Back in the 1920s and ’30s, Argentine noblewoman Maria de las Mercedes Adela Atucha y Llavallol, Countess de Cuevas de Vera, was spending a lot of time in France, often finding herself among some of the greatest artists of the time. Through her family friend Eugenia Errázuriz, beloved patron of modernism, the countess was introduced to the likes of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Le Corbusier, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dalí. From the last artist, she acquired two small paintings and a study, which will leave the family collection when they hit the auction block for the first time at Sotheby’s Surrealist sale on February 28 in London.
James Mackie, Sotheby’s Senior Director and Head of the Department of Impressionist and Modern Art, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview that the paintings are “particularly distinguished,” in that they were created right after Dalí met poet Paul Éluard and his wife, Gala — who would leave her husband for the mustachioed Spaniard soon thereafter.
“Gradiva” (1931) portrays the titular character of Wilhelm Jensen’s 1903 novel, a story about an archeologist who falls in love with a Roman bas-relief of a woman. Sigmund Freud had already analyzed the inner turmoils of the story in his 1907 essay, “Delusion and Dream in Jensen’s Gradiva,” but for Dalí, Gradiva represented a real person, namely Gala. (He even called her Gradiva as a nickname.)
The second painting, “Maison pour érotomane” (ca 1932) shows a Catalan landscape, with rocks morphing into a horse, cello, and car. (Erotomania is the delusional disorder in which a person believes someone else to be madly in love with them, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.) According to Sotheby’s Aleksandra Todorovic, the transmogrified figures are a direct allusion to the couple in Jean-François Millet “L’Angélus” (1857–59), a painting Dalí used as a reference for many of his own works: “By transforming the Catalan rocks into anthropomorphic and sexually charged images, the artist eroticizes the landscape that witnessed his first delirious encounters with Gala.”
The third Dalí work from the countess’s collection going under the hammer is an ink, crayon, and pencil study for the raucous “Gradiva” painting. “The paintings have definitely generated a lot of interest, and people are excited to see them,” Mackie said, calling them “deeply elegant philosophically.” The two paintings are expected to sell for between £1.2 million and £1.8 million each (~$1.7–2.5 million); the “Gradiva” study will likely fetch between £60,000 and £80,000 ($83,000–111,000).