Dali: A Fresh View
By: J. Marlando
Many years ago—back in the late 1960s as a matter of fact—I sat in a Pasadena cafe by the name of Gwinn’s West chatting about a visit to the museum earlier in the day. Our group was all in the mid to late twenties range with coffee house intellects that knew all there was (important) to know. My friend Mike asked me who my favorite famous painter was—famous was the operative word—and I quickly answered Salvador Dali. My friend put his finger to his lips and said, “You must never say that too loud people, people will think you have no taste.”
Well that was a very long time ago but I became a young art critic shortly after that. The last time I wrote art reviews for periodicals was back in the 1990s. Today, however, I am more aware of what I do NOT know about art than what I know and so, with this in mind, I am intending to tackle Dali here—a challenge to say the lease.
Very few have attempted to delve very far into Dali beyond simply agreeing that he was a genius and I agree with that evaluation. Dali himself, however, liked to present himself as the “mad” genius but was a long distance from “madness.” He was an artistic intellectual and as the old saying goes, “crazy as a fox.” This would no doubt be a result of being raised as center of attention by his parents. From their prospective he could basically do no wrong. He wet the bed until he was eight “for the fun of it.”
One reason for his parents’ doting was that his older brother had died at age 7 from an attack of meningitis. This unexpected and tragic death occurred only three years before Salvador was born. One gets the feelings that his parents prayed for another child and when he arrived he was immediately put on a pedestal.
As I see it, there was something positive that came out of all this, however. All that love and loving attention the boy was given permitted him to love himself as well. To be highly creative takes a lot of self-love as it is so “risky” to create. Just examine Dali paintings and try to imagine the daring it took to give those statements of surrealism to a world of critics. Salvador Dali not only presented his paintings to the world but did so with a constant flow of energy and flamboyance—he knew how to draw attention to himself and did all of his life.
Dali was born in Spain in 1904, only two years after the end of the Spanish/American War. Even as a small child he liked to draw and the more he drew the more praise he received from his parents and others. The more praise the more talent was revealed. The better he believed that he could paint, the better his painting became. Then as a young man he attended the Academy of Arts in Madrid. Unfortunately he was expelled before the final exams. He had too many times announced that no one in the school was qualified to examine him. The institution was not amused.
After that he traveled to Paris where he met Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro both heavy influences on his earlier art.
That Dali had a special talent of his own, however, was also apparent. Unlike most of his more abstract shapes and forms, he did this painting of a simple basket of bread. He actually did this amazing piece of realism well after he was quite famous for his surrealism. Just look at the detail and exquisite design of both the bread and basket to gain insight into Dali’s extreme gift as an artist.
With this rather short background we continue forward into the master’s most complex work.
Dali Influences & Dadaism
It is difficult for painters to find a style for themselves—some, perhaps, most never truly do. (I have mentioned this before—countless artists have painted flowers but there has been only one Georgia O’Keeffe). In any case, Dali painted in a number of “styles” in search for his own—impressionism, cubism, classical—he was impressive in all. Well, he was so brilliant in light, color and form. One thing that we can be sure of is that as a young man he was influenced by Dadaism—this was the art movement of the earlier 1900s and evolved out of the tragic years of the war first in Europe and then drawing in the United States—1915-1922.
The word Dada is actually a French term meaning “hobbyhorse,” a name we assume the collective, movement artists of the times drew out of a hat so to speak. For one thing the art movement was in response to the senseless and terrible destruction torture and murder of World War I and was responding to the meaningless and purposelessness of life. Incidentally, I have often referred to the Dadaists as “Existentialists with a Grin” as their philosophy actually precedes Sartre’s launching of modern existentialism in 1938 with his book “Nausea.”
The Dada artists were devoted to capturing the absurd in their art making their statement clear that all established values and morality had been deemed meaningless and that the only valuable reality was in one’s own imagination. And the Dadaists were highly imaginative. Here’s one of my favorite paintings by a major Dada painter, Max Ernst:
I believe that as the young man and artist Salvador Dali would have been attracted to the Dadaists not only for the obviousness of their talent but of their intellectualism as well. After all, Dali himself had never been one to conform to the centers of society—always on the fringes he was a rebel with sympathies for the anarchist; an eccentric by nature but…also by self-design.
It is not a very far distance between Dadaism and Surrealism. Here we see Dali’s “Self Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) painted around 1936.
In this masterful work, the absurdum in Dadaism is obviously reflected and yet, there is the stark boldness of Dali’s that so forcefully attempts to bring the subconscious mind to the surface of the canvas. What we see in the above painting (Self Construction) is a large human body, representing warring mankind tearing at itself; it is the hideousness of war painted a good six months before the Spanish Civil War had even begun so perhaps this painting was the artist’s unconscious fears and visions of the troubles brewing in his world?
What I find most interesting about this painting is that the monster-type forefront has a background of a most beautiful sky. Maybe it is the contrast that Dali wants us to see, maybe the true absurdity of man’s inhumanity to himself?
