A female nude stands with a cherub on her shoulder, her head turned to share a stem of cherries with the boy in a game of fruited telephone. Her classically porcelain flesh has been carved into a chest of drawers, and from her ruby-red penis a thin spout feeds directly into the green-glass wine bottle stashed in a cabinet in her thigh.
This is Salvador Dalí’s Wines of Gala. A little-known follow-up to his 1973 absurdist cookbook Les Dîners de Gala, which collected close to 150 recipes (ranging from “conger of the rising sun” to “top round ‘Eros’”) from Paris’s top chefs and packaged them with original illustrations, reprints of earlier works and over-the-top food photography starring the aging art star himself. Four years later, Wines of Gala was published—first in French as Les Vins de Gala et du Divin (“The Wines of Gala and the Divine”) by Draeger, then in English by Abrams a year later.
Dedicated to Dalí’s longtime wife and muse, Gala, an imperious Russian woman 10 years his elder, the books apply Dalí’s famously intense obsession with sexuality and desire to food and wine, two sensual topics he’d rarely addressed in his work. But while the earlier cookbook has grown in notoriety and acclaim since it went out of print, inspiring experimental dinner parties and reliably selling for hundreds of dollars whenever a used copy turns up, Wines of Gala sank beneath the surface, an afterthought at the tail end of the 20th-century master’s career.
A formal anomaly both as a wine book and an artist’s monograph, at first glance Wines of Gala can seem like a cynical money-grab. Unlike the earlier cookbook, Dalí contributed no text to this project; the book’s text was written by a de facto editor at Draeger (and Dali confidant) and a French wine personality, with an introductory acrostic poem contributed the Baron de Rothschild. Of the more than 140 illustrations by the artist, most are reprinted sketches and details from earlier paintings; of the original pieces made for the book, many were produced by slightly altering the work of other artists, adding touches like the aforementioned torso drawers and penis-wine bottle spout, which were appended to a traditional nude by Bouguereau, a 19th-century French Academy painter.
But hidden within this oddity is a revolutionary system for thinking about wine that foreshadows our current move away from bloodless ratings, as well as a critical renaissance for an artist who spent nearly 40 years of his prolific career as a has-been.
For as much as Dalí is revered as one of the key figures of 20th-century art, it’s astonishing how much of his work has long been roundly dismissed by the art world, derided as kitschy and repetitive. A central member of the enigmatic Surrealists in the 1930s, he was unceremoniously expelled from the group after growing politically distant from his anarchist peers. The final straw was a scandal that feels unmistakably modern: After Dalí’s wife made an appearance dressed in a costume that seemed a callous reference to the Lindbergh kidnapping, Dalí apologized to a ravening press, a move the radical Surrealists found abhorrent. Out on his own, he cycled rapidly through a series of new and innovative styles, including something he termed “Nuclear Mysticism,” which grew from a simultaneous fascination with the German physicist Werner Heisenberg and the resurrection of his Catholic faith.
It’s true that in his final years, Salvador Dalí’s fervor for the public eye grew from charmingly manic to oddly needy. Whereas in the ’30s he was cheered for eccentricities like speaking in the third person and walking with a cape and cane, by 1968 he was capering in TV commercials for Lanvin chocolates and Alka-Seltzer. And there was no coyness about his priorities; in a 1973 interview with the British TV program Aquarius, he said, “Dalí is very rich, and Dalí loves tremendously money and gold. Dalí sleeps the best after [doing] one day of work and receiving a tremendous quantity of checks.”
Though not written by Dalí, the text is meant to serve as a “Dalínian” introduction to the world of wine. In his introduction to the section, Louis Orizet lays bare his mission statement: to “organize wines according to the sensations they create in our very depths.”
He also cared about his legacy. During the same period that the first of his two gastronomic works was released, Dalí was constructing his own museum, the Teatro-Museo Dalí, in his Catalonian hometown of Figueres, which opened to the public in 1974. Since no one else was going to memorialize him, he took it upon himself.
