Figueres, 13 January 2014
The Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí acquired a surrealist oil-on-wood panel painting entitled Phantom Cart from 1933. It can be seen in the Treasure Room of the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres.
This painting belonged to Edward James (1907-1984), a British poet, known as a staunch defender of surrealism. He sponsored Dalí between 1936 and 1939, and was also a patron of René Magritte. His home, Monkton House, next to West Dean House in Sussex (UK) was a surrealist dream: it contained a large sofa which Dalí shaped and coloured to mimic Mae West’s lips (his well-known lips sofa) and the lobster-telephone, which Dalí designed in collaboration with the poet.
In Phantom Cart, we see, at the centre of a bright arid plain, a two-wheeled wagon heading towards a city. The shape of the cart seems to blend with the city, thus becoming its own destination. The effect is an illusion of perspective in which the painter uses his skill to try to confuse us once again. Where we expect to see the wheels, there are instead two stakes driven into the ground. The characters seen sitting in the wagon are identified with the architecture of the city in the background. In this painting, as in other optical illusions used by the painter, an important role is played by the technique Dalí named the paranoiac-critical method: "spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena." We see a cart and a city or both elements at the same time.
The wagon or cart was a typical means of transport during the painter’s youth. In his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí he mentions this in relation to the Pichot family: "I started off in a cart with Mr and Mrs Pichot and Julia, their adopted daughter of sixteen, who had long black hair. Mr Pichot drove the cart himself." The wagon is also an element present in surrealist iconography and in the films of Luis Buñuel, such as for example Belle de jour.
Dalí and his landscape were inseparable elements in the painter’s artistic production. Josep Pla gave a very precise description of Dalí in his book Homenots (‘Great Men’), which he dedicated to the artist:
"At that time  Dalí was like a starved leopard. However it was simply the arrogance of youth that would inevitably pass. And, in fact, whenever he expressed himself with total honesty during these years, his qualities as an artist appeared immediately as he sketched the landscape of Alt Empordà, which has been, is still and will continue to be his life’s obsession. From this base Dalí took the first steps towards his later great creations, produced with prodigious precision and lucid realism. When we, the natives of Empordà, saw that wagon sitting on a broad plain, beneath the clean arc of the sky, washed out, bright and immense, we truly knew that our painter had been born – the painter that had discovered and understood our land as well as any farmer could."
From a technical point of view, this painting reminds us of other pieces in our collection such as Portrait of Mr. Emilio Terry, The Spectre of Sex-Appeal and Portrait of Gala with Two Chops Balanced on her Shoulder, because of its meticulousness, characteristic of the period when Dalí painted Phantom Cart. Also, the use of fine wood, such as mahogany in this case, the reduced size of the painting created using precise brushstrokes, with transparent layers and almost imperceptible details together warrant this painting occupying a position of honour in the Treasure Room of the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary.