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Salvador Dali is perhaps one of the most recognized artists of the Surrealist movement. His art is mass produced in prints, and it is not a rare occasion to see them in homes of adults and on the walls of college students. His most famous work, The Persistence of Memory (1934), is taught in art classes to children as young as 7. Most of these people feel a connection with Dali’s work and feel compelled to display these posters. It is safe to say, however, that few of these fans know anything about Surrealism, and the inspiration behind his most beloved works.
The Surrealist movement evolved from the Dada movement of the 1920s. Its leader, Tristan Tzara, aimed to eliminate art because society created war and therefore does not deserve art. He instead aimed to shock the public through works of anti-art, which did not shock the public as intended, but was accepted by the art society.
Dada embraced nihilism, a philosophy centered around nothing, meaning nothing, or anything. Dada rejected reason and logic while hating life. In William Bohn’s article From Surrealism to Surrealism: Apollinaire and Breton he states that Dada “Was actually a protest movement, protesting bourgeoisie values in art and life”(Surrealism, 198). Instead, Dada actually bridged art in life by displaying objects that allowed the viewer to realize that life is in fact art.
In order to bridge life and art, Dada artists applied humor to art which provided a playfulness not reached by realism. Dada’s aim was to “juggle away, to parody, and to ridicule all accepted ideas, all forms of social activity” (Surrealism, 199). Dada seems to have been a contradictory movement, one that produced wildly creative pieces, while discrediting creativity in theory. The constant contradictions of the movement could be why followers so readily embraced Surrealism, a movement which seemed to make more sense, but provided a smooth transition for even the most devoted Dadaists, such as Tristan Tzara, the movement’s leader.
Surrealism, as defined by Anton Breton is “Pure psychic automatism by which we propose to express – either verbally or in writing or in some other manner- the true functioning of thought, in the absence of all control, excerased by reason, outside all aesthetic and moral preoccupations”(The Surrealist Manifesto, Surrealism, 205). His definition of Surrealism as a philosophy is as follows, “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life” (The Surrealist Manifesto, Surrealism, 205).
Anton Breton was the founding father of Surrealism. He introduced samples of his writings which were called automatic writing. This automatic writing is also known as free association writing in which the author begins to write whatever comes to mind in hopes of unlocking the unconscious mind. The point of unlocking the unconscious was to reveal truth in the art form. This form of Automatism was a underlying application in surrealistic art, be it visual or literary. Surrealism, therefore, was not restricted to visual art, but was also a popular movement among authors of the period.
Surrealists were greatly influenced by the works of Freud, whose radical theories in psychoanalysis and the importance of the subconscious in regards to not only mental health, but to truth and life, would inspire artists and authors to unlock their own subconscious. Surrealists incorporated Freud’s theory into their art work through the belief that dreams are as important, if not more so than
reality. Therefore characteristics of Surrealist art include dream like images. Surrealism aimed to draw the eye to one object and then to distract it with another object. Surrealism called for a “deliberate disorientation of the mind” (Frey, 15). In doing so, the artists was able to create a dreamlike experience for the viewer. To the Surrealist, beauty was not the goal because beauty, while aesthetically pleasing, does not necessarily represent truth.
As the movement gained momentum several visual artists and authors began to identify themselves as Surrealists. They embraced the the philosophy of Surrealism and applied to their respective art. Some of the most well known artists that joined the movement include: Paul and Gala Eluard, Pierre Naville, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Yves Tanguy. Picasso is sometimes considered a follower of the movement, but overall his involvement was minimal. Perhaps the most recognizable name aligned with the Surrealist movement is Salvador Dali.
Salvador Dali was born in 1904 in Figueres, which borders Catalonia, Spain. By the age of 12 he showed much promise as an artist. He attended drawing school at this age and fell in love with art. In 1922 he attended the Academy of Fine Arts, Madrid. As a youth at the academy he proclaimed himself an anarchist and was privy to rebellious activities. The many shenanigans he pulled were evidence to his desire for attention and his quest for fame. Such rebellion eventually got him kicked out of the academy.