This same absurdness was certainly a major condition that had inspired the Dadaists!
Dali and a Brief Explanation of Surrealism
Surrealism in art is, as indicated in the above, an attempt to bring images of the unconscious mind to the canvas. Thus, I believe that Dali and the surrealists were ever as influenced by Sigmund Freud as anything or anyone else. By the time Salvador Dali was growing up, Freud’s descriptions of the mysterious mind were creeping into the memes of society—the idea that there was more to us human beings than our surface and immediate thoughts was virtually brand new in Dali’s world—psychology itself was an unheard of science for the average person.
Dali, like Freud, had revealed signs of intellectual genius even as a child so when Dali began learning about Freud’s theories—we cannot know exactly when this was—he immediately became intellectually inspired. For one thing, the concept that we are all driven by unconscious realities is a motivation to seek meaning and purpose from the depths of ourselves; this would certainly be of interest to Dali’s self-attentive personality.
As a result of reading Freud, Dali’s art would mostly be dominated by images of sex and death—the very root images for Freudian psychoanalysis. In fact, Dali painted “The Specter of Sex Appeal” which is also known as “The Specter of Libido” (The Freudian term) in 1934. There is both male and female sexuality symbolized in this painting with Dali himself represented as the small boy overwhelmed by the aspects of human sexuality itself. The phallic symbolism is most prevalent in the main subject of the painting but note the hoop in the boy’s hand, clearly a feminine symbol and one that Dali uses in other works. For example, in the following painting, “Mediation on the Harp” the exaggerations of unconscious sexuality is represented deeply symbolic in the mindscape while real sexuality remains anchored in the real world. This is one of Dali’s most complex paintings and far more Dali than Freud.
Incidentally, Dali met Freud at his home in England once. He had traveled there with the writer Stephan Zweig and poet Edward James . Dali did all he could to impress Freud, who was an intellectual hero, and asked Freud to read an article he had written on Paranoia. Freud had no interest in what the artist thought about paranoia and later said privately to Stefan, “I have never seen a more complete example of a Spaniard. What a fanatic!”
This rather negative response did not stop Dali from attempting to capture the depth of his own unconscious in his art, however. Well, this was the drive of surrealistic art and Dali was, after all, the master of all the Surrealists.
Dali & His Art
When most people think of Salvador Dali they think of his most famous painting, “The Persistence of Memory (soft watches).
This painting is, I believe, his most intriguing in that it absolutely captures the goal of surrealism by symbolizing on canvas an unconscious reality. In this case, life and death!
While I am sure that Dali was thinking that this painting is Freudian by design and meaning, it was (unwittingly) reaching more of the Jungian collective unconscious as we all are equally taken in by the universal symbolism of the painting itself.
Time in this painting is melting away as it does for all of us….indeed the only watch that isn’t melting has not been opened yet. Note the orange pocket watch at the lower left hand of the painting. The unopened box is covered with ants. Ants symbolized death for Dali!
To make the point even more crisp: Dali gives us the strange creature in the center of the painting. It is fading away as the dark shadow slowly covers the entire painting. Note that the orange clock is already in “deaths” shadow but simply hasn’t opened to the world yet.
Some believe that the shadow in the painting makes reference to Mount Pain but if it does or not, the shadow itself represents the final darkness, the slipping away of life and light.
As said earlier death and sex were often main subjects of Dali’s unique art. After the start of World War II he painted “The Face of War” shown here:
The face of War features the agony of man as death snakes its way around the exterior world at the same time that death and agony consumes the interior world of our kind. But death becomes a concentration for Dali during those tragi years. In 1940 he painted this strange weaving of female bodies perhaps his attempt to capture the “seduction” of death? (Take your time to really explore this painting as it has many surprises in store for the viewer).
Salvador Dali was a long way from being aloof from female seduction, however. Note the emphasis on the young woman’s behind in this country setting. Certainly this is conjured from Dali’s youthful, male psyche; an archetype really as it symbolizes modern man’s sexual attraction in an almost pornographic way. The painting is called, “The Girl of Ampurdan.”
Not at all seeping with sexuality is my second favorite of all Dali’s painting: “Figure at a Window.” The very mystic and subtle beauty of this landscape of humanism is as artistically masterful as it is insightful. It was painted in 1925.
Another painting mainly focusing on a female’s buttocks and back is Venus and Amorini, also painted in 1925 but Dali most blatant Freudian painting was named “Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by her Own Chastity.”was painted in 1954 only a few years before he would turn to mindful religious art as one of his major themes. To me there is a deep seated anger and frustration declared in this rather childish display of feminine aloofness or isolation. I have read that he painted this at a time when he feared impotence. I would not know!
Interestingly enough in the same year that he painted, “Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by her Own Chastity”, he painted one of his greatest masterpieces. Corpus Hypercupis (Crucifixion).
The genius here simply cannot be missed nor can the perfection of Dali’s style—here he has chosen to mix Renaissance style classical Art with modern cubism; genius in concept even before the brush was dipped in paint. (Explore the absolute elegance of the gown).
