5 Minutes on Salvador Dali’s "Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds"

Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds (Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages), created by Surrealist master Salvador Dali during the Spanish Civil War, is full of highly personal imagery and Dali’s obsession with Freudian psychology. We have invited India Phillips, Global Head of Impressionist and Modern Art, Bonhams, to introduce this artwork. 

(Editor’s note: This work was originally scheduled to be sold at auction in London in March this year, but was postponed to 15 October due to the pandemic.)

Dali’s Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages

Dali and his muse Gala

Impact of The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) on Dali’s Art Creation

The Spanish Civil War had a significant impact on Dali. Firstly, on a personal note, he was forced by the conflict to leave his home in Cadaques. During the height of the conflict, he travelled to Paris, the US and Italy, and was criticised by some of his contemporaries for abandoning Spain and not addressing the War in his work like Picasso did with Guernica for example.

The truth was that it was very dangerous to stay in Spain, in Catalunya especially. While Dali was famously apolitical, it was also a question of self-preservation leaving the home that he loved, which he returned to swiftly afterward.

Although he may not have created a work of direct criticism, like Guernica, Dali’s work from 1936 onwards does indeed show the impact of the conflict. The Freudian elements and dreamscapes start to take on a more sinister tone, and a pessimism begins to colour his work of this period, which surely was in response to the paranoia and fear of the early Franco years in Spain.

(Editor’s note: Guernica was one of Picasso’s most known anti-war paintings executed in 1937, the same year when Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages was painted.)

A closer look at Dali’s Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages

A closer look at Dali’s Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages

India PhillipsGlobal Head of Impressionist and Modern Art, Bonhams

Metaphors and the Freudian Elements on the Artwork

There are a number of metaphors present in the two panels that relate to Dali’s favoured motifs. Freud’s fascination with latent childhood memories can be seen in the figure of the skipping girl, who represents the blissful state of untainted childhood. She is imbued with a sinister aspect, however, as we see her abandoned in an inhospitable desert landscape.

The famous burning giraffe is one of Dali’s most recognisable symbols. It represents (in his words) the idea of ‘apocalyptic masculinity’ – without doubt Dali is using the giraffe to represent the impending disasters of the Civil War.

The rock landscape is drawn from the coastline around Cadaques and Port Lligat, where Dali grew up and lived the majority of his life. The rock formations are here isolated and disjointed, placed in an imaginary landscape that in no way resembles the coastline that Dali knew so well, again adding to the sense of foreboding and ‘otherworldliness’.

The famous burning giraffe is one of Dali’s most recognisable symbols

The skipping girl represents the blissful state of untainted childhood


Its Sister Work at Boijmans van Beuningen Museum

Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages' sister work with the same title is located at Boijmans van Beuningen Museum. The work at the museum was created in 1936 whereas the present one was executed in 1937.

Dali was inspired by Millet’s work L’Angelus that he had been obsessed with for a number of years: the sister diptych in the Boijmans museum echoes almost exactly the poses of the two field workers in Millet’s painting. Perhaps the couple represents the artist and his wife Gala, who would appear in his work time and again from the time of their marriage in the late 30s through until the end of Dali’s life.

Dali and Gala with Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages (the one at Boijmans Museum)

Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages (1936)Collection of the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum

Millet’s L’AngelusCollection of Musée d'Orsay

There have been many gossips surrounding their relationship. Gala was a very dominant character who maintained an ever-more prominent position in Dali’s life. This later led to some accusations of her having a negative impact on Dali’s work, forcing him to become ever more commercial. There was also much discussion about Gala’s extra-marital activities. She was rumoured to have had an affair with her ex-husband Paul Eluard for many years with Dali’s full knowledge and support.

It has also been suggested that the two figures are male, due to the large ears and broad shoulders of both forms. They could be Dali and his intimate friend Lorca (who died in the Spanish Civil War), or indeed Dali and himself. It is not known for sure what these two figures represent but the concept was to create a work that would represent the interior life of a couple – their subconscious minds.

The principal difference is that the Boijmans works depict a more austere scene, with two tables decorated with a few lonely objects each imbued with their own meaning. The Scelsi diptych, on the other hand, contains a much more developed imaginary landscape, typical of his work from this point forward. The dreamscape features the classic Dali symbols of the burning giraffe, the skipping girl, the suited reclining figure, and the barren tree. The clouds that form the faces of the two heads are also far more complex and fully formed in the Scelsi paintings.

The poses of the two heads are different, with the right-hand panel less bowed and more equal in stature in the Scelsi diptych. The frames of the Boijmans diptych are plain wood, without the gilding seen on the Scelsi works.

The artwork had been kept in the Scelsi’s house

Scelsi acquired the diptych directly from the poet and leading figure of the Surrealist movement Paul Eluard, who was Gala’s first husband and who introduced her to Dali. Eluard had said that the works were given to him by Dali as a wedding gift, presumably around the time of his marriage to Nusch. 

From this point on, the work remained in the Roman apartment of Scelsi and only really came to light publicly in 2004 for the Palazzo Grassi centenary exhibition. Bonhams has arranged for the painting to appear at their London sale on 15 October with an estimate of £7m -9m (US$9.14m-$11.75m). 

Dali’s auction record was set in 2011 by his 1929 work Portrait de Paul Éluard (below) which sold for £13.48m (US$17.6m). Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages, if hammered down at £11.7m or more (US$15.3m), will become the most expensive Dali sold. 

Dali’s current auction record is held by Portrait de Paul Éluard

Salvador Dali (1904-1989), Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages, oil on two panels within the artist's frames 

Executed in: 1937
Size: 92.5 x 72.5cm (left); 90 x 70.5cm (right)

  • (Possibly) Paul Éluard Collection, Paris.
  • Giacinto Scelsi Collection, Rome.
  • Fondazione Isabella Scelsi Collection, Rome (bequeathed by the above in 1987).

Estimate: £7,000,000 - 9,000,000

Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, (1886-1968), Femme allongée, Youki, oil on canvas

Executed in: December 1923, Paris
Size: 50 x 61.2 cm

  • Private collection, Paris
  • Private collection, Paris (a gift from the above in the 1930s).
  • Thence by descent to the present owners.

Estimate: £500,000 - 700,000

Ossip Zadkine, 1890-1967, Ephebus, elmwood, partially painted

Executed in: 1918
Height: 48 cm

  • Jean Mayen Collection, Paris (acquired directly from the artist in 1924); possibly his sale, Sotheby's, London, 25 June 1986, lot 154.
  • Galerie Maurice Keitelman, Brussels.
  • Private collection, Belgium (acquired from the above circa the late 1980s).

Estimate: £500,000 - 700,000

Auction house: Bonhams London
Sale: Impressionist & Modern Art
Sale date: 15 October 2020