Dali-ghtful: the Maya of Salvadore Dali

My arts instructor in school was a painter of repute in Chennai; my history teachers taught me a lot about Renaissance Masters and art-history. Yet, I was unaffected by these, and grew up as an art-illiterate. For instance, I presumed that the average renaissance artist painted portraits of well-fed women waiting for their laundry-maid to return. Like this:


Venus of Urbino – Titian , 1538

Such paintings gave license for an adolescent to stare at nudes in conservative Mylapore, but did little else to further the appreciation of art. Then, one day I saw a coffee-table version of Dali’s works in the bookshop. This guy, Salvadore Dali blew my brains. He had the technical virtuosity of the Renaissance Masters but produced stuff that was hugely different.

Yes, hugely. For instance, he produced “visual puns” the way a standup comedian would produce “verbal puns”. Dali once went to a shop to buy Venus pencils and drew inspiration from the picture on the box.


The inspirational Pencil Box

The resulting picture was amazing!

Hallucinogenic Toreador

Hallucinogenic Toreador, 1970

At first the piece looks like a series of impressionistic Venus de Milos (experts list 28 of them). As you gaze at the picture, another picture emerges. The left breast of the central Venus is actually the nose of a toreador. He is wearing a green cravat; on the central left of the picture, a series of molecules actually transform into the gaudy jacket of the toreador. Below the jacket you see the head of a dead bull. I would not go into the “meaning” behind the images (you can get more informed commentaries on the internet!); but, this apparently dreamy picture is really a finely crafted visual pun in elaborate detail.

These puns were not some random sleights of the hand. They were the handwork of a scientific artist. Sounds oxymoronic? Not if you analyse the next exhibit. Dali was intrigued by an article in the Scientific American that, to recognize a face you need about 150 blocks of information. So Dali experimented with high spatial frequencies (fine details with abrupt changes of contrast) and low spatial frequencies (coarse details which convey global data about shape , orientation, proportion etc.) to produce this picture.

gala contemplating lincoln

Gala contemplating the Mediterranean Sea, 1976

Standing close to the picture you can see the images painted in high spatial frequencies: Gala gazing into the sea from the window. Stand back, and you can see the low spatial image of Lincoln (you need not actually stand back: by placing your index fingers at the extremities of your eyes and stretch-squinting, you can get the same effect). And there is a bonus. What appears as the Mediterranean sunset is also a top-down view of Jesus on the cross! Only a mind that understood physics and mathematics could have produced this picture.

Dali perceived similarities where none was perceptible to a normal viewer. But Dali was abnormal. See this picture where Swans are reflected in the water as elephants!


Swans Reflecting Elephants, 1937

Just as he studied the sciences, Dali also studied the Classics. In Greek Mythology, Narcissus was a handsome youth who looked into his own reflection and fell in love with it. He could not extricate himself out of this weirdly obsessive love and finally the Gods redeemed him by transforming him into a flower (Narcissus/Daffodil).


Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937

This is Dali’s interpretation of the classic. On the left, Narcissus looks into his own reflection in the pool; on the right, using identical imagery, Dali depicts a decaying hand holding an egg that germinates into a daffodil. The play of “double images” is typical of Dali’s fascination with hallucination / delusion.

Dali created the picture using his own technique called Paranoiac-Critical method. Huh? Dali defined it as “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge, based on the critical interpretative association of the phenomena of delirium”. Huh- huh? My layman’s understanding: Dali induced himself into a dreamy state of fantasizing and then remembered to reproduce exotic and bizarre images in the finest detail. Normal human beings remember their dreams (if at all) in a fuzzy way; Dali psyched himself into recalling elaborate detail. Dali was an admirer of Sigmund Freud, who of course , is famous for the “The Interpretation of Dreams”. The admiration was mutual.

How did he get into this dream-state? Drugs? Dali’s famous answer:“I don’t do drugs. I am drugs”. At his height he was flamboyant, arrogant and absolutely crazy: “The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad”. In 1929, he started seeing Gala (b. Elena Ivanovna Diakanova). At that time she was married to the surrealist poet Paul Eluard. Theirs was an open marriage and for a brief period there was a ménage-trois. Gala later divorced Eluard and married Dali (but continued to be friendly to Eluard). For about 50 years they had a tumultuous and passionate marriage. Gala tolerated his other dalliances; she moderated his wild ways; as his business manager she brought stability; above all she was his muse. Many Dali paintings have Gala tucked in somewhere.

One would think that such a bohemian artist would be irreligious. Quite contrary: he was a devout catholic. Some of his finest works are religious.Perhaps, his religious paintings surpassed the craftsmanship of the Renaissance Masters. My favourite is the Christ of St. John of the Cross. The “view-from-heaven” perspective speaks volumes of his draughtsmanship. (When the Glasgow Museum purchased it in 1951 for £ 8200, its director was criticized for extravagance. Now a hot favourite in the gallery, it has paid for itself many times over).


Christ of St. John of the Cross, 1951

A close second is Crucifixion-Corpus Hypercubus, where Christ is shown crucified on a cross made out of 8 cubes. (Gala is shown looking up to Him). The 3-D effect is divinely awe-inspiring.


Crucifixion Corpus Hypercubus , 1954

Two other favourites of mine: The Phantom Cart and the Girl standing at the window.

phantom carriage

Phantom Cart, 1933

This is another visual pun (what you see inside the carriage — is it the driver? Or is it a distant dome in the city? So, is the cart driver-less?).


Girl standing at the Window, 1925

 Dali was hardly 21 when he painted this portrait of his sister. Note the accurate portrayal of the human form inside the clinging clothes — an influence of Realism.(He experimented with Realism, Cubism and Pointillism before he found his niche in Surrealism). This was displayed in his first one-man exhibition and won much admiration, especially from Picasso, whom Dali revered.


Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1952

Which is Dali’s most dramatic painting? My vote is for the Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory. He painted this after the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima-Nagasaki. Those melting clocks linger in your mind, and the illusion of floating tiles under water is brilliant!

Truly, Dali was the master of maya!


One thought on “Dali-ghtful: the Maya of Salvadore Dali

  1. Pingback: Memories of France | Kowie's Korner

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