To me, for many years, Salvador Dali was synonymous with Surrealism. He painted those bizarre images, which supposedly evoked his dreams and hallucinations.
I was never much of a Dali enthusiast to be honest. His oil paintings didn’t really speak to me. Atleast not in the way Impressionism did (represented by Monet, Renoir, Degas et al). Clearly, I am missing something.
The only painting of his which is etched in my mind is also probably his most famous one – The Persistence of Memory.
Here it is…
But what is lesser known about Dali – atleast to me – is that he also produced watercolours. And oh boy, those are completely on a different plane altogether.
To put it simply, they are brilliant.
Many of these watercolours, Dali produced as illustrations for books.
So when a Limited Edition of Dali’s watercolours came out (reproduced in a big book format) for The 1001 Nights (or The Arabian Nights, if you will), it greatly piqued my interest.
The popularity of the Nights…
There has always been something quite fascinating about The Arabian Nights. These medieval tales are set in a world that is exotic, magical and other worldly. The main story arch is where Shahrazad relates tales every night to the king to delay her execution.
In world culture, the influence of The Arabian Nights is immense. These tales have been popular subjects for films and have also inspired many pieces of music. They have also greatly influenced a diverse range of authors and writers not just in England but all across the world. Many of these writers have alluded to The 1001 Nights in their own works.
It is hardly surprising then that these tales were also a constant source of fascination for artists and book illustrators – especially Golden Age illustrators such as Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen to name a few.
Here’s what the introduction in the Penguin edition of The Arabian Nights says:
The Arabian Nights is a vast storytelling ocean in which the readers can lose themselves. One story, like a wave, is absorbed into the one that follows. The drift of the narrative tide carries us, like Sindbad, to strange places, and the further from home, the stranger those places are.
Ifrits, jinns, sultans, viziers, beautiful princesses, witches, ghouls, monsters, sorcerors, beasts and birds abound in these tales. Many of the stories are also quite erotic as they are suffused with sex.
Little wonder, Salvador Dali was also seduced by The Arabian Nights and desired to illustrate it.
Dali’s obsession with the Nights…
Infact, it seems that Dali had engineered The Arabian Nights commission himself. Giuseppe and Mara Albaretto, a wealthy Italian couple who became enthusiasts and collectors of Dali’s work, arranged for him to illustrate a series of books for the Turin-based publisher Rizzoli.
The first of these was the Bible in 1963, but Dali, was not as devout a Catholic as Giuseppe was. He insisted that the book he wanted to illustrate was The 1001 Nights.
Why his obsession with the Nights?
Here’s the publisher:
Everything about Dali seemed peculiarly suited to the Nights – his fascination with the Arab world (he believed that he was of Moorish descent), his indomitable and tortured obsession with the erotic, even his improvised approach to composition, which mirrored that of the tales’ narrator Shahrazad. Yet above all it is his imaginative power, his ability not merely to transport his readers to an exotic world, but to take them on an exhilarating sensory and psychological journey, that makes him one of the great interpreters of this collection of stories. Executed in a vivid blaze of colours, his illustrations abound with figures – humans, animals, curious monsters – which shift between the familiar and the disorientating. At once rooted in the tales and departing from them, Dali’s watercolours have an almost hallucinatory effect.
Here’s more on his sumptuous illustrations in the introduction to the Dali illustrated edition of The Arabian Nights:
Dali produced a total of 100 illustrations for The 1001 Nights, of which 50 have survived in good condition.
The watercolours (which are occasionally supplemented by pen and ink or charcoal) are all dated 1966.
Indeed, as you will see the illustrations are vibrant with striking colours and pulse with life in a manner that was rarely matched by other artists. They are exciting, inventive and brim with fierce energy. They will transfix and mesmerise you…
I have displayed a few of them here.
Without much ado, let these watercolours speak for themselves…
Here are some more…
More to gush and drool over…