Close Encounters of a New Kind

Discover one of the most interesting artistic collaborations of the 20th century.

Many artists are often engaged in one or more artistic activities, whether they are creating, practicing, or performing art. Some artists remain in their own realms, focusing on improving their skills and producing as many works as they can. Others prefer to approach their art through the exploration of different media. Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) and Joan Miró (Spanish, 1893–1983), for example, were painters who also produced tapestries, ceramics, and sculptures. The exploration of different media is only one of the means by which artists create new work; for some artists, some of their most unexpected and interesting works are the result of unconventional artistic corporation. Recently, we witnessed a one-of-a-kind duet: performance artist Marina Abramovic (Serbian, b.1946) with rapper Jay Z at Pace Gallery on July 11; Abramovic has also been known to collaborate with other artists, such as James Franco (American, b.1978) and Lady Gaga.

Irving Penn Portrait of Alfred Hitchcock

Irving Penn, Portrait of Alfred Hitchcock, 1948

But Abramovic is not the first to capitalize on an unusual partnership. One of the most notable—and unusual—artistic encounter happened between the master of suspense and one of the most prominent Spanish Surrealist painters.

In 1944, Sir Alfred Hitchcock (British, 1899–1980), who had moved from the United Kingdom to the United States five years earlier, was well-known as the demanding director of The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), among others. After the success of Rebecca, his first American movie, producer David O. Selznick wanted to work with Hitchcock again. The two collaborated to produce and direct one of the first movies about psychoanalysis: Spellbound (1945). The movie revolves around Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), a doctor in an asylum, who meets and falls in love with the newly named director of the institution, Dr. Edwards (Gregory Peck). But the handsome young doctor turns out not to be what he claims, suffering from a very severe case of amnesia. In an attempt to help him uncover the truth about his past, Dr. Petersen decides to use psychoanalysis to treat him. When Dr. Edwards attempts to recover his memories, the movie takes a Surrealist turn.

Edward Pfizenmaier, Salvador Dali

Edward Pfizenmaier, Salvador Dalí, 1964

Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904–1989) moved to the United States in 1939. His name had already become synonymous with melting clocks, as well as with the prominent Surrealist movement. But the painter also harbored a love of cinema. Dalí collaborated on the screenplay of the provocative film Un chien andalou (1929) with his friend Luis Buñuel (Spanish, 1900–1983). The silent black and white short was born from the imagination of the two friends, who often shared their own dreams over breakfast. Many of Dalí’s most familiar themes were incorporated into the film, including ants and eyes. Un chien andalou features the notoriously hard-to-watch sequence of an eye being slit by a razor. He then reunited again with his Spanish friend on L’Âge D’Or (1930), which would be their last work together.

Hitchcock’s personal collection of paintings included artworks by Georges Rouault (French, 1871–1958), Giorgio de Chirico (Italian, 1888–1978), Maurice de Vlaminck (French, 1876–1958), and Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879–1940), among others. He was also a great admirer of Dalí. The two men had a lot in common: interest in Edgar Allan Poe, Freud, and Lautréamont. Hitchcock wanted to break with the tradition of fuzzy and classical dream scenes that often appeared in Hollywood films at the time. For him, dream sequences had to be described as vivid hallucinations, and he wanted Dalí “because [he] wanted to convey the dreams with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself.”1 Dalí declared his paintings to be “handmade photographs,” created by what he termed a “paranoiac critical method” in which “irrational knowledge” unraveled in a “delirium of interpretation.” Dalí was the perfect person to fulfill Hitchcock’s vision. The painter produced five paintings, more than 100 sketches, and a set of threatening, large-scale eyes for the film. True to form, he incorporated the strange and bizarre into his design, which led to the creation of a nightmarish atmosphere: a cockroach with an eye glued on its back moving across a blank playing card, 50 pianos hanging from a ballroom ceiling, and Ingrid Bergman transformed into a statue that cracked like a shell with ants crawling all over it. Dalí created 20 minutes of footage, but only a few minutes were used after Selznick’s cut. The Surrealist painter left Hollywood furious, feeling that his best ideas had been cut from the film. Gregory Peck’s character says it best when he describes Dalí’s dream sequence: “I can’t make out just what sort of a place it was. It seemed to be a gambling house, but there weren’t any walls, just a lot of curtains with eyes painted on them. A man was walking around with a large pair of scissors, cutting all the drapes in half. And then a girl came in with hardly anything on and started walking around the gambling room, kissing everybody.”2

For Dalí, cinema would always be a secondary art form because he felt that too many people intervened in the creative process. Nevertheless, he began to draw designs for Destino, an animation movie for Walt Disney (American, 1901–1966). Because of financial issues, this project stayed on hold for years, but it came back to life in 2003 as an animated short. The Marx Brothers, Vicente Minnelli, and Fritz Lang (German, 1877–1962) also crossed paths with Dalí. But his most significant cinematic relationship remained his collaboration with Hitchcock, about whom he said: “He was one of the rare characters that I met to have such a great mystery.” Once again, these modern masters proved that variety is the spice of life.

Audrey Fair is the French content manager at artnet.

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