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.
There is likely no greater example of a single artwork having such a profound and lasting influence on an artist than Dali’s influence by Jean Francois Millet’s Angelus. Dali had been familiar with the work since childhood – a reproduction of the painting had hung on a secluded wall of his grammar school. But Dali’s obsessional, even paranoiac return to the image would not occur until 1932, when he had a striking vision in which the painting ‘suddenly appeared in my mind without any recent recollection or conscious association… It left with me a profound impression, I was most upset by it… the Angelus of Millet suddenly became for me the most troubling of pictorial works, the most enigmatic, the most dense, the richest in unconscious thoughts that had ever existed’ (Dali, The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus, 1938). From that point forward the work brought about frequent delirious episodes in Dali, during which the symbols and figures of the Angelus would appear again and again in his everyday life, to plague him, to haunt his consciousness.
It was from such paranoiac visions however that the systematic approach to Dali’s work would emanate, and would eventually take form as his ‘paranoiac-critical method’, a means by which the artist ‘organizes and objectivizes in an exclusivist manner the limitless and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective and objective ‘significance’ in the irrational… it makes the world of delirium pass onto the plane of reality’ (Dali, ‘The Conquest of the Irrational’ 1935). The Angelus thus served as the genesis of Dali’s dream symbology, wherein the manifest images come to take on very specific, latent meanings – representing his fears, obsessions, anxieties, his hopes and wants. Such an approach, which followed in the footsteps of his theoretical teacher, Sigmund Freud, would become fundamental to the Surrealist movement at large. The book in which Dali expounded his technique, The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus (1938), was believed to have been lost following the outbreak of the second world war, but many decades later it was found, and the secrets of his methods revealed.
Dali’s persistent visions, which were reflected in the innumerable echoes, allusions and appearances of the Angelus in his artworks, eventually led to an astounding discovery, a discovery which could not be proven for another century after Millet’s Angelus was first painted. Dali had been particularly haunted by the lurking sense of death evoked by the image, in particular the sense of the loss of a child – this perhaps a conviction which colluded with the burdensome death of Dali’s older brother in childhood. There is nothing which explicitly supports this idea, other than the grim aspect of the two standing figures. But Dali had no doubt that this was a depiction of the death of a child, and he continued to write his entire Tragic Myth, his entire paranoiac method manifesto based on this unproven belief: ‘The great mythical theme of the death of the son, an essential sentimaent that became apparent in my Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus, was confirmed once my thesis had been completed, without my having yet been able, until recently, to verify it’ (from the later commentary added to his Tragic Myth text). Then, after many years of doubt by almost all those other than Dali himself, the painting was analysed, X-rayed, and there, beneath the many old layers of soil and oil paint, there lay the unquestionable outline of a small coffin, the size of which would suit only a child. Dali was right all along.
Dali once described and analysed the Angelus, and even infused his analysis with his own signature dream symbology:
“In the picture this lonely, crepuscular, mortal place plays the role of the dissection table in the poetic text, because, not only is life fading out on the horizon, but also the pitchfork is plunged into the real substantial meat which the ploughed land has been to man throughout all time. It is plunged into the earth, I said, with that greedy intentionality of fecundity appropriate to the delectable incisions of the surgical knife during the dissection of any corpse which, as everyone knows, is, under diverse analytical pretexts, secretly only looking for the synthetic, fertile and nourishing potato of death. Constant dualism stems from this, felt throughout all ages, a sort of ploughed-earth nutrition, a table for eating – the ploughed earth nourishing itself from that manure as sweet as honey which is nothing but that of the authentic, amoniacal, necrophilic desires – a dualism that finally brings us to consider the ploughed earth, especially when worsened by the twilight, like the best-laden dissection table, which among all others offers us the most appetizing and prime cadaver. This corpse is seasoned with that fine and imponderable truffle that is only found in nutritive dreams consisting of the flesh from the rounded shoulders of hitlerian atavistic nurses, and with an incorruptible, exciting salt made by the frenetic, voracious squirming of ants… ”
– Salvador Dali, in ‘Explanation of an illustration from the Chants de Maldoror’ (Appendix to Tragic Myth…)
The surprising link between Dali, Van Gogh and the Praying Mantis
Another of Dali’s recurrent delusions of the Angelus was the association of the woman figure with the praying mantis – Dali saw these insects as evoking Freudian notions of the atavistic, primal instincts of the mother figure. The woman of the Angelus, beside the bowed head of the father figure, reminded Dali of such atavistic urges following the death of the child. This, in all the works by Dali containing both figures, the female towers above the male to represent this Mantis-like reversion to animality. Dali revealed that ‘it is indeed this insect that we are going to see illustrate in a dazzling fashion the tragic myth contained in Millet’s Angelus’ (Tragic Myth, 81). Another great titan of art also showed an obsession with the Angelus painting – Van Gogh. But, oddly enough, Van Gogh only showed such obsessive tendencies whilst in the most tempestuous and delirious state of his madness. Then, many years later, in the late-1980s, when Dali was very ill and not of sound mind, yet another surprising discovery was made – this time involving mantids. It was discovered that the praying mantis is the only creature on earth to have what is known as a ‘cyclopean ear’, that is a ‘single, midline ear’ (discovered by Yager and Hoy).
It is of course well known that during one of his episodes, Van Gogh cut off his ear – in a strange echo of that lurking presence of the praying mantis in the painting which plagued him so whilst in the stirring void of madness. What is it about this strange, latent presence of the praying mantis? Was Dali’s conception of the mantis being so central in the Angelus, and Van Gogh’s psychotic episode during which he obsessed over the Angelus and cut of his own ear, a mere coincidence? Or is this the power of the unconscious mind laid bare? Is the Angelus, as Dali suggests, among the most powerful latent images to ever have been created? Could it be that this unconscious presence of the mantis, which Dali so piercingly identified, also gripped Van Gogh in his delirious state? Through the Angelus, Dali showed his instinctual power to perceive the unconscious, to unveil the latent world – but it was only when science intervened that the truth could be revealed to the world. But the great and enigmatic Dali, needed no-one to prove him right or wrong, for he knew all along… for that is the power of art.
What better way to celebrate Christmas than with a cocktail of festive surrealist art? Surprisingly (or not) there are few works which fall into this category, but I’ve managed to track down some particularly interesting examples. I’ve included a mix of new and old works in line with that old Christmas trope of temporal negation. Have a Merry Christmas!
NB: Dali Xmas cards from here. Kinigstein’s drawing is from here. Featured image is by James McCarthy (aka. Tolkyes @ deviantart)