The legend of Tristan and Iseult is the inspiration for the newest acquisition of Salvador Dalí prints. The collection of twenty-one illustrations are finished in drypoint, a printmaking technique in the intaglio family. Dalí infuses his signature surrealist style into the stark, yet graphically striking image narrative highlighting many of the pivotal moments told in the twelfth-century tale.
The romantic tale of Tristan and Iseult has been passed down for generations and therefore has many different iterations, however all possess a similar foundation and their own unique flourishes. Dalí clearly had a significant interest in the story as he completed a large-scale theatrical backdrop in 1944 depicting the two titular characters. It was originally painted to be used as a backdrop for a ballet he wrote entitled, “Mad Tristan.” The backdrop was recently found after many years in storage and used as the set for a theatrical and acrobatic production in Montreal in 2013. Dalí’s series of prints, dating back to 1969, has a much different impact than the grand nature of the backdrop. With the medium, Dalí is able to capture an array of detailed scenes, allowing for more specificity as well as his own interpretation. Dalí plays on perspective and proportion, imbuing the legend with his signature surrealism.
Tristan, a Cornish knight, and Iseult, an Irish princess, (varying spellings can be found in the many retellings) took part in an adulterous affair in the medieval legend. Tristan is a great warrior, but after being wounded in battle, he was found by Iseult who heals him. Iseult is then betrothed to King Marc, Tristan’s uncle, and Tristan is tasked with bringing her back to Cornwall. While on their journey, the two accidentally drink a love potion and fall hopelessly in love. Thus, a series of betrayal, guilt, passion, deceit, and tragedy follow suit. The presence of a love potion connects to Dalí’s surrealistic principles; A love potion would perhaps produce similar symptoms to a dreamlike surrealist state, and the recipient, in theory, would have no control over their actions. The prints in the series are impactful on their own and as a whole.
In the Frontispiece for Dali’s Tristan and Iseult series, the potion that started it all is the main focal point in this work. The two bottom figures are drawn in rough, ambiguous style and appear to be the outlines of our main characters, Tristan and Iseult. Tristan is shown in black and Iseult blue, which will be a common visual feature throughout Dali’s narrative. Unknowingly, they are raising up the very elixir that would later bring them to their demise. The potion goblet is shown again above them in a closeup, ornate and detailed, the cup exudes mystical energy.
2) King Marc
King Marc is depicted close up, in profile. Dalí infuses the king with a sense of otherworldliness. He is at once regal, yet whimsical in appearance. Rather than a more traditional, stately portrait of royalty, Dalí highlights the King’s large crown that not only emits rays of golden light but is also depicted as the resting place for a curious duck. The King stares longingly off into the distance, perhaps with the heavy-hearted knowledge that he will ultimately be betrayed by his nephew Tristan.
3) The Flight with Morhoult
The Flight with Morhoult shows the aftermath of a fierce battle between Tristan and Morhoult, a duke from Ireland who demanded tribute from King Marc. Tristan, being the only one brave enough to fight Morhoult, killed him, but also sustained a bad wound. Dalí shows the boat transporting Morhoult’s dead body back to his home after the battle. He emphasizes the natural elements of the scene but in an exaggerated, abstract manner. The sun shines down in large, dramatic rays; the mountains and trees dwarf the figures in their tiny boat. This is indeed, a trip of defeat.
4) Queen Iseult and Her Daughter
Queen Iseult and Her Daughter depicts the Queen as an older woman and Iseult as young and angelic. After Tristan’s wound in his fight against Morhoult, he is found by the younger Iseult, who is the only one that can heal him. In order to not be detected as the murderer of the Queen’s brother, he disguises himself as a harpist and teaches Iseult to play the harp. Dalí plays with proportion and uses the whole picture plane. Queen Iseult and her daughter seem not to live in the same world as they are portrayed with very different proportions. The harp is incredibly large and dominates the image.
5) Tristan and the Dragon
After Tristan returns home, he again goes on a journey to find King Marc a “fair-haired wife”. On his quest he fights a diabolical dragon, once again becoming wounded and needing the help of Iseult to heal him. Here Dalí’s rendering of the dragon is more delineated and three dimensional. Despite not having defined facial features, the dragon’s figure has a weight that many of the human counterpart figures do not. The dragon’s tail curls off wildly into space, the movement giving it a life of its own. Dalí decided to portray more of the dread of the battle rather than showing the actual fight.
6) Tristan Wounded
In the aftermath of the dragon fight, Tristan is helpless, lying on the ground haphazardly and lifeless like a rag doll. Dalí shows the warrior in a close-up, perhaps illustrating the drama and gravity of the situation as Tristan clings to life.
7) The Arrival of Iseult
After Iseult heals Tristan, they return to Cornwall so Iseult can marry King Marc. The two accidentally drink a love potion on their journey, and immediately fall in love. Dalí portrays humans as minuscule. The boat that Tristan and Iseult took back to Cornwall is gigantic and grand. The homecoming marks the turning point in the story; there is no going back from the heartbreak and betrayal as they continue on with their affair.
8) Frocin, The Bad Dwarf
Frocin The Bad Dwarf is a conniving entity that finds out about the affair and sets out to trap catch Tristan and Iseult in their lie. Dalí depicts Frocin as a monstrous ghoul with a hunched back. Frocin attempts to set up this trap so that King Marc will discover the truth about his nephew and spouse’s unloyalty.
