By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dalí Historian
Possibly the most intriguing project ever undertaken by Salvador Dalí – one with a twist no one saw coming – was when impresario, lyricist, and theater showman Billy Rose commissioned Dalí to create seven paintings for Rose’s “Seven Lively Arts” revue in 1944 at his Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City.
Rose (1899 – 1966), who penned the popular song, “Me and My Shadow,” and whose autobiography, “Wine, Women and Words” Dalí illustrated, wanted to adorn the lobby of his theater with paintings by Dalí. Each was themed for one of the seven arts featured in Rose’s revue: theater, dance, ballet, opera, concert, cinema, and radio.
Holed up in a second floor cubbyhole/studio at the Ziegfeld, Dalí set about painting what this Dalí historian believes were some of the greatest surrealist images ever created. They were wonderfully imaginative, lively, bizarre, and amusing. In a word, they dazzled. And, of course, they were masterfully painted. LIFE magazine published a photo-feature on them.
After the 183 performances of Rose’s “Seven Arts” play, the Dalí paintings reportedly remained on display in the theater for 10 years. And then Rose moved them to his sprawling Georgian-style mansion in Mount Kisco.
Where, two years later, tragedy struck.
A fire – whose origin I’ve not been able to learn – broke out in the three-story manse, destroying a treasure trove of fine art Rose owned by a number of big-name artists – including Salvador Dalí. All seven of Dalí’s amazing pictures were destroyed in the blaze, as was virtually every other piece of art in the place, save for some outdoor lawn sculptures.
Undaunted, the indomitable Dalí offered to re-paint all seven of the masterpieces, and for the same fee he was paid for the original set: $14,000. (According to an inflation calculator, $14,000 in 1944 would be like $198,000-plus today.)
It would be virtually impossible, and not necessarily advisable, to paint the images exactly the same the second time around. Especially given the complexity and detail featured in the works. Some of Dalí’s remakes nevertheless did recapture what appeared in the original set; still, on balance, the new set was markedly different.
And clearly great.
Original “Boogie-Woogie,” and redux re-titled “Rock ‘n Roll.”
Today there’s some debate as to which was better – the original set painted in ‘44, or the canvases Dalí repainted sometime after the April 2, 1956 fire. I personally preferred the original set, but find the redux admirable indeed.
But hold on…there’s another twist.
When Dalí presented the new works to Rose, the count was no longer seven, but eight. Television had since come into fashion as an art form, so Dalí chose to paint an eighth canvas (no extra charge) capturing – in a most extraordinarily surrealistic and Dalínian way – the lively art of TV.
His approach? Simple: depict a rhinoceros on skyscraper-tall stork legs, then paint a television set on its flank! A set telecasting (in black & white, of course) a baseball game! It was quintessential Salvador Dalí, and my favorite Dalí painting in the “This totally amuses me!” category.
Was the rhino picture (“Celestial Ride”) depicting sports, or television?
But wait. There’s disagreement here.
The Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí in Spain states that “Celestial Ride” (the TV-toting rhinoceros) was meant to represent “Sports” (though I’ve never considered sports an art). Moreover, yet another 1957 work is in the mix, reportedly also part of the second-round of the “Seven Lively Arts” series – a painting called “Bewitchment,” representing Tragedy & Comedy, according to the Fundacio’s online catalog raisonne.
But not so fast: still more confusion!
Titles of these works change, depending on your information source. The just-mentioned “Bewitchment” is alternatively known as “Sorcery.” The original “Boogie-Woogie” (dance) was modernized for the ‘50s and re-titled “Rock ‘n Roll.” The “Television and Communications” canvas was also known as “Modern Rhapsody.”
Indeed, I’ve been unable thus far to fully sort out this fascinating chapter in Dalí’s prolific career. And not all the images that represent the first and second set of the paintings appear in this post.
Art of Opera, early and latter version
Art of music or concert, early and latter version (“The Red Orchestra”)
Rose’s biography, illustrated by Dalí
So this fire of disagreement and confusion may burn for some time. Yet it’s clear that certain of Dalí’s commissioned projects turned out impressive work. I blogged some months ago about his wonderful paintings for Bryan Hosiery magazine advertisements. His works for Billy Rose’s “Seven Lively Arts” revue are no less intriguing.
Though Mr. Rose stood just 4 ft. 11 in., he was an entertainment giant in his time. It was fitting that he called upon another giant — Salvador Dalí — to make theater and art history together.
(All images used for fair use journalistic purposes only)