A Weekend of Dali in London

This weekend I got see one of my favourite Salvador Dali paintings, ‘The Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, up close at the Freud museum in London. What a moment it was! I’ve written about this painting many times, but like most I’d only ever seen it reproduced in books or through online images etc. The work was all the more impressive as it enables you to see all the tiny intricacies, and Dali really was a master miniaturist. To give an example, ‘The persistence of memory’ is the size of a postcard and yet it has all the depth and intricacy of a painting 10 times the size! The detail on the figures (see some cropped pics below) is sublime, and what strikes me most is his incredible grasp of shadow… it is like he has perfected exactly how a shadow must fall onto every object within a landscape with absolute precision. The paint spats and oozes and circulates in currents of colour making it even more dream-like and psychedelic in reality (Kay Jamison writes about the circumambulatory consistencies in works by the great so-called ‘mad’ or manic-minded painters like Van Gogh and Edvard Munch and so maybe Dali’s tapping something deeper here..). The significance of the painting to The Freud museum also bears mentioning. Dali, like most all the surrealists, worked at the aestheticisation of Freudian psychoanalysis, and so Freud was a hugely significant figure for his life and ideas. Dali met Freud at his London house on July 19th 1938, and brought this painting along with him. 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 was somewhat taken aback by Dali, and called him a ‘mad Spaniard’, but was still 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 eh? To convince the 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. To top the weekend off, on Saturday I presented a conference paper at Birkbeck university on Salvador Dali and decay aesthetics (this can be read after the images from the exhibit below).


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!”






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


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


Dali paper given at Birkbeck London:

Deciphering Visions of Death and Decay in the Paranoiac Art and Writing of Salvador Dali

The legendary Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali was an artist who relished the eccentric, the audacious, the dionysian. In youth he was expelled from schools, and in adulthood he was expelled from entire movements – and loved it. His iconic dream-galvanising works bearing spindly-legged elephants and rhinoceri, oozing camembert clocks and death masks, flaming giraffes, giant locusts, anthropomorphic cliffs and rock formations, are at once farcical fantasies and probing explorations of self. Buried beneath these scenes of Rabelaisian absurdity we so often find an overriding sense of desolation and decay: endless crumbling landscapes and wandering spectres; fossilised architectures, and apocalyptic scenes of war and terror. But what do they signify? As a member of the surrealists, a movement borne of the seismic discovery of the Freudian unconscious, his art worked towards the aestheticisation of psychoanalysis; the uprooting and artistic exposition of dream psychology. Psychoanalysis inherently centers around ideas of the decaying psyche: and dreams likewise work at appeasing some repressed urge, some looming, festering obsession or neuroses.

Paranoiac critical method

Dali wrote extensively on his craft and its engagement with such psychoanalytic ideas – appearing alongside the likes of Jacques Lacan in Minotaure in 1931, even meeting Freud himself in 1938, and he developed a revolutionary means of self-analysis which he hailed the ‘paranoiac critical method’. This was a means of designating and systematising the kaleidoscopic cornucopia of his dreams. He described how the method “organizes and objectivizes, in an exclusivist manner, the limitless and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective ‘significance’ in the irrational… it makes the world of delirium pass onto the plane of reality” (from Dali’s 1935 essay ‘The Conquest of the Irrational’). Harnessing the recurrent images of his dreams, he placed himself ‘on the couch’ so to speak, painting a symbolic, ‘manifest’ rendition of his ‘latent’ emotional state. And Once these private fantasies and visions of madness are deciphered, through his recollections of childhood and the key events in his life, there begins to emerge a very precise and evocative rendition of inner thought and feeling.

The great masturbator

Taking one of Dali’s famed earlier works, ‘The Great Masturbator’ (1929), as an example, we can see this manifest-vs-latent composition at work. First and foremost we see the domineering downward facing profile of Dali, the shape of which mirrors a Catalonian rock formation he used to visit alone as a child. So immediately we have this strong sense of childhood shame radiating from the painting. A boy’s  grazed knee in the upper right further reinforces this child-like timidity in the overwhelming angelic presence of Gala, his lifelong love, who is adorned with the image of a drooling lion, symbolising burning lust, as she nuzzles his nethers. Dali had a great phobia of locusts, and so the giant locust covering Dali’s mouth here represents his great looming fear of sex in youth, the antennae recreating his signature sweeping moustache and perhaps representing his adult self. This fear of sex and sexual desire in his youth stemmed (at least in part) from his father, who used to leave out a book with grotesque pictures of sufferers of venereal disease as a warning of what happens to sexual deviants (Secret Life). Ants are a recurrent symbol of death and decay in Dali’s work, this stemming from a vivid childhood memory of a dead bat covered in ants, which he proceeded to bite into for reasons known only to himself. Here then the locust’s abdomen being covered in ants perhaps represents this slow death or ebbing of his fear: in other words, his rising sexual confidence. This is then bolstered by the small egg in the bottom centre, which represents hope and fertility in his work, and the two embracing figures close by who represent this faint and distant hope of a lasting and passionate relationship. Thus, we see how these images work at some hidden logic: the maniacal manifest content cloaks an underlying latency and truth.

Persistence of Memory

Especially important for Dali is this idea of the decay of time, and of memory, and this is something best evoked in what is likely his most famous work, ‘The Persistence of Memory’. The ironic title, contrasted utterly with the oozing clocks which signify the ebbing flow of time and memory, toys with the inherent contradictions of dreams and the inner world; the subconscious as the inverse of the waking mind, which is geared at fabrication; the rebus of the dream. The work can be seen to evoke similar ideas to that which Jean-Paul Sartre explores in his classic existentialist novel, Nausea, in which Antoine Roquentin describes the inevitable corruption of memory as we think on the past: “we only receive the scraps of images, remembered or invented… sometimes I happen to pronounce some of those beautiful names you read in atlases… they engender brand new pictures in me… but for a hundred dead stories there remains only one or two living ones. These I evoke cautiously, occasionally, not too often, for fear of wearing them out” (Nausea, pp. 52-53). The decay of memory here then is equated with the decay of truth: as we reminisce on the past more and more the fabrication of ‘false memories’ ensues, and so it is that Dali’s biography, The Secret Lifeof Salvador Dali, is littered with these self-admitted ‘false memories’ which are something more like the shadows of memories due to their gradual dissipation.

Un chien Andelou

Another of Dali’s most iconic works was in a very different medium: the 1929 silent film ‘Un chien andelou’ or ‘An Andalusian dog’, written with Louis Bunuel. Shot in the vein of a Freudian dream sequence and urging the viewer to free association, it centers loosely around a young woman’s turbulent love life. She ages and meets many different men, but none seem to have the same lasting effect on her as the very first man she meets. This man, oddly enough, is garbed in nuns clothes on their first meeting, and appears violent towards both her and her subsequent lovers (presumably out of jealousy), but nevertheless her love for him supersedes all others. At one point in the film we see a pair of rotten donkey corpses draped over a pair of pianos – this was the image Dali was said to have based the entire film around (Secret Life). They are tied to a piece of rope along with broken tablet pieces bearing the ten commandments, and 2 bewildered priests (one of which is Dali himself), and dragged aggressively toward the woman in what appears to be a symbol of his forcing his religious beliefs upon her. This nightmarish image of the rotten donkeys then, contextualised by the presence of other Christian iconography, seems to evoke the testing of Christian ideals, of one’s faith.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus