Strongly influenced by Freud’s theories about the structure and the workings of the human psyche, the surrealist movement dived deeply into the exploration of the unconscious – hoping to find the essence of the human mind and spirit in an alternative reality. Salvador Dali is one of the main representatives of this movement – his works constantly defied the boundaries of reality and imagination. He was a prolific artist, always in search of new ways of creative expression. Due to his personal background, he was always attracted to the world of fantasy, which made him very suitable for the surrealist movement. This paper aims to present the particularities of surrealism and analyze the way Salvador Dali’s works display them. Historical context and analytic insight into works of art is provided in the paper in order to shed a better light on the meaning and the motivation behind some of the artist’s works, therefore helping us better understand them, along with the surrealist movement as a whole.
Keywords: surrealism, Salvador Dali, psyche exploration, paranoiac-critical method.
The First World War was a traumatic event that left Europe in a state of bitter disappointment, anxiety and insecurity. It made people question the veracity and the relevance of the rules, values and principles that used to govern the pre-war society; both individuals and nations were passing through a severe identity crisis, questioning their place and purpose in the universe. The absurdity and the horror of the war stirred within the continental society a powerful artistic rebellion against traditional norms and the idea of “proper conduct”; avant-garde movements explored new ways of artistic thought and execution, therefore achieving new levels of creativity and innovation in art. Dadaism is probably the best example to illustrate the changes that were happening in the artistic scenery of the post-war society. As a powerful response to the atrocities of the First World War, Dadaism aimed to eradicate all connections between logic and artistic expression; it promoted the idea of art being closely related to absurdity, nonsense and irrational thoughts. However, the momentum generated by the Dada movement faded out relatively fast, leaving room for surrealism to manifest itself as the movement that challenged the rationality and the boundaries of human imagination. Inspired by Freud’s theories about psychoanalysis, surrealism sought to track down the hidden layers of the human unconscious and expose them on canvas through a large variety of symbolic images. Surrealist artists boldly challenged artistic conventions and wanted, above all, to shock their viewers, to cause them such powerful emotions that they would be forced to look into themselves and examine their own spirits. Salvador Dali is one of the main representatives of the surrealism movement – a conflicted genius and an eccentric character – who always pushed the limits of creativity and artistic expression. Therefore, this paper aims to analyze the particularities of the surrealist movement, along with the way Salvador Dali both followed it and influenced it; in order to achieve this purpose, we will be looking at some of Dali’s artistic works and explore their meanings as well as the motivation behind them.
Folly, absurdity, incoherence – all these states of mind were of great interest to surrealist artists, who defied mainstream reality in favor of unbound imagination. Surrealism was a movement that not only deeply explored the artistic spirit, but also tried to capture the intricacies of the artistic mind, its inner workings and hidden messages. “Surrealist paintings come from "subjective" experiences such as dreams, free associations, images from fantastic poems (Lautréamont and Rimbaud) and the hallucinations of simulated insanity”. Thus, by exploring the world of the unconscious, along with the world of dream-like realm and fantasy, surrealist artists determined people to reconnect with their genuine selves – those primary parts of their personality that were otherwise oppressed by social conventions and obligations. It is no doubt then that surrealists defied reality and convention, seeking to explore human imagination beyond its already-known limits; they were strongly interested in the relationship between the exterior/ objective world and the interior/ subjective universe of the human mind and spirit, hoping the prove that the second one can be as real and as plausible as the first one. This is why surrealism was more than a collection of artistic conceptions and techniques; it was “a mental attitude and method of investigation”. There were primarily two main ways of artistic creation within the surrealist movement. The first method was introduced by André Breton and it is called automatism; it represented the uncontrolled expression of all emotions – a liberal transcription of the unconscious without the scrutiny of the conscious mind. Corresponding to the biomorphic surrealism, automatism included automatic writing and the immortalization of dreams in a photographic manner: “the painter was to strive as far as possible to render a "tinted photograph" of his inner vision”. The second method of artistic creation was developed by Salvador Dali and was called the “paranoiac-critical method”, through which the artist simulated the thought process of a mentally ill person in order to explore the most improbable manifestations of human imagination. Dali’s works mainly corresponded to naturalistic surrealism, which aimed to transformed scenes from our common reality into dream-like scenarios on canvas.