In response to his expulsion he continued his artwork, dabbling in Cubism and Purism. He eventually met Pablo Picasso, whose work he highly respected. Finally, he met Anton Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement. He felt a draw to the philosophy of this movement and quickly joined forces with the other members of the movement.
Dali used a method in his artwork called “paranoiac critical method”. He developed this method in 1929, the same year that he officially proclaimed himself a Surrealist. The “paranoiac critical method” was a self hypnosis which would allow him to hallucinate freely. Under this hypnotism he would create art that involved double images. These double images acted as an optical illusion. The viewer immediately would see one object, but given further review would notice a hidden image inside of the main object. Often, the hidden image would be erotic or create a feeling of discomfort for the audience. These images were also dreamlike, not only created in the subconscious of the painter, but unlocking the subconscious of the audience. About these double images Dali said, “Such a representation of an object that is also, without the slightest physical or anatomical change, the representation of another entirely different object, the second representation being equally devoid of any deformation or abnormally betraying the arrangement” (Stinking Ass).
Upon joining this Surrealists he met Gala Eluard who was ten years his senior. She is heralded as the muse of the Surrealist movement as she not only inspired Dali, but many other artists and authors of the movement. At the time of their meeting she was married to surrealist poet and friend of Dali’s Paul Eluard. He immediately fell in love with her, and her love was reciprocated. Her husband Paul, Eluard, surprisingly did not object, he was intrigued by the intricacies of relationships, and therefore not too hurt by her choice to be with Dali. They moved in together and she became his muse,
they married in 1934. She seized power over his career and aided in marketing not only his artwork but his persona. Without her, he may not have gained the notoriety that he had so craved since a young age.
In 1931 Salvador Dali painted perhaps his most famous and recognizable piece, Persistence of Memory (1931). Regardless of his success, by the end of the 1930s the Surrealists were no longer champions of Dali or his artwork. He refused to take sides during the Spanish Civil War, which cost him life long friends. Anton Breton, who had once revered Dali’s work, assigned him the derogatory nickname “Avida Dollars” which means “eager for money”. His greed, and hesitance in aligning with the Marxist revolution severed many ties between him and his colleagues.
At the beginning of World War II Gala, and Salvador Dali moved to California, upon reflection of his Surrealist days he said this, “Surrealism will at least have served to give experimental proof that total sterility and attempts at automatizations have gone too far and have led to a totalitarian system. …
Today’s laziness and the total lack of technique have reached their paroxysm in the psychological signification of the current use of the college.” Dali was nothing if not a master artist, and he displayed discontent for the current state of art. After 1949 he and his wife moved back to Catalonia where they would live the rest of their lives. Gala passed in 1982, with Salvador following in 1989.
As previously stated, Dali’s most recognizable and celebrate work is the Persistence of Memory painted in 1931. The canvas of this painting is quite small, measuring 24.1 cm X 33 cm, and it is currently housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it has hung since 1936. It has three soft watches that are placed on the landscape of Port Lligat. Port Lligat is a small village on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, in which Dali spent much of his life. He also included in this landscape and in many of his other works. The enormous cliffs in the background are evidence that it is in fact the cliffs of Port Lligat. The former curator of MOMA, James Thrall Soby, says of the painting the “space is manipulated to suggest and infinity against which the drama of his objects and figures is projected” (Clocking, 3).
The telltale cliffs of Port Lligat constitute only a small portion of the painting. The majority of the space is dominated by the giant melting clocks. One clock is closed, and the other three are draped over a creature in the center, steps, and an olive tree. The eyes are first drawn to these clocks, and according to an analysis on salvadordalimuseum.org, the clocks clearly represent time, but create a dreamlike effect by bending the rules of reality, which is characteristic of Surrealism. Simon Wilson says of this painting, “The theme of this truly bizarre and mysterious painting is man’s obsession with the nature of time” ( Clocking, 4). Dali, himself, remarked that “Soft watches are nothing else than the tender, extravagant and solitary paranoiac-critical Camembert of space and time” (Clocking, 12). The reference of Camembert may seem offhandedly strange, however this is a reference to the cheese that actually inspired the soft watches on the evening that he painted this picture.
