Christine Argillet on her Childhood Memories of Salvador Dali

When Christine Argillet was a child, her father took a photograph of her dressed as the Infante from Velasquez’s painting, and after seeing this, Salvador Dali would take to calling her “La Petite Infante”.

Pierre Argillet (1910-2001) was the principal art publisher of the Surrealist and Dadaist groups in Paris, and his daughter grew up knowing many of the artists from the two art movements, in particular Dali, with whom her father had a 30-year working collaboration and even longer friendship. Between 1960-1973, she spent every summer in the north of Spain near the home of the celebrated artist, going to his house almost every night and often saw him working in his studio.

Argillet and her family still own many etchings and other works from this period and some of these will be on show (and for sale) at REDSEA Gallery in Singapore March 22 to April 24. I asked her about her recollections of those long and somewhat surreal summers in Spain:

What do you remember about Salvador Dali’s home?

Dali had the most creative, yet very simple house. It is located on a quite wild Mediterranean seashore with nothing around except an inn where we used to stay with my parents. He had connected various fishermen’s houses with a corridor, thus forming a ‘labyrinth’. In fact, there were a lot of stairs to accommodate the hilly terrain and it was quite difficult for a neophyte to find his way. His studio had a special device which would allow very large paintings to slide down into a lower room, allowing them to be always at a good height for work. At the entrance, you would find a gigantic white standing bear, which held the umbrellas. A wonderful and mysterious perfume would flow in the air. You would notice that thousands of dried flowers were placed as a frieze around the walls. As you entered the living room, a moving ashtray would come around and you would notice a long silver stick and a living turtle on the ground bringing the ashtray to guests on its back. Everything was enjoyable, charming, very simple. This was the refuge Dali had found to paint quietly during the Spanish warm summers.

How much attention would Dali have given to a young child?

Dali had no children, yet he had a kind of fascination towards children’s candid and genuine views and reactions. It was probably for him a sort of refreshing vision. He would always notice when I had nothing to do and would send me to his room to pick up cherry candies to throw behind the fishermen’s backs on the shore, or he would show me how he could move his moustache with some comical reactions. There were always innovations on the way.

Did he ever do a portrait of you?

No, he never made a portrait of me, yet he asked me a few times to place myself in certain positions and he would draw sketches.

What do you remember of his creative process?

Dali used to have two paintings in his studio. There was always a very large canvas that he was completing, whistling joyfully as he was working. There was often another painting on an easel, with geometric shapes only. On that painting, he was studying lines of construction, following the Golden Ratio. It was quite intriguing to see the work in progress and how this abstract painting would become a figurative piece.

Is there a famous painting you saw him work on during that time?

Around 1970, I saw Dali painting the very large “Hallucinogenic Toreador” which is now at the Dali Museum in Florida. He was working on microscopic details of the upper arcade and it was fascinating to see how fast he was able to give birth to this part with all the lights and shadows. He would sometimes use photographs to help him, but most of the time, he would paint by memory.

How different was the public Dali from the private one?

In private, Dali was the most humble, simple, genuinely sweet person on earth. In public, he was trying to attract all the attention of eccentrics who had no limits. It was the fashion of Happenings in New York and in Paris, and Dali, who had a great sense of humor, would constantly tell very serious things behind a caricature mask.

Why did Dali and your father part ways in the 1970s?

In 1973, Dali decided that he wouldn’t etch anymore, due to the time involved, and the fact his eyes couldn’t stand the strong metallic reflection of the copper. Dali asked my father to have some of his watercolors or paintings reproduced into lithos. My father hated this process, that he wouldn’t consider as “original”, so my father stopped working with Dali at that moment. But he still organized the first Dali exhibition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow in 1988, and worked on some other projects with him.

How would you compare Dali’s etchings with his paintings, in terms of subject matter?

They are very different. Dali’s paintings represent a long-term process. The drawings and etchings would allow spontaneity, use of various tools. It reveals in a very fresh and candid manner the rapid thoughts, movements, gestures, and probably a very intimate aspect of the artist’s work.

Two of the series you will be exhibiting at REDSEA should have a particular resonance with the Asian audience: Poems of Mao Zedong and The Hippies. What can you tell me about these works?

The Mao Zedong series came out because my father brought to Dali in May 1968 the Poems of Mao Zedong. It was amazing for Dali and my father to realize Mao Zedong, the author of the red book, was also a poet. Dali decided to illustrate eight Poems and inserted in each piece a kind of satire of the political regime of the moment. For instance, the horses are freed, and the Portrait of Mao Zedong just shows his costume — Dali would acknowledge that the man was so big that he wouldn’t fit on one page…

What about the Hippies series?

The Hippies collection was etched by Dali after my father and I came back from India where my father, who was an excellent photographer, had taken hundreds of pictures. Dali, who had never travelled to the East, found a link between the Hippies going to India, sometimes barefoot, and the pilgrims of the Middle Ages going to Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela, also barefoot, on a mystic kind of quest. These Love-and-Peace years inspired Dali to create one of his most beautiful series of etchings where East and West are connected, where different times are put into relation and where we discover a sort of universal quest for a spirituality.

“The Pierre Argillet Collection” will be presented at REDSEA Gallery. Among the highlights of the exhibition is the series of 50 print Les Chants de Maldoror, which illustrated a literary work by French writer Comte de LautrĂ©amont considered to be a major source of inspiration for artists of the Surrealist Movement.

The Collection permanently resides at the Museum of Surrealism in Melun, France and the Dali Museum in Figueras, Spain.

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