Salvador Dalí is among the most versatile and prolific artists of the twentieth century and the most famous Surrealist. Though chiefly remembered for his painterly output, in the course of his long career he successfully turned to sculpture, printmaking, fashion, advertising, writing, and, perhaps most famously, filmmaking in his collaborations with Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock. Dalí was renowned for his flamboyant personality and role of mischievous provocateur as much as for his undeniable technical virtuosity. In his early use of organic morphology, his work bears the stamp of fellow Spaniards Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. His paintings also evince a fascination for Classical and Renaissance art, clearly visible through his hyper-realistic style and religious symbolism of his later work.
“The fact that I myself, at the moment of painting, do not understand my own pictures, does not mean that these pictures have no meaning; on the contrary, their meaning is so profound, complex, coherent, and involuntary that it escapes the most simple analysis of logical intuition.”
The Persistence of Memory (1931)
This iconic and much-reproduced painting depicts the fluidity of time as a series of melting watches, their forms described by Dalí as inspired by a surrealist perception of Camembert cheese melting in the sun. The distinction between hard and soft objects highlights Dalí’s desire to flip reality lending to his subjects characteristics opposite their usually inherent properties, an un-reality often found in our dreamscapes. They are surrounded by a swarm of ants hungry for the organic processes of putrefaction and decay of which Dalí held unshakable fascination. Because the melting flesh at the painting’s center resembles Dalí, we might see this piece as a reflection on the artist’s immortality amongst the rocky cliffs of his Catalonian home.
Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s ‘Angelus’ (1933)
Dalí often recounted a memory of passing laborious hours at school as a child by focusing on a reproduction of the famous 1859 painting by Jean-François Millet The Angelus. In the classical piece, two farmers are depicted saying a devotional prayer moments after hearing a far-off dinner bell signal the end of their workday. In Dalí’s homage, two curvaceous rock figures (another nod to the Catalonian landscape) rise at sunset; the one on the left is a female while the one on the right is male. The woman’s form suggests the figure of a praying mantis, a species in which the female cannibalizes the male after copulation.
Great Masturbator (1929)
Artwork description & Analysis: Central to the piece is a large distorted human face looking down upon a landscape, a familiar rocky shoreline scene reminiscent of Dalí’s home in Catalonia. A nude female figure representing Dalí’s new-at-the-time muse Gala rises from the head, symbolic of the type of fantasy a man would conjure while engaged in the practice suggested by the title. Her mouth near a male’s crotch suggests impending fellatio while he seems to be literally “cut” at the knees from which he bleeds, a sign of a stifled sexuality. Other motifs in the painting include a grasshopper – a consistent beacon for sexual anxiety in Dalí’s work, ants – elusion to decay and death, and an egg – representing fertility.
Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity (1954)
Artwork description & Analysis: This painting documents Dalí’s interest in exaggerating the representation of the female form and his use of abstracted backgrounds. The main force within the painting is clearly its sexual allusion: the rhinoceros horns, commonly used by Dalí, in this case are overtly phallic, both components of the central buttock and disparate images threatening to penetrate it. The painting’s title offers a direct clue about the aggressively sexual tone of the work. Art history professor Elliot King was quoted in Dawn Ades book Dalí as saying, “as the horns simultaneously comprise and threaten to sodomize the callipygian figure, she is effectively (auto) sodomized by her own constitution.” The painting therefore reinforces Dalí’s conflicting views toward women as mysterious objects of power, seduction, and fear.
Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening
In this “hand-painted dream photograph”, as Dalí generally called his paintings, there is a seascape of distant horizons and calm waters, perhaps Port Lligat, amidst which Gala is the subject of the scene. Next to the naked body of the sleeping woman, which levitates above a flat rock that floats above the sea, Dalí depicts two suspended droplets of water and a pomegranate, a Christian symbol of fertility and resurrection.Above the pomegranate flies a bee, an insect that traditionally symbolizes the Virgin
The bayonet, as a symbol of the stinging bee, may represent the woman’s abrupt awakening from her otherwise peaceful dream. This is an example of Sigmund Freud’s influence on surrealist art and Dalí’s attempts to explore the world of dreams in a dreamscape.
The elephant is a distorted version of the Piazza della Minerva sculpture Elephant and Obelisk by Gian Lorenzo Bernini facing the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. The smaller pomegranate floating between two droplets of water may symbolize Venus, especially because of the heart-shaped shadow it casts. It may also be used as a Christian symbol of fertility and resurrection. This female symbolism may contrast with the phallic symbolism of the threatening creatures.