Painting with words – J. G. Ballard’s Text Art inspired by Salvador Dali

Some time late last year I designed what you might categorise as a kind of text-art / concrete poem which emulates a painting by Salvador Dali. I designed this piece using a similar style to that used by the dystopian author J. G. Ballard, who created a series of unusual billboards in the 50s which were made up of only text. The ads were in stark contrast to the others with their highly visual, eye-catching ads bearing sleek new cars and big breasted women, and instead turned the well-known methods of advertising on their head. Ballard’s were more like a strange encrypted message for the masses, which would make people stop and think. Each person who viewed them would draw their own unique logic in deciphering these works, much in the same vein as the surrealists. In short, Ballard’s ads were working at empowering the consumer, which is very different to most every other ad, which has one overriding goal… MAKE. THEM. BUY. In the first year of my literature PhD I came accross these billboards and wanted to try and work out what they were. I couldn’t simply go along with the vast majority of critics who, because they could not decipher them, concluded that they must be meaningless. The odd thing is, the words and terms that these billboards were made up of are clearly not meaningless, in fact they are very meticulously placed, planned and designed. Many are characters and scenes and objects and memories and other fragments which could be found in a great many of his other works, as if he was providing clues. One day, whilst researching Ballard’s influence by Dali, I started to think on what a Dali painting might look like if it were made purely of words. All of these fragmentary characters and scenes and dream-like dialogues, and then it seemed plausible that Ballard might have been trying somthing similar with his billboards. This was a method also used by Magritte in a small few of his paintings, Magritte being another key influence on Ballard, and so this did not seem too far a stretch. In fact it made a lot of sense. I began scouring Dali’s work to see if there was any works which might fit the bill. I focused on the central ‘image’ in Ballard’s billboard, ‘mr f is mr f’ (below), and, as I knew ‘mr f is mr f’ is a surrealist story about a man who slowly devolves, and is absorbed back into his mother’s womb (weird I know), I started to look for something similar in Dali’s images, until, lo and behold, I was reminded of ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of New Man’ (1943), which similarly has this huge centralised image of Dali being absorbed into a globe-womb form. Viewinf the image as a ‘textual narrative’ it was just like Ballard’s image. When I placed the billboard and the painting next to each other, I saw that there was far more coinciding elements at play (see my previous blog post here and Guardian article here for more background / examples of crossovers). So could they then be encoded Salvador Dali paintings? What better way to undermine the consumer spectacle than to inundate it with surrealist paintings, paintings which work at reinvigorating the imagination? ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION! As the famed May’ 68 slogan went.

one of J. G. Ballard’s billboards from the 1958 ‘Project for a New Novel’ series

Ballard hailed Dali as the greatest painter of the twentieth century and often expressed how his own literary work was heavily influenced by both the surrealist movement and especially Dali’s work and methods. He constantly repeated in interviews how he had always dreamed of being a painter rather than a writer, but never had the artistic skill to do so, which is probably why he decided to create a new method which would enable him to create art using the medium he knew best… the medium of words. So some time last year I decided to try it for myself and create my own billboard/artwork/poem using a Dali painting as the framework. So I decided to use on of my favourite Salvador Dali paintings, ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937), as the underlying artwork.

Dali narcissus
Dali – ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937)

The amazing thing about this painting is how it manages to contain the entire Narcissus myth as told by Ovid in a singular image. This by way of a mergence of mythic imagery and his own personal symbology which recurs throughout his work (Dali’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, is a kind of codex for all of these symbols and images which appear and reappear in his paintings). The two central images of the figure and the hand clasping an egg essentially denote Narcissus’s changing psychology as he gazes into the water. The left figure image is Narcissus as he famously gazes on himself in the lake’s reflection, and on the right is a metaphorical rendition of what he finds lurking there: he finds self-love, and so the egg, which represents blossoming love and fertility in Dali’s work, symbolises how, as he gazes into the watery depths, he falls in love with his own image. How he drowns in his own image. The mirror image being a gigantic hand is particularly pertinent in that it represents at once this idea of an aggrandisement of the self (i.e. narcissism) but at the same time this idea of how love denotes, in psychoanalytic terms, what Lacan called the ego-ideal; the perfect and grossly augmented rendition of self (see Lacan’s definition of love here for more clarity). So through these 2 central mirrored image we have a depiction of both outer world and inner psychology. In the distance to the left of the image are the cliffs, the cliffs into which famously the nymph Echo would be transformed, cursed for all time to only mimic the voices of others. But now onto my own Ballard influenced billboard.

Screenshot 2018-11-28 at 15.31.33
a Ballard style version of Dali’s ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’

So what was my method here and what do these words mean in relation to the Dali image? As Ballard does in his own billboards, I first limited myself to using only text, and then attempted to recreate Dali’s painting using allusive fragmentary headlines (many based on Ballard’s stories and characters) and scientific journal excerpts (in this case from a marine biology journal – i.e. ‘drowned world’ – as does Ballard), using the spacing and squared blocks of text to shape out the image. Let me begin to describe the various fragments of text and what they denote. In the top left appears ‘ravenous’ which is partially severed. There are multiple reasons for this and other truncated portions of text. Firstly, so as to urge the viewer to fill the linguistic or narrative void: the fact that the ‘R’ is partially cut-off suggests that there is part of the word missing, the full word being ‘intravenous’. The word itself contains, in homophonic terms, the word ‘ravine’, which is why it is situated in the same location as the ravine or gorge in Dali’s painting (the letter ‘V’ is dead centre within the word thus mirroring the shape of the ravine itself). It could also be seen to emulate the word ‘ravenous’ as in extreme huger, denoting the idea of either Narcissus’s hunger for himself of Echo’s hunger for Narcissus (as in Ovid’s classic myth). The use of truncated text in Ballard’s billboards often serves to emphasise the limitation in the viewer’s visual field and so is emulated here. The purpose of this is to imitate the effect when one views a painting, whereby the viewer, though limited to the framed image before them, nevertheless assumes the depicted image to go beyond this frame of reference (e.g. when a distant mountain range continues off the edge of a landscape painting). The jarring severance of text here also serves to emulate the overarching theme of mirrors, reflection and self-absorption.

So here like Ballard I’m able to generate a multitude of overlapping concepts through a single word, when I acknowledge it as one which stands in the void between language and image. A little down and to the right of where ‘RAVENOUS’, appears ‘The Drowned’ which could refer to The Drowned World or Ballard’s short story ‘The Drowned Giant’ (note the serif text – Ballard uses serif text when he’s alluding to specific short stories). I liked the idea of leaving the final word empty so that the specification of the story is ‘drowned’ in a sense. You’ll notice further down I use the word ‘giant’, this clearly referencing the story, which has been flipped upside down so as to emulate the reflection of the surface of the water. What this achieves is to recreate the duality rendered in Dali’s painting, in which we at once see a giant humanoid (Narcissus) hunched over the water and the hand of a giant figure underwater (i.e. why i use ‘the drowned giant’). The sense of scale in the painting is constantly shifting, in flux, much in the same way that I use text (‘THE DROWNED giant’), using capitalisation and rescaling. You might expect ‘THE DROWNED’ to be situated beneath the water, and ‘giant’ to be located above, but as we know from Dali’s work, the true ‘giant’ is located exactly where expected; beneath the water, exposing, in Freudian logic, the grossly aggrandised ego, or as Lacan would have it, the ego-ideal, the self-obsession which goes far beyond the scale of the painting itself.

To the left of ‘giant’ appears the words ‘SALINE: UTERINE’ which at once represents the location of the pool of water, but also tackles the Freudian implications of Dali’s painting: a narcissist gazes into the uterine depths longingly, this representing the dislocation of the self-obsessive’s ‘lack’. The ‘uterine’ thus designates the mother, the womb, which has been replaced with the self, this leading to a narcissistic self-love. But it also reinforces this presiding duality within Dali’s painting, especially between the inner and outer world, and the distortion between the gaze of the self and other. Above water, externality, otherness – below water, the self, the uterine truths. On the opposite side of the billboard, mirroring saline/uterine, is ‘canine’, situated in the same location as the dog in Dali’s painting, emulating Ballard’s method of locating certain objects and structures to create an overarching sense of the image. To the right of the centre, rotated 90 degrees clockwise, are the words ‘metacarpal antimatter’ denoting the fragmentation of the pieces of the hand in Dali’s image, in a similar vein to the many atomic themed images by Dali, created at a time when particle physics was a hot topic in scientific circles. The ‘0’ in ‘0.314…’ represents the egg, whilst the incorporation of pi is meant to represent the sense of inconsistent repetition which we see in Dali’s painting; note that in the distance of Dali’s painting, between the snow-capped mountains can be seen the image of another hand clasping an egg in an ‘echo’ of the central hand. The incorporation of pi here was also because I not only got a strong sense of the mathematical from the image, particular by way of the repetitions and the chess-board, but also the Greek statue on the right in front of the mountains, which I saw as harking back to Pythagorean devotion in some sense. As I explored with this method of creating art using using words, exploring this point of intersection between words and images, it became apparent just how many endless possibilities there were. Ballard saw that first. 




6 thoughts on “Painting with words – J. G. Ballard’s Text Art inspired by Salvador Dali

    1. Many thanks David! Wow is it really at the Tate now?? I’d love to see it up close! May have to go now. I had no idea it was small actually.. it’s very interesting that many of his best known works are so miniature.. persistence of memory is the size of a postcard.. It’s fascinating to imagine the intricacy needed to paint it. I really wish there was a video of him painting the persistence to see how he did it


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