Although the main draw to the painting is the melting watches, there are other important symbols in the painting. The ants on the closed watches, the olive tree, the steps and the amorphous creature each have a special memory which contribute to the aesthetics of this painting.
Upon further examination the creature in the center of the painting has eyelashes and a closed eye. The creature appears to be sleeping. This creature is actually a self portrait of Salvador Dali. It is a form that he has used in other paintings to represent himself. Upon further review, the viewer can make out the profile with a nose, and mouth.
The next symbol in the painting is the olive tree in the upper left comer. The olive tree was a significant symbol for Dali. Olive trees symbolize peace, and olives were a major export of Catalonia. Later in life he even refereed to his wife Gala as “his little olive”. In this particular painting Dali has presented a dead olive tree. This dead tree may symbolize the inevitable death that time will bring. Death and decay is a common theme in this painting as Dali uses ants and flies to indicate decay. The Ants are on the closed watch in the bottom left of the painting.
The final symbols to discuss in this painting are the steps. There is one step, prominent in the foreground on the left side. In the distance, along the horizon there is another step, on the edge of the water. These steps could possibly represent the Freudian explanation of steps and the act of going up and down them. Freud explains that steps in dreams represent sexual acts. It is unclear whether or not this what Dali intended to present, symbolically speaking, the use of steps is unclear.
Twenty years after painting Persistence of Memory, Dali presented a new painting called Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1952). During the period between these two paintings Dali’s life had greatly changed. He and Gala moved to the United States to flee the Spanish Civil War. While in California he worked with Disney and Alfred Hitchcock as a consultant for various films. His artwork was transformed after World War II. The scientific strides that had been made regarding the discovery of DNA and the advent of the atomic bomb influenced Dali’s style.
In 1948 Dali and Gala sought to move back to Spain. The new government was staunchly Roman Catholic and Dali had to prove that he had changed his ways and was now a pious Catholic. Ultimately he would call himself a “nuclear mystisist”. “Nuclear mysticism’s mixture of physics, math, science, religion, art history, and Spanish culture was to stress technique, rebirth, faith and tradition (Clocking, 17). Dali saw God in mathematical ratios and in atomic science. Dalí wrote:
“In the surrealist period I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world-the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud. I succeeded in doing it. Today the exterior world-that of physics-has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr. Heisenberg.” (Clocking, 17).
The Disintegration of Persistence of Memory is the same size as the original Persistence of Memory. Upon examining the painting the viewer will notice that the clocks are no longer the first thing the eye is drawn to. They are overshadowed by the mathemematical dissasembly of the steps, tree and painting overall. As the watches are less relevant, the them of time also become irrelevant to this particular painting. “All things, the painting seems to be saying-even the persistence of memory-are overcome by, or incorporated into, one atomic reality” (Clocking, 18). This painting, once resembled a still life, now seems to have a sense of movement to it. The swimming fish and even the disintegration of the steps and tree have movement that make the painting feel alive.
The Disintegration of Persistence of Memory is housed at the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. In 2000 the two paintings were united in an exhibited where they were shown side by side, so that the viewer could see the difference in style and meaning behind each painting. The Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida was established March 7 of 1982 and is made up of works from the private collection of the Mr. and Mrs. Morse, who began collecting Dali’s work in 1940.
One of the most celebrated artists of the 1900s, Salvador Dali and his artwork remain ingrained in the minds of anyone who has so much as glanced at one of his pieces. He provided the art world with a zany character who was himself, a walking art form. Although his style evolved throughout his life, his most memorable period was that of his Surrealist paintings. His mastery allowed him to remain at the forefront of the artistic community, and evolve along with the tastes of his fans.
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