Over the weekend, while attempting to get into the holiday spirit by setting up my table-top fiber-optic Christmas tree, baking cookies, and watching the snow fall in sub-zero temperatures, I discovered that one of my favorite Spanish artists, Salvador Dalí, designed 19 unique Christmas cards between 1958-1976 for the Barcelona-based company Hoechst Ibérica. While I knew that Dalí had created artwork for advertisements (Bryan’s Hosiery) and magazine covers during the mid-20th century, I had never seen his unique portrayals of Christmas. So like any good academic on winter break, I put off my Spring syllabus-planning to do some frivolous investigating.
One of the earliest Dalinian images used for commercializing the holiday season was actually a sketch for a cover of Vogue magazine in 1946. This image (below) exhibits tell-tale characteristics of Dalí’s surrealist style, including the barren, expansive landscape and the incorporation of double-images (which also characterize his depiction of the Spanish Civil War). In this particular piece, the architectural elements supporting the symmetrical Christmas trees exhibit feminine facial features, a tactic that adds a fitting flare to the cover of a fashion magazine. This more popular image is still re-printed and available as a specialty Christmas card today.
This early 1948 rendition of a “Christmas” landscape, however, is but one of Dalí’s efforts to illustrate the holiday season. In 1958 he created the first of his eventual 19 greeting cards for Hoeschts, and the publishing company would annually send these artsy holiday cards to doctors and pharmacists throughout Spain. Importantly, Dalí’s renditions did not incorporate traditional Mediterranean, Catholic Christmas imagery such as the Nativity scene or the Reyes magos (Wise men), but rather they appropriated more American and Central European elements, such as the Christmas Tree. The “árbol santo” is in fact a constant element in these 19 illustrations, and Dalí occasionally converted the Christmas Tree into an allegorical depiction of the years events or infused it with distinctive elements of Spanish culture. Below is the first card in the series:
In 1960 and 1961, the Christmas Tree is at once unconventional and also decidedly Spanish. Both of these cards invoke classic masterpieces of Spanish art and literature. In 1960, the trunk and upper branches of the Christmas tree form the outline of Cervantes’ famous caballero andante, Don Quijote de la Mancha (as Dalí imagined him)…
… and in 1961 Dalí pays homage to Diego Velázquez’s 1656 masterpiece, Las meninas:
The majority of Dalí’s cards contain a short, hand-written greeting or description penned by the surrealist painter himself (though these are difficult to find online). On the 1962 card below, for example, Dalí celebrates space exploration and scientific advances by labeling his portrayal “el primer Christmas astronáutico“. The holiday, it seems, was not the main focus of this year’s card, and the tree is barely visible at first glance.
While Dalí’s holiday artwork may have found an audience in Spain, his designs were met with much less enthusiasm in the United States. Despite the relative success of his Vogue covers and hosiery advertisements in the 1940s, Dalí could not entirely win over America’s largest greeting card company, Hallmark, or the 1950s public who supported it. By the early 1950s, Hallmark had become such a culturally relevant force in the US that it was an attractive creative partner for many high-profile artists, even actors (See Patrick Regan’s Hallmark: A Century of Caring). Norman Rockwell was (is) undoubtedly among the most well-known of mid-century American artists, and the iconic illustrator created 32 traditional Christmas designs for Hallmark between 1948 and 1957. Even today, many of his designs are widely recognized and still reproduced, as they represent a classic portrayal of Christmas as a jolly, magical, and quintessentially “American” holiday.
But Salvador Dalí also lent his talents to Hallmark in 1958. Yet unlike Rockwell’s wholesome, familiar americana illustrations, Dalí’s “surrealist take on Christmas proved a bit too avant garde for the average greeting card buyer” (Regan 97). You can read a short newspaper article about “The Dali Christmas Story” and Hallmark’s tepid reaction in a 1981 issue of the St. Petersburg Evening Independent. Below, for example, is Dalí’s depiction of the Nativity scene, created specifically for Hallmark:
While I can’t say that the rejection of Dalí’s surrealist, abstract take on Christmas in 1950s America is entirely surprising, I am disappointed that I haven’t seen these images before. They seem to be part of special exhibitions, appearing in Barcelona’s CaixaForum in 2006, and in Dalí’s Teatro-Museo in Figueres in 2008, but I’m not sure where they are displayed or housed today. I spent a considerable amount of time lost in the depths of the internet trying to amass a collection of these designs, and below are some of my favorites (well, pretty much the only images I could find via a few hours with GoogleImages…).
If it weren’t for digital cameras, photo editing software, and one-hour made-to-order holiday photo cards allowing us to brag about our own lives and accomplishments in the name of reconnecting with friends and relatives, perhaps we might exchange more artistic renditions of the Holiday Season today. When exactly did the holiday “greeting card tradition” transform into the creation of “personal photo montages”?
What Christmas/Holiday/New Year’s designs or artwork are your personal favorites? And what popular artists or actors would make intriguing Holiday Card Designers today? (actually, that’s a scary thought!)
Dali: The Paintings: This excellent book on Dalí by Robert Descharnes and Gilles Néret contains ALL of the artist’s paintings – It’s my favorite volume, and I”ve linked to it in all my posts on Salvador Dalí.