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