By Vinuri Ethapane

“The fact that I myself don’t understand my paintings does not imply that they don’t have any meaning on the contrary the meaning is so deep, systematic and complex that their interpretation requires scientific knowledge… they are the precise expression of a secret symbolic language of the subconscious.”

Salvador Dali 1976

‘Persistence of memory’ better known as the ‘Soft watches,’ 1931 (museum modern art New York)

What is it about Salvador Dali’s paintings that excites or intrigues us? What is it about his work that makes us want to understand Dali, and why is it that we do not just dismiss him as a madman who paints outrageously bizarre scenario’s that at first glance seem really to be just so.

The answer to these questions lie in Dali’s paintings such as his most famous piece of work known today; the ‘Persistence of Memory’ or better known as the ‘Melting Time’ or the ‘Soft Watches.’ It is in this dreamlike scenario Dali captures his fears, inhibitions and fantasies, which seem to be frozen in time, the melting of the clocks portray his fear of the inevitable passing of time.

What most of us don’t know is that the backdrops of most of Dali’s paintings are found in Dali’s hometown in Catalonia, Spain, and that element of reality within the surreal alone serves to evoke a sense of curiosity within us.

Surrealism conjures a sense of the strange, the unexpected, the irrational and the out of the ordinary and it paints within our minds an almost dreamlike scenario. Dali personified surrealist dream worlds in most of his work and bought surrealism into the mainstream earning the titles of master, showman and inventor of 20th Century modern art, changing our perception of the absurd.

Death and life are two concepts that are present in Spanish art and Dali’s painting almost always personified both these and the fears and joys that come with life and death. It is said that Dali’s childhood was a troubled one and is reflected in many of his work. There is a dark side to the paintings if one was to take a closer look at the harsh perspectives with distant figures, and desolate landscapes that spell out loneliness. Distorted figures, oversized enlarged body parts shows his fascination with the human body and the distortion of it seems to depict his innermost fears relating to life.

‘Burning Giraffe,’ 1937, was not one of his most outstanding achievements, yet it brings out most of his motifs. The tranquillity of the giraffe, despite the fact that he is on fire might be symbolic of an animal’s harmony with the forces of nature, whereas the distorted female figures with the chest of drawers suggest that as humans we all have our hidden secrets, which can only be accessed through the subconscious. This painting becomes completely Dali, with the lonely figure looking on at the scene as though detached from it.

Even though Dali bought surrealism into the limelight it was André Breton who invented the concept. He talked of two realities coming together to form a single reality. The Freudian theories where it was believed that all of us had an inner subconscious where our most private emotions, desires and our most severe fears are repressed, and that we should all express these emotions without censoring them – greatly influenced surrealist artists of the time. Dali came across this movement in his early twenties and it changed his lifestyle and way of thinking forever.

The young Dali knew that this was the movement for him. In some of his early surrealist paintings such as ‘Honey Sweeter Than Blood,’ death and sex are the main concepts, with death depicted in dying animals and naked bodies brutally severed in several places. This painting is also outlined with distant figures along the coastline, which is an ever present motif in Dali’s paintings.

Dali later developed his own theory called the ‘Paranoiac Critical Method.’ It was based on looking at objects and seeing the object in its reality and resembling something else. Quite like the childhood game of looking at clouds and seeing shapes in them.

For example, if we see a desert scene with a few human figures seated against a rock outlined with trees, and then turn the picture over and out, we might see a face of a woman. The theory further goes on to explain that when supplied with visual data, the human mind can interpret it in numerous ways. And as our entire world is mainly experienced visually, Dali’s objective was to explore the ways we interpret the world around us. His theory, in collaboration with his surrealist experimental work made Dali the legendary revolutionist of his time, second only to Picasso.

The real question, however, is how important was Dali’s work and how has it played a role in influencing, and changing the world we live in today?

The first avenue to be explored is comedy and film. In 1929 Dali co created and wrote the screenplay for a silent movie, ‘Un Chien Andalou.’ Filled with comic and surrealist shock scenes which garnered great reviews, marking a pivotal moment in the relationship between cinema and surrealism. He later created the backdrops for many films and the surrealist backdrops he created became his signature in the movie industry.

In the late 1930’s Dali’s work took on a new avenue of creating contemporary furniture. How surreal can furniture be? But to Dali turning an everyday object into a surrealist object became an obsession.

Salvador Dali’s iconic ‘Mae West Lip’ sofas of the 1930’s brings a perfect blend of surrealism and modernistic styles into interior design. Another such item is the ‘Hands Chair.’

The ‘Lobster Telephone’ became the ultimate composite surrealist object where two very real objects, which belong to two completely different worlds, are put together to form a new reality, same as the ‘Lip sofas’ adding sensuality into an everyday object.

Many designs today which have a surrealistic tinge to them owe thanks to Dali. Shoes, handbags hats and even dress designs were inspired by Dali’s work, and in the early 1930’s he created clothes that were extensions of his paintings.

The fashion industry today breaks boundaries in creating surrealistic work and whether we know it or not, it was Dali that paved the way for this change.

Dali has literally left his surrealist mark on every avenue from cinema to advertising and fashion, and he used these avenues to communicate surrealism to the world, forever changing the way we think and the way we perceive it.


Salvadore Dali by Norbert Wolf

Documentary by Alastair Sooke |