Two years after the “crucifix” painting he delivers a most amazing painting with title, “Still Life-Fast Moving” in 1956.
Still Life-Fast Moving is a fascinating study of detail: note the table cloth, the bottle, apples and everything else in this surreal reality looking out over a perfect nature or, the world outside the world of psyche. Salvador Dali’s world!
It is impossible to know where Salvador Dali stopped and the Dali persona began and I believe that is the way the artist wanted it. From childhood he had always been different, however, and almost always highly creative. One of his hallmarks of personality was the constant arrogance of his outrageous ego. I disagree with most critics who believe that his self-worship was representative of the man himself. Instead, I think that this had always been Dali’s act—perhaps he eventually began to believe that he was his persona-self but somewhere within Dali was far more lost than found as a human being.
He had a particular kind of genius that extended his artfulness: He understood the fundamentals of quantum physics just unfolding during his younger life, he had a grasp of Freudianism and psychology before a great many folks even knew what it was or began to grasp its strange theories. Yet he knew very little about the world that most everyone else lives in—the everyday world of people and what might be termed “ordinary life.” His father once remarked something like, “he could not even buy a ticket to the theater when it came to the practical world.”
There has been a great many geniuses like this. That is, people who have been highly intelligent, highly artistic or masterful in their field of endeavor but ignorant when it comes to the mundane world of everyday matters. It is difficult to imagine where Dali’s life would have ended had it not been for his wife Gala. After all, Dali was incapable of handling the business of his art.
Gala and Dali met in 1929—she was married at the time—but there was a strong attraction between them and so their relationship quickly evolved from magnetism to a full-fledged romance. This meeting was around a year before Dali was destined to gain extreme notoriety as a surrealist. What he would have done with that notoriety without Gala’s business talents is difficult to say but they were married in a civil ceremony in 1934. Gala would virtually spend the rest of her life handling Dali’s affairs, keeping the bills up, paying for expenses and making sure that Dali did not squander his wealth or…his fame.
Dali’s father had disapproved of Gala, however. This disapproval obviously hurt (or angered) Dali deeply and he responded by insulting his mother. The insult was too much for his father and he disowned Dali on the spot, telling him never to return. Dali never did as far as I know.
At first glance one might thing that Salvador Dali was too brash, too responsive to his parents who had made him the center of their world as he grew into adulthood and even thereafter. But not everything is always as crystal clear as it seems: Dali’s older brother had also been named Salvador. He had died before Salvador, the future artist, was born. It is said that his parents actually told their second son that he was the reincarnation of their first. This in and of itself would create a rather surreal world for Salvador Dali as a child—for one thing to see your name on a grave stone would be extremely haunting if nothing more.
How much or little this affected Salvador Dali’s mental state we shall never know but I offer that it is safe to assume that some neurosis would have arisen in any child who virtually had his “self” taken away and replaced in an odd belief that he was a dead brother returned to life.
This could have been too much for Dali as a child to handle and as a result he began losing himself in his drawings and so his imagination. (By the time he was thirteen his charcoals had been exhibited).
As an aside, I believe that any child who finds his childhood too difficult to live in that he or she exits the real world through imagination and enters a mindscape that is a favorable place to be. If that child is given lots of love, he or she delves into the artistic or the creative in one way or another. If a child is not given love and attentiveness, he or she may turn to crime or some other neurotic response to their youthful despair.
Salvador Dali was an abundance of talents that departed from painting—he sculpted, he did photography, was involved in filmmaking and made jewelry as represented below:
Dali and Gala moved to the United States to escape the war in Europe. He had been to the U.S. in 1934 on a loan, it is said, from Picasso. Now he had, in a term, become the toast of the town; a fashionable gent that high society had fallen in love with. Many celebrities including Jack Warner commissioned him for portraits—his jewlery designsd was for Coco Chanel; his antics as a kind of artistic clown persisted and people obviously loved it.
After the war he and Gala returned to Europe spending a lot of their time in Spain, France and the United States. It was, in many ways, the good life but in many ways a life somewhat lost in the glamorous insanity of it all. Nevertheless, Dali kept painting. Here’s an earlier painting of Gala which we can admire but never truly understand.
We have talked a lot about Salvador Dali the artist but what of Salvador Dali the human being beneath the façade of extreme arrogances and masterful art. I believe that as with all masters in creative arts, that Dali’s art did not come from Dali but through Dali—indeed, he once said that “I visually dematerialize matter then I spiritualize it in order to be able to create energy.” He added, “My mysticism is not only religious, but also nuclear and hallucinogenic.”
Once a person gets past the surreal of Dali paintings, a deep grasping or association with nature is revealed between the artist and his work. There is, I believe, something of the dance of life and death in his art that gives us a view of his spirit.
Dali, Salvador * The Secret Life of Salvador Dali *Dover Publications
Chip, Herschel B. (With contributions by Peter Selz and Joshua C. Taylor) * Theories of Modern Art *University of California Press.
Salvador Dali 1904-1989
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