Salvador Dali, Buster Keaton Fan

When we read about history, it’s easy to forget how often various worlds would collide. For example, Harold Lloyd’s Speedy and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc came out the same year, and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford once had Albert Einstein over for dinner (Chaplin was invited too, and Pickford remembered him and Doug listening to the famed professor in awed “befuddlement”). And an artist like, say, the iconic Salvador Dalí would have grown up with silent comedies, and would’ve had his favorite comedians like everyone else.

It’s fairly common knowledge among classic comedy fans that Dalí was a Marx Brothers fan–or rather, fanatic. Once he gifted Harpo a custom-made harp with barbed wire strings, covered with spoons (as historian Joe Adamson humorously explained, Harpo “didn’t drop spoons, he dropped knives, that’s why Dalí used spoons”). He also presented the Marx Brothers with a screenplay called Giraffes on Horseback Salad, basically a living series of his paintings but with Marx Brothers. (They somewhat respectfully declined.) But not everyone knows that Dalí was a Buster Keaton fan, too.

There are several documents where Dalí talked about Keaton, in letters to friends and in the 1927 essay “Film-arte, Film-antiartístico,” where he extolled the virtues of “anti-artistic” film–I’ll just let the Museum of Modern Art explain what that is:

According to Dalí, the “artistic” film embodies only the imagination of the creator and is therefore grandiose; the “anti-artistic” film reveals the immediacy of action and demands an emotional response while embracing the limitless technical properties of the camera. Dalí wrote, “When monotony is reached, and when it is repeated, when you know what is going to happen, then you begin to feel the joy of unforeseen technical and expressive diversity.”

To Dalí, Keaton was the ultimate in “anti-artistic” film, someone whose work was “pure poetry.” He praised the comedian’s famous face as key to that poetry: “Buster Keaton’s expression is as modest as that of a bottle, for example: though his aseptic soul pirouettes through the round and clear track of his pupils. But Buster’s bottle and face have infinite view.”

In 1925 Dalí made a collage called The Marriage of Buster Keaton, commemorating Buster’s marriage to Natalie Talmadge–because why not? He casually made it on the back of a letter to his friend Frederico García Lorca, a poet and playwright. It included clippings of Buster from the papers, bits of maps and astronomy-related ephemera, and a sort of typed story of the 1921 union. Here it is–there’s two parts:

Here’s some closeups, although they’re a bit fuzzy:

Some years ago a fan provided a translation of what the collage says:

And so he, sent a telegram to Natalie Talmadge. “I love you. Will you be my wife?”

But the answer came as concise as the declaration. “No”

“Why not?”

And this time, the most absolute silence was the reply.

Buster resigned.

Time passes…

and he sends a telegram saying, “Natalie, can I come and see her?”

“Come immediately, because when we return to New York, Natalie wants to be Mrs. Buster Keaton.”

Buster, Natalie receive the blessing to be married.

Perhaps those lines were clipped from a Spanish fan magazine–they have that common “thrilling romance” tone. Possibly it was the same magazine the Buster photos were from.

There might be other instances of Dalí being inspired by Keaton. Robert Knopf’s book The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton speculates that an underwater scene from The Navigator (1924), where Buster uses a live lobster as a wire-cutter, could’ve inspired Dali’s sculpture Lobster Telephone. The piece is exactly what it sounds like:

Knopf backs up his theory by pointing out that Dalí delivered a lecture for the 1936 International Surrealists’ Exhibition in London while wearing a full scuba suit, much like Buster’s in The Navigator (Dalí almost passed out from lack of oxygen, might I add). Others have claimed that Dalí’s 1927 painting Apparatus and Hand was inspired by The Electric House (1922), since it involved a machine-like object and The Electric House has a lot of machinery. Unless there’s some comments from Dalí himself that I missed, that seems like a stretch. Here it is, what do you think?

At any rate, Dalí definitely had good taste when it came to comedians, and his admiration of their “surrealistic” qualities was certainly par for the course. Did I mention he also enjoyed Harry Langdon? How worlds collide!

Sources:

Adamson, Joe. Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Knopf, Robert. The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Scheerder, Lilia. “Art: El casamiento de Buster Keaton by Salvador Dali.” https://www.busterkeaton.org/pop-culture/art-el-casamiento-de-buster-keaton-by-salvador-dali

Akbar, Arifa. “Salvador Dalí’s fascinating tribute to Buster Keaton.” https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/mad-about-the-movies-what-salvador-dali-saw-in-the-cinema-432763.html

“Dalí Laughs.” https://www.moma.org/calendar/film/613#:~:text=Dal%C3%AD%20declared%20the%20works%20of,ahead%20with%20his%20trademark%20boater

https://bustermylove.tumblr.com/post/10588323352/this-is-interesting-and-kind-of-weird-i-shall

13 thoughts on “Salvador Dali, Buster Keaton Fan

  1. Love this! It makes a lot of sense that Dali would like Buster, although I do agree that the inspiration from “The Electric House” is probably minimal.

    Did you know that “Giraffes on Horseback Salad” has been made into a graphic novel? The preface of the way the author managed to even get the bits of screenplay is just as interesting as the way it’s translated to the page. I can only imagine what Dali and Harpo would have done with it if they had CGI at their disposal!

  2. You know, at first, I thought…Dali and Keaton… that’s a bizarre combo. But then, the more you think about it, the more they seem to somehow fit together. Though Dali is delightfully unintelligible, yes, it seems natural that Keaton would have a high appeal to him; there is definitely something delightfully surreal about Buster, as well, though I’ve never really consciously thought of him in those terms.

    I love that collage—I wish a sharper image of it were available. And yes, that does sound like a bit of a stretch regarding Apparatus and Hand (which looks a lot like something Yves Tanguy would have done).

    Great article! But, uh, re the anti-artistic film, could you explain that explanation? 😀

    • After re-reading it several times… probably not. 😀 Maybe he meant that the simpler, the more documentary-like a film is, the more the film and camera itself take the spotlight…or something.

      The painting does look Tanguy inspired, he seems like a more obvious influence too!

  3. This got me thinking, Lea, would you consider Keaton’s shorts plus Sherlock Jr. “anarchic” in the same way the Marx Brothers films are called “anarchic”? They definitely have a fair amount of deranged gags that come out of left field that Dalí probably loved.

    • Buster himself commented on how bizarre the Marx Bros’ humor could be, saying “there was no sense to anything they did” or something to that effect. Buster’s films don’t strike me as anarchic, in the case of Sherlock Jr there’s some logic behind the surreal gags (they’re part of a dream) and shorts had gags that were cartoony but stem from the situations. E.g. in The Blacksmith he feels surprised, and we see his hat flip up into the air. It’s cartoony but doesn’t come out of nowhere. Harpo might encounter a statue that comes to life for no reason, or start shoveling books into a fireplace just because he wants to–the only logic is to be funny and outrageous.

  4. Hello, Lea. Wow, this is very interesting and I’ve never read anything about it before. Federico García Lorca is the most popular poet of 20th century Hispanic literature and one of its greatest playwrights, and a popular idol due to his untimely death. He wrote much besides his masterpieces. One of his strangest and almost unknown writings is “El paseo de Buster Keaton”, written in 1928. It is a three-page play with almost no plot. I would call it a Dadaist play, if I could really understand what Dadaism is.

    • Hi Elisabeth, nice to see you! I went and looked up the play, what a fever dream. I recognize a snippet of it, the lines about “his ostrich eyes,” “very ugly, very beautiful.”

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