Only such an eccentric and conflicted personality like Salvador Dali could develop such a daring and “unusual” method like the “paranoiac-critical method”. He was indeed a fascinating character, strongly connected to the experiences he had during his childhood and youth years. To begin with, Salvador Dali claimed that he remembered the moment of his birth and classified that event as a significant trauma that “would mark, then, the beginning of a life motivated by fantasy”. His parents had another baby before him, a brother, who died very early, barely reaching the age of two. Therefore, when Salvador Dali was born, he was lavished with overflowing attention, love and protection coming from his parents; this ultimately shaped his personality as one who enjoyed being the center of attention and who was more prone to eccentricities. At the same time, as Dali recounts, all his bizarre, attention-grabbing actions were the result of a constant need to prove to himself that he was the living brother, not the dead one . The region where he was born and grew up was full of history, having suffered the influence of many civilizations, including the Geek, Roman and Arab ones. This way, as a child, Dali grew up amongst different myths and legends that made him become very interested the world of fantasy. During his childhood and youth his family often visited the seaside village of Cadaques, which made a strong impression on Dali and which would later appear as a landscape motif in many of his paintings. It is here that he met Ramon Pichot who introduced Dali to modern art; also, by spending a lot of time at Pichot’s residence, Dali had the chance to meet many painters, writers, musicians, as well as nonconformists who were friends of the Pichot family. This way, being surrounded by creative people during his youth, Salvador Dali was prone to become an artist himself. At school, Dali was always distracted and not a very good student; he proved, however, to be very intelligent and to have a very well-developed imagination. As the years went by, he became less interested in school and more interested in art. His family encouraged him to spend more time with the Pichot family, who were very well connected in the art world and who knew many important artists, such as Picasso and André Derain. Dali proved to be a gifted artist himself, executing several works such as portraits and landscapes, which were adequate and certainly reflecting his tremendous talent; however, these works never left the generally approved boundaries for experimentation and artistic expression. It was his mother’s sudden death in the early 1920s that shook him up, transformed his spirit, and shocked his mind in such a dramatic manner, that Dali sought to revenge his mother’s death through art and ultimately, he became determined to attain fame through art. This important life event was a turning point in his artistic endeavors, because his art started to reflect more and more his complicated inner feelings, his tormented spirit and his conflicted personality. The years following his mother’s death were spent at the Royal Academy of San Fernando – a wonderful place to study art as well as meet influential contemporary personalities. It is here that Dali made friends, who shared his same point of view on art; together they created a tight circle who promoted avant-garde ideas in art and who rebelled against the common, bourgeois artistic values that dominated the Spanish society. At the same time, Dali experience with many styles such as expressionism, fauvism and cubism, but ultimately found his true calling in surrealism. After reading Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams”, Salvador Dali was very impressed by the psychologist’s work and the way it managed to explain his own eccentric and strange character; at the same time his broad imagination and this troubled soul found themselves in the surrealist ideas about art and slowly, Dali’s creative process and his works became more and more “surrealistic”.
One of the most important works that Dali executed is “The Persistence of Memory” (figure 1), painted in 1931, which presents a dream-like scenario in which time seems to have stopped or better said, it is “a haunting allegory of empty space where time has ended”. Even if the images represented in the painting are both disturbing and inspiring and the objects depicted on canvas seem to have no underlying connection with one another, the composition is very well-balanced, which demonstrates Dali’s artistic mastery. In the background, the painting illustrates a rocky shore near a still body of water, above which is extended a calm and featureless sky. This particular scenery is similar to the one in Cadaques, where the artist used to go frequently when he was young. Since the time Dali spent in Cadaques played a great influence on his future career as an artist, his memory of the place was a very important and dear one; this way, the seaside landscape, represented in almost the same color scheme (light blue, bright yellow and faded orange) became a recurrent motif in many of his paintings. Returning to “The Persistence of Memory” one notices the contrast between the blue tones of the water and the sky and the yellow and orange tones of the shore; this contrast, along with the obvious light shed on it by the artist, strongly emphasizes the background, making it appear bright and serene as opposed to the shadowy and mysterious foreground. Along the shore-line a long rectangular shape is stretched, which haves no rational connection to the background scenery. This can be interpreted as the materialization of Dali’s “critical paranoiac method” which considers irrationality as a valid and desirable artistic manifestation. From a boxy structure emerges a small, lifeless and leafless tree or better said the remains of a dead tree; from one of its branches hangs melting clock, while on the big boxy block another pocket-watch melts its way towards the ground. A third watch, this time a closed and intact one, is represented lower on the block, covered in ants, as if it is some kind of decaying organic matter. In the middle-ground, a strange white creature is depicted, resembling a fish that has died while desperately seeking water. On the dead creature another watch is represented, also in a melted state; the ground seems dark, harsh and unfriendly, contrasting with the rounded shapes of the watches and of the strange creature in the middle.
