Dalí as you like him

The change of pace in this month’s crocodile mystery is thanks to Salvador Dalí. Surely you, like our commenters, recognized those elongated legs. And if I’d shared the companion image, you’d have guessed that immediately as well.

Dali's backdrop for the court scenes
Dalí’s backdrop for the court scenes in Rosalinda
Dali's backdrop for the forest scenes
Dalí’s backdrop for Rosalinda‘s forest scenes

But what’s he doing in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collections? Sharing his designs for As You Like It, obviously!

Our mystery image is the backdrop Dalí designed for the court scenes; the second image is the backdrop for the forest scenes. Both are from the designs Dalí created for Rosalinda, directed by Luchino Visconti at Rome’s Teatro Eliso in 1948. Visconti’s production took inspiration from the mid-16th-century gardens at Bomarzo, gardens that disrupted the symmetry of great Renaissance gardens and that include among their statuary a giant sculpture of one of Hannibal’s war elephants and an octagonal Temple of Eternity. Dalí, like other surrealists, was inspired by Bomarzo, and so it’s no surprise that Visconti reached out to him for the production designs.

A brief account of the production in Shakespeare Survey suggests some of the rich experience the production must have been:

In Dali’s hands surrealism takes possession of Shakespeare’s pastoral amid a rich riot of colour and wild imagination. In a note addressed to the public the artist declares that As You Like It appeals to him particularly because it is a work “typically anti-existentialist”. His costume designs are inspired by eighteenth-century mode; he explains, however, that “they are not in fact ordinary eighteenth-century dresses but rather those dresses which were then on the point of reaching realization, of taking shape”. Here is the Augustan age, modified by Renaissance pastoralism, interpreted by a modernist, surrealistic painter—one of the strangest performances of Shakespeare that the present age has seen.1

Dalí’s costumes for Rosalind and Ganymede are good examples of the 18th-century inspiration he was working with, and they’re gorgeous, to boot.

Dali's costume for Rosalind
Dalí’s costume for Rosalind
Ganymede
Ganymede

But the costume I’ll leave you with shows some of the surrealism the review describes. It’s his drawing for the foresters, a vision that owes less to the 18th century, or the 16th, and more to Dalí’s own wild imagination.2

a forester
a forester

Dalí’s designs survived long after the production itself, thanks to a volume published in 1948 by Carlo Bestetti, the source of the Folger’s digitized images (ART Vol. f99). The color sketches of the costumes and backcloths were also included in the 1953 Folio Society edition of the play. Because of their use as illustrations to the play, the designs have become part of the book collecting world. But they’re also vibrant signs of a theatrical past that still resonates today and that is an important part of the Folger’s collection.

UPDATE (November 5, 2014)

Since hitting publish on this post, I’ve done a bit more exploring around what’s going on with the Vaneur costume, and rather than burying that information in the comments, I thought I’d share it here. Nicola Imbrascio commented on this post that “veneur” means “hunter” in 16th-century French. Why Dalí would use 16th-century French here I don’t know, but that would be consistent with the costume design and the play itself. Although it’s easy to pass over quickly when reading the play, the scene where the Lords dressed as foresters discuss with Jaques having just killed a deer (4.2) can be an elaborate one that calls attention to the importance and unruliness of hunting in the play.3  It’s easy to image some productions might highlight the forester/hunter aspect of Duke Senior and his men in the forest from the start.

Although the Folger’s copy of this book is in fragile condition, the Conservation Lab took some images of it that Erin helpfully consulted for me. On the last opening of the volume, there’s both a cast list (showing that no one was named Vaneur!) and a sketch of “scene III” that clearly shows the Vaneur figure in the forest scene with some 18th-century looking companions.

Dali's sketch of a forest scene showing, in the middle, the Vanuer costume (click on the image to enlarge and see the entire opening)
Dali’s sketch of a forest scene showing, in the middle, the Vanuer costume (click on the image to enlarge and see the entire opening)

So there you go! I feel like the mystery’s been solved thanks to helpful readers and colleagues.

  1. Mario Praz, “Italy: Surrealistic ‘Rosalinda'” Shakespeare Survey 3 (1953) 118. []
  2. I’m not sure why this costume sketch is labelled “Vaneur”—perhaps it’s the surname of one of the actors? []
  3. See Cynthia Marshall’s edition of the play for Cambridge’s Shakespeare in Production series for some examples of how this scene has been perf0rmed. []