9) Under the Parasol Pine
Tristan and Iseult secretly arrange to meet under a tree so as not to be found out. They are almost caught by King Marc but manage to convince him otherwise. Dalí portrays a tender moment between Tristan and Iseult. They are in an idyllic forest with green trees, flowers, and a waterfall. This moment is most likely their last together before they are found out for good and must face the consequences.
10) The Lovers Condemned
The lovers are once again shown in their signature colors but in a more detailed form in The Lovers Condemned. Upon their discovery, King Marc punishes the lovers condemning them to permanent separation. Pictured between them is a broken heart, shattered with the knowledge that despite having no choice, the two lovers had few options if they wished to be together: abandon their families and all they knew to escape.
11) Brother Ogrin, the Hermit
After Tristan and Iseult’s condemnation and subsequent escape, they hide out in the woods. There they meet Brother Ogrin who reminds them of their sins and pushes them to repent, until he realizes that they had no choice in the matter, due to the influence of a love potion. Dalí places across prominently in Ogrin’s hand and his figure is depicted a menacing and shadowy. A skull lurks on the ground nearby, foreshadowing the pairs ultimate demise.
12) The Camp of King Marc
The Camp of King Marc provides the next turn of events in our Dalí , illustrated by Dali. The etching depicts King Marc’s camp, presumably in a resting state from their hunt for Iseult and Tristan. Flags Sway in the breeze from atop the army tents and are decorated with royal crests. The center figure, which can only be assumed is Tristan due to hat atop his head and the standard black hue, appears to be trotting into the camp. Holding out his shield and sword in a sign of surrender, he may very well be turning himself into the King. A broken stone, which is a commonly used icon in this etched series, rests on the right corner of the image.
13) The Cavaliers of King Arthur
The legend is contemporary with King Arthur’s Court and Round Table. In the Cavaliers of King Arthur, Iseult ventures to the King in an attempt to clear her name. As part of an elaborate plan, she asks King Arthur to defend her innocence to King Marc and his barons so that she and Tristan might be spared.
14) The Queen with Silk Tunic
This piece features a rather mysterious character, The Queen with the Silk Tunic. Her eyes are the only visible part of her face and rimmed with fall eyelashes as a mask covers the lower part of her face. Flowing silks cascade around from her head down over her body, shown only through the gently etched lines. Fine red detailing encircles her face and shoulders, giving her an aristocratic air. A soldier stands on guard in the far-left background, insinuating the Queen’s importance but also that there may be many watchful eyes surrounding her.
15) The Three Bad Barons
The Three Bad Barons were involved in trying to expose the affair of Tristan and Iseult to their Master, King Marc. The Barons wanted King Marc to find out the truth and consistently set out traps to physically ensnare the two in the act on multiple occasions.
16) The Giant Beliagog
Tristan defeated a giant and in exchange for sparing his life, the giant allowed Tristan to recuperate in the safety of his cave. This print is dynamic in nature as the artist dramatically plays with character proportions. Here, the giant looks to be incomparable size to a human and contrasts with the other components in the piece. This image was made to represent one of the many heroic acts Tristan must endeavor through in order to be reunited with Iseult.
17) Iseult of the White Hands
After his banishment by King Marc as punishment, Tristan’s loneliness made him agree to marry a different Iseult, Iseult of the White Hands. Dalí shows Iseult as a nearly inanimate object, with no facial features or arms. She is shrouded in mystery and resembles a trophy rather than an actual human. Tristan used Iseult of the White Hands as a replacement for the real Iseult, but he still feels deeply unfulfilled. Dalí shows Tristan in the background hiding out in Beliagog’s cave lamenting over his lost love.
18) Iseult and Branguine
This piece is a testimony to the female friendship found within this legendary tale. Here, Dali depicts a deeply distraught Iseult with her most trusted handmaiden, Branguine, in a consoling embrace. Iseult, unsure of how to protect her lover, entrusted Branguine to assist her in finding and hiding Tristan in the woods they had so often met in. Iseult, in Dali signature blue shade, contrast with the subtle green of the vines of the tree and leaves that envelope the women, as if to also assist them in shielding their secrets.
19) Mad Tristan
In one last attempt to see Iseult again, Tristan disguises himself like a fool in order to sneak into King Marc’s castle. Dalí focuses on the outlandish nature of the disguise, highlighting a wild joker’s hat that writhes and squirms in every direction. Tristan’s identity is hidden and Dalí makes sure of that in the image. All that can be discerned are his eyes peeking out from under a shroud. Is Tristan simply pretending to be mad, or is he truly going mad due to his separation from Iseult?
20) Tristan’s Last Fight
After being badly wounded in the final fight, Tristan asks Iseult to come to find him and hopefully heal him. Dalí shows Tristan’s twisted body with the ship carrying Iseult in the distance. His contorted body is clearly in agony as he slowly loses his will to live waiting for Iseult.
21) Tristan’s Testament
Tristan’s Testament is the dramatic conclusion to a legendary love story. Tristan, mistakenly believes that Iseult did wish to come to heal him and dies in sorrow before her arrival. She then perishes in his arms. Dalí dramatizes this grave ending by showing their lifeless bodies on the ground. Iseult’s hand is splayed out to her side as if grasping for her last bit of life that is just out of reach. The two are forever connected by the bramble or tree that grows between them.