edward James Archive, West Dean College, np.
57. Salvador Dalí, ‘De la Beauté terrifante et comestible de ‘architecture modern style’, Minotaure (Paris) 3-4 (December 12, 1933): 69-76.
58. Salvador Dalí, ‘De la Beauté terrifante et comestible de ‘architecture modern style’, Minotaure (Paris) 3-4 (December 12, 1933): 69-76. Quoted in Finkelstein, 198.
59. Salvador Dalí, ‘Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’, translated by Edward James. Unpublished manuscript, Edward James Archive, West Dean College, np.
60. Salvador Dalí, ‘Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’, translated by Edward James. Unpublished manuscript, Edward James Archive, West Dean College, np. This is a reference to a previous rhapsody on the pleasures of blackhead squeezing with which Dalí opens his article ‘Aerodynamic Apparitions of “Beings-Objects”’, in which the squeezing of the pores on the nose can produce the “serene ejection of the strange body” in an act that is not only pleasurable but can also contains something of a “neurotic ceremonial”; he later refers to the “comedones of space”, talking of aerodynamic cars as “squeezed, quite slippery, solemn, atmospheric, and apotheosic, out of the very nose of space, the very flesh of space.” [Quoted in Finkelstein, 207-208, 209.]
61. Salvador Dalí, ‘Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’, translated by Edward James. Unpublished manuscript, Edward James Archive, West Dean College, np.
62.The Star, 7th July 1936
63. ‘Surrealist in Diving Suit’, Daily Mail, 2nd July 1936.
64. (Finkelstein 4)
65. Telegram between James and Dali, 24th July 1936. Edward James Archive, West Dean College.

First published in XX.