For art collector Christine Argillet, hobnobbing with famous 20th Century artists was a normal part of her upbringing. In a way, art shaped her very childhood.
As the daughter of Pierre Argillet, artist Salvador Dali’s publisher and personal friend, Christine Argillet is the sole owner of the largest collection of authentic, hand drawn pieces from Dali’s extensive oeuvre. She now travels the world, sharing the master Surrealist’s etchings with other enthusiasts—like Austin’s Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery, who will be showcasing a portion of Argillet’s compendium beginning this Friday.
“This collection is like seeing a portion of my childhood,” says Madame Argillet, in her authentically charming French accent. “I spent many happy summers, from July to August, in Paris with my father and Dali. There’s a freedom I can remember from that time, a sense of surprise and beauty that is evident in these pieces.”
In the years of Dali’s fame, during the height of the Surrealist movement and the rise of Dadaism, the relationship between the artist and his book publisher was intense: Pierre Argillet did much of Dali’s promotional and distribution work starting in 1934 and, through their regular interactions over the next forty years, Argillet became Dali’s close personal friend and biggest supporter.
The current display at the Russell Collection shows off many of the works Pierre Argillet commissioned Dali to create for him. Knowing Argillet would be a big influence on his life, Dali often did these works at discounted prices that other collectors would never dream possible. Today, the Argillet Collection is known as the most definitive authenticated assemblage of Dali’s works anywhere in the world.
“My father would carry these copper plates on him at all times and continuously ask Dali to keep drawing,” says Argillet with a smile. “Sometimes, Dali would be interviewing with journalists while sketching on plates for my father. And somehow, he would turn out these amazing drawings. Dali had a capacity for concentration that was just incredible.”
Over their 40-year partnership, Dali would produce over 200 thematic suites of his famous etchings for Argillet, including the series Mythologie, Les Hippies, Faust, Poèmes de Mao Tse Tung, Vénus aux Fourrures and Don Juan. While not as “out there” as his more famous Surrealist paintings—like 1931’s The Persistence of Time—these etchings do display his tendencies toward the absurd, whimsical world of his dreamscapes.
Many of the drawings combine sexuality and death, two themes that stem directly from Dali’s readings of Freud's psychoanalysis. The Vénus aux Fourrures (Venus in Furs) series, for example, depicts various scenes of sadomasochism in a very tasteful, almost humorous fashion. Meanwhile, the Faust series depicts demons and devils tormenting the beautiful, broken people of Earth.
“Dali often represented himself in his work as well,” explains Argillet on a guided tour of the collection. “Often, he’s an animal with a human face to show the bestial nature of man. He believed animals were wiser than humans. His work was often a mirror of himself, and his work was a connection between his hand and his head.”
All of these limited edition etchings were made from hand carved copper plates, combining ink and sometimes acid washes to achieve Dali’s desired dramatic effects. One famous work included in the Russell exhibition, Medusa, even captures the tentacles and squiggles of a live octopus Dali grabbed from the ocean and pressed on to the etching plate. “He was always a curious and inventive artist,” explains Argillet.
Dali bridged the gap between classical training technique and Surrealist expression. Many pop artists, like Andy Warhol, even cite Dali’s overwhelming influence on their work in the years following. But many of his contemporaries, like Andre Breton, criticized Dali for not taking his artwork and his political positions more seriously. When his mouth and his free spirit got ahead of him, Breton eventually turned Dali out of the Surrealist camp.
Despite his reputation for being a hugely political artist, Argillet contends that Dali was “not political at all.” Dali was actually a prankster and often said things to shock people. But he had no intentions of making political statements. “That was usually always inferred from the media that loved his antics,” she says.
During the summers she spent with her father and Dali, young Christine saw a side of the famous Surrealist painter that few others were privy to. The world viewed Dali as a flamboyant, attention-grabbing egotist. But according to her, Dali was a curious, passionate, kindhearted figure who liked to amaze her with his pranks and magic tricks.
“He had such a funny spirit, but he was always positive, always nice. Sometimes people wouldn't understand that humorous touch and would take it badly. But I knew it was just for fun,” says Argillet.
Otherwise, she recalls the passionate respect Dali and her father had for one another. “My father was such a fan of Dali, and Dali did not want to disappoint him,” she recalls. “When my father passed away, that was 10 years ago, I did not know what to do with this collection. But I decided that sharing the art was a good way to make sure that this strong relationship lives on.”
To see the great artists’ work in person and meet collector Christine Argillet, you’re invited to the Russell Collection’s Salvador Dali exhibition this weekend. Friday is a special preview evening for collectors and Saturday is the official opening to the public.