All the objects depicted in this painting, along with the spatial relationships between them, seem to form an image captured from a strange dream. The barren landscape in the background, the dead tree emerging from a strange block of stone, the melting watches and the dead creature abandoned in the middle are all disturbing and weird. Nothing appears to make much sense; on the contrary, there is a strong feeling that viewer has crossed into a land where irrationality is king. The impression of the bizarre and the irrational persists throughout the painting, making the viewer feel uneasy, but at the same time, determining him/her to question the concept of reality and its hidden meanings. This feeling of aberration and nonsense that the paining conveys can be easily associated with a dream-like scenario. Just like in our dreams, where people, events and object associate to form very bizarre situations, the objects in Dali’s painting are thrown together to recreate that state of dreamy weirdness. There is no rational connection between them, yet they the painting as an ensemble makes very much sense and it is pleasant and intriguing. This demonstrates the virtuosity of the artist, his ability to create a scenario that speaks beyond rational sense and communicates on a deeper level with the audience. It makes people search deep inside them, it makes them inquire what the clocks mean for them and this way, they discover answers about their own personality.
The world of unconscious is definitely explored in “The Persistence of Memory”, since all of the objects depicted in the painting could represent Dali’s hidden desires, fears and emotions. His choice to represent the clocks as melting demonstrates his view that in certain aspects of human life, time loses all relevance and above all, memories are the one that persist. This idea can be interpreted as the artist’s attempt to keep alive his mother’s memory, since one of his greatest fears was that she would be forgotten (after her death, he pledged to always keep alive her memory through his art). Another interpretation of the melting clocks could stand in Dali’s fear of death and his tremendous efforts to build his legacy, so that the memory of him and his art would persist above other events in history and therefore, defeat the decaying effect of time. It is interesting though that Dali chose pocket watches to illustrate his convictions; whether it was a voluntary decision or just an impulse from his unconscious, it is remarkable how he manages to take these ordinary, common objects and transform them into such powerful metaphors. This is one of Dali’s most important contributions to the surrealist movement: his art wasn’t just about tapping the secret sources of the subconscious and exposing them on canvas; it was also about creating fantasies from real-life situations, imposing people to look differently at their own lives and examine them more carefully. “The Persistence of Memory” is a perfect example in this sense, since the background is so realistic, yet the foreground is so strange and therefore, reality and fantasy seem to mix together in a very creative and original way: Dali “rendered every detail of this dreamscape with precise control, striving to make the world of his paintings as convincingly real as the most meticulously rendered landscape based on a real scene from nature”. At the same time, the stillness of the background emphasizes the impression of timelessness, as if a chronological vacuum has been created. The paining almost invites the viewer to step into this dream-like scenario and rest away from the pressing issues of time.