Similarly, he used these twinned books as an opportunity to revisit the themes that had shaped his career: In Wines of Gala, he took Jean-Francois Millet’s “The Angelus,” a popular 19th-century religious painting over which he’d obsessed for decades, and painted right on top of it, inserting a torso-shaped wine bottle in the very center of the image. In proper Surrealist fashion, several of the book’s illustrations deconstruct classical female nudes, recalling not only the work of former comrades Man Ray and Max Ernst but his own earlier sculpture “Venus de Milo aux Tiroirs.” And he included what is now considered one of his greatest Nuclear Mystic works, 1955’s “The Sacrament of the Last Supper,” in which the iconic scene is set inside a translucent dodecahedron, a disembodied torso disintegrating into the sky above Christ’s head.
But the book is not just a look backward. Though not written by Dalí, the text is meant to serve as a “Dalínian” introduction to the world of wine. The first section is dedicated to “Ten Divine Dalí Wines,” an overview of 10 important wine-growing regions. Written by Max Gérard, a longtime member of Dalí’s entourage, the chapters attempt to play with form in a Dalí-inspired way, but it’s not enough to overcome the tepid, encyclopedic text. Aside from the choice of regions themselves (just a year after the “Judgment of Paris,” including California among the world’s great wine regions was still fairly revolutionary), it’s mostly forgettable.
It’s the second section, “Ten Gala Wines,” that hits the home run, blowing minds in the way Dalí masterpieces like “The Persistence of Memory” do. Writer Louis Orizet (a viticulturist and politician in Beaujolais), with help from Georges Duboeuf (a driving force behind the marketing campaign for Beaujolais Nouveau), sets out to explode wine criticism by categorizing wines by their emotional resonance, rather than prosaic features like geography or varietal. In his introduction to the section, Orizet lays bare his mission statement: to “organize wines according to the sensations they create in our very depths.”
The text then divides the wines of the world into sections like “Wines of Light,” “Wines of Purple” and “Wines of Generosity,” using diverse metrics like production method, weight and color to find emotional kinships, resulting in eccentric groupings (Madeira, California, Roussillon in “Wines of Generosity”; Beaujolais, Hermitage, Bandol in “Wines of Purple”) that are obtuse even while they make perfect instinctive sense.
He also calls to task writers who attempt to quantify the intensely personal experience of taste, asking, “What bearings should we use to further our knowledge when so many flatterers are set against so many critics? How shall we find our way through the quarrels between those who prefer young wines and those who defend older vintages?”
Orizet’s text isn’t meant to be a prescriptive system of classification—nor is it likely that the wine intelligentsia will start referring to sparkling wines as “Wines of Frivolity” any time soon. What he’s advocating is that we think for ourselves—advice we’re only just starting to take. As the wine world moves away from reductive systems of ratings and scores like Robert Parker’s long-dominant 100-point scale and toward a more personal relationship with wines, we’re all fumbling in the dark about how to talk authentically about the emotional experience of taste while maintaining some standards for quality. Orizet’s solution—his bizarre classifications and flamboyant prose—aren’t a model to be mimicked, but a deliberate provocation to keep innovating, much as the ’70s-era radical music criticism of Lester Bangs and the experiential reporting of the New Journalists who forced their respective fields into modernity.
It’s not just a question for critics, either. In breaking away from the prescriptive limits of the Surrealists, Dalí was able to reach into his very depths and create work that was entirely his own. Today, winemakers are breaking from the prescriptive limits of traditional viticulture and vinification to make intensely personal wines using long-derided grapes, unusual techniques and seemingly inhospitable terrain. There may not be no artistic precedent for something like Dalí’s mesmerizing portrait of a cosmically massive white cat, red wine flowing from its whiskers to be collected by tiny peasants kneeling below. But it’s an image that delights and inspires, just like an unexpected wine, like a pét-nat made from valdiguié in California or a Provençal rosé aged under flor, might. As it turns out, Wines of Gala isn’t just late-period cash-in by an aging has-been artist; it’s the modern wine bible we never knew we needed.