Salvador Dali is among the most versatile and prolific artists of the twentieth century. 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 Bunuel and Alfred Hitchcock. Dali was renowned for his flamboyant personality 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. Dali is most often associated with the Surrealist movement, despite his formal expulsion from the group in 1934 for his reactionary political views.
Freudian theory underpins Dali’s attempts at forging a formal and visual language capable of rendering his dreams and hallucinations. These account for some of the iconic and now ubiquitous images through which Dali achieved tremendous fame during his lifetime and beyond.
Obsessive themes of eroticism, death, and decay permeate Dali’s work, reflecting his familiarity with and synthesis of the psychoanalytical theories of his time. Drawing on blatantly autobiographical material and childhood memories, Dali’s work is rife with often ready-interpreted symbolism, ranging from fetishes and animal imagery to religious symbols.
Dali subscribed to Surrealist André Breton’s theory of automatism, but ultimately opted for a method of tapping the unconscious that he termed “critical paranoia,” a state in which one could cultivate delusion while maintaining one’s sanity. Paradoxically defined by Dali himself as a form of “irrational knowledge,” the paranoiac-critical method was applied by his contemporaries, mostly Surrealists, to varied media, ranging from cinema to poetry to fashion.
Honey is Sweeter than Blood (1927)
Artwork description & Analysis: Dali’s first surreal painting, Honey is Sweeter than Blood, shows a marked progression away from Cubism toward the depiction of subconscious obsessions. Dali’s preoccupations with decadence, death, and immortality returned repeatedly in future works. This painting was made between Dali’s first visits to Paris where he was socializing with artists who would found the Surrealist movement.
Oil on canvas
Retrospective Bust of a Woman (1933)
Artwork description & Analysis: Retrospective Bust of a Woman exemplifies Dali’s found object sculptures in which the original materials would be recontextualized through a process of assembly and composition. This piece was constructed around an inkstand, atop which was placed a replica of figures from Jean-Francois Millet’s painting The Angelus (1857-1859). Dali was fixated on this painting, deeming it a marvelous representation of sexual repression, which he worked compulsively to unleash. The necklace draped around the bust is made from a zoetrope strip, indicating the potential for movement in a still object as well as Dali’s interest in film.
Painted porcelain, bread, corn, feathers, paint on paper, beads, ink stand, sand, and two pens – Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Persistence of Memory (1931)
Artwork description & Analysis: This iconic and much-reproduced painting depicts time as a series of melting watches surrounded by swarming ants that hint at decay, an organic process in which Dali held an unshakeable fascination. The important distinction between hard and soft objects, associated by Dali with order and putrefaction respectively, informs his work method in subverting inherent textual properties: the softening of hard objects and corresponding hardening of soft objects. It is likely that Dali was using the clocks to symbolize mortality (specifically his own) rather than literal time, as the melting flesh in the painting’s center is loosely based on Dali’s profile. The cliffs that provide the backdrop are taken from images of Catalonia, Dali’s home.
Oil on canvas – Museum of Modern Art, New York
“Knowing how to look is a way of inventing.”