Another interesting, yet less known painting created by Salvador Dali in 1944 is called “Dream caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking up” (figure 2). This painting is very much influenced by the Freudian theories about the way dreams should be interpreted and what they represent, and the association between dreams and sexual desire, but the most important this is that as with “The Persistence of Memory” Dali takes us into a scenario of a dream. This time, it is like we step into the mind of the young woman that is sleeping across the canvas. Her body is depicted with beautiful precision as if she is a Goddess emerged from a Greek myth. She lies sensually with her body almost longing with desire, creating a wonderful axis around which, or better said, towards which, all the elements in the paining are drawn. It is because they all emerge from the woman’s subconscious, which Dali wonderfully depicted in this painting. The ferocious tigers jump to attack the woman, but one of them, strangely enough, emerges from the mouth of the fish. There is a big “almost-unpeeled” pomegranate in the background, whose red color strongly contrasts with the serene sky and the calm water surrounding the island or beach upon which the woman rests. An elephant is depicted crossing over the empty sky, while a threatening gun points to the woman’s head. Again, all of these objects seem to be very rand and to have no rational connection with one another. The same feeling of irrationality and nonsense is present is this paining as well, since dreams are the only place where reality (as we know it) is abolished and it is replaced by a bizarre fantastic scenario. It is important to note that Dali wants the dream to seem as realistic as possible, emphasizing the fact that the desires and emotions hidden in our unconscious are as real as the ones persistent in our conscious,
All of the creatures and objects have their own symbolic meaning and Dali himself admitted that; in fact, this is one of Dali’s main characteristics, his extensive use of allegories and symbols with the intention to build a bridge between the real world and the fantastic world. The angered tigers, for example, could represent the women’s active and pressing sexual desire, materialized through the imagery of these powerful and aggressive mammals that are strong and virile. The elephant crossing the sky could convey the idea that in a dreamy state, when a person can access his or her unconscious, that person is liberated, free, lifted from the banality of the real life. This same idea is emphasized by the fact that the woman is represented levitating in her sleep: accessing the unconscious is a liberating experience. The pomegranate can represent here an important symbol for female fertility – a female who is like a ripe (matured) fruit ready to be impregnated. The sting of the bee might be an allegory for the phallic imagery. The flight of the bee around the pomegranate also might be an allegory for the sexual courtship between a man and a woman. The rocky cliff attempts to the impression that this bizarre, dream-like scene is taking place in the real world – Dali once again wants to mix the two worlds together is a very creative way. At the same time, the pointed gun recreates that intense moment before shooting, when time slows down and all events take place in a very dramatic manner. This kind of atmosphere is very similar to a dream that unwinds a second before waking up – when a lot of images and actions are mixed together and concentrated in a very short period of time, while the person that dreams them believes that they are taking place during a much longer period of time. This way, as demonstrated, everything in this painting has a symbolic meaning, shaped by a woman’s dream, flooded with the desires and emotions that reside in her unconscious. “Dream caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking up” is a wonderful representation of what a dream looks like, making the viewer connect with the images and the messages that they convey.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that Salvador Dali managed to change the surrealist movement and drift it away from the mere automatic tapping of the unconscious. By using his unbound imagination, Dali continuously found new ways to create daring and impressive artistic works, while trying to incorporate the world of dreams and memories into our common realities through his extensive use of allegories and symbolism. As seen in “The Persistence of Memory” and in “Dream caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking up” Salvador Dali actively explored the world of the unconscious, being a strong adept of integrating dreams and fantasy into our lives. The paintings expressed the artist’s hidden desires, feelings and ideas, while trying to paint dream-like scenarios in a realistic manner, so that they would seem plausible to the wider public. Salvador Dali’s character was eccentric and bizarre – and this paper explored in depth the causes for Dali’s attention-grabbing and extravagant actions. The most important thing is, however that this eccentric character fit extremely naturally with the surrealist movement. As Dali was obsessed with the world of realm and fantasy, he found himself in the surrealist movement. Surrealism gave him the possibility to explore his unbound imagination and creativity and at times in such a way, that Dali became the very definition of surrealism. All in all, Dali was born to be a surrealist and that was the only way he could express to the fullest extent his creative potential. As seen in his works of art, he not only managed to access the unconscious and explore it, he also challenged the viewers to look into themselves and explore the reality and the fantasy of their inner selves. “The Persistence of Memory”, after all, almost invites the viewer in, to walk on its sandy beaches and blend into the melting clocks.
Figure 1 (source: Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History by Fred S. Kleiner)
Figure 2 (source: source: www.museothyssen.org)
Frey, J. G. (1963). From Dada to Surrealism. Parnassus , 8 (7), 12-15.
Gordon, D. A. (1951). Experimental Psychology and Modern Painting. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism , 9 (3), 227-243.
Hugnet, G., & Scolari, M. (1936). In the Light of Surrealism. The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art , 4, 19-32.
Kleiner, F. S. (2011). Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History. Wadsworth: Clark Baxter.
McNeese, T. (2006). Salvador Dali. New York: Chelsea House.
The Official Blog of Park West Gallery. (2010, February 9). Freud’s Influence on Dali’s Surreal “Dream” Painting. Retrieved November 25, 2012, from The Official Blog of Park West Gallery: http://parkwestgallery.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/freuds-influence-on-dalis-surreal-dream-painting/