A Weekend of Dali in London

This weekend I was lucky enough to go and see one of my favourite Salvador Dali paintings up close at the Freud museum in London. ‘The Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937) is a painting I’ve written about many times, but it is only when you really see it up close, that you begin to take in the true depth and intricacy of the work. It is much smaller than I had imagined, as I had always thought it would be a few meters tall and wide, for only that could capture the scale of the myth and the events of the painting. But much like ‘The persistence of memory’, which is the size of a postcard, it is relatively small (perhaps a3 sized – see image below). Yet the depth and intricacy of such a small painting, the detail on each and every one of the figures – all fully formed and realized – is staggering. But there is also a dimension – and I’d never really considered this in the images I’d seen printed in books – through the way the paint spatters and oozes and circulates, perambulates in currents of colour making it even more dream-like and psychedelic in reality. With the epigraphs on the walls of the gallery wherein Dali speaks of inhabiting madness whilst painting, I was reminded of Kay Jamison’s book Touched With Fire, in which she writes about the circumambulatory consistencies in works by the great so-called ‘mad’ or manic-minded painters like Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. It seems as if Dali is somehow  tapping into these mentalities here.. The significance of the painting to The Freud museum also bears mentioning, for Dali, like most all the surrealists, worked at the aestheticisation of Freudian psychoanalysis, and so Freud was a hugely significant figure for his ideas. Dali had met Freud at his London house (the house where this very exhibition was held) on July 19th 1938, and Dali had brought this painting along with him. So this was a kind of symbolic return for the painting. Dali took artistic inspiration from their meeting, drawing many pictures of Freud, and even likening Freud’s cranium to the spiralling shell of a snail, using it thenceforth as a symbol for Freud in many subsequent works. Freud himself was taken aback by Dali, and later called him a ‘mad Spaniard’ (surely this brought major boasting rights to Dali considering the stature of some of Freud’s best known patients), but he too was nevertheless deeply impacted by their meeting. Freud later said: “I was inclined to look upon the surrealists, who have apparently chosen me as their patron saint, as absolute cranks. The young Spaniard, however, with his candid fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery, has made me reconsider my opinion”. Not a bad legacy hey? To convince the very founder of psychoanalysis that just maybe there’s something to surrealism after all? Breton famously kicked Dali out of the movement, and yet it was Dali, not Breton, who convinced Freud of their significance. So anyway, to finish the weekend off, on the Saturday I presented a conference paper at Birkbeck university on Salvador Dali and the symbolism of death and decay within his work.

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me gazing on the Metamorphosis, beside which are the echoing, joyous words of Dali – “the only difference between myself and a madman, is that I am not mad!”

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“In classic paintings, I look for the unconscious – in a surrealist painting, for the conscious” – SIGMUND FREUD
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Freud’s spiralling, conical cranium
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a poem written by Dali to complement the painting
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Freud’s infamous couch and the office where many of the legendary unconscious plunders were undertaken…

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Freud’s totem collection. It is said he often held many of these figures as he spoke to patients, as if trying to draw some ancient, mythic significance from them… the ancient myths and the unconscious mind are seen as somehow deeply intertwined

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“the voice of beauty speaks softly”

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Franz Hals – The Lute Player (1623)

“One has to speak with thunder and heavenly fireworks to feeble and dormant senses. But the voice of beauty speaks softly: it steals into only the most awakened souls. Gently my mirror trembled and laughed to me today; it was beauty’s holy laughter and trembling”

– Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

“Give me madness, you heavenly powers!”

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William Blake – Cain fleeing the wrath of God (1805)

“Ah, give me madness, you heavenly powers! Madness that I may at last believe in myself! Give deliriums and convulsions, sudden lights and darkness, terrify me with frost and fire such as no mortal has ever felt, with deafening din and prowling figures, make me howl and whine and crawl like a beast: so that I may only come to believe in myself!”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak

“this most ancient and original form of frenzy”

Salvador Dalí – The Great Masturbator (1929) 

“If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is no art. All kinds of frenzy, however diversely conditioned, have the strength to accomplish this: above all, the frenzy of sexual excitement, this most ancient and original form of frenzy”

– Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

“let the reins fall before the infinite”

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Giorgio de Chirico – Perseus with his horse (1940)

“We seek those moments and marvellous experiences when a great power has voluntarily come to a halt before the boundless and infinite, when a superabundance of refined delight has been enjoyed by a sudden checking and petrifying, by standing firmly and planting oneself fixedly on still trembling ground. Proportionateness is strange to us, let us confess it to ourselves; our itching is really the itching for the infinite, the immeasurable. Like the rider on his forward panting horse, we let the reins fall before the infinite, we modern men, we semi-barbarians, and are only in our highest bliss when we are most in danger!”

– Friedrich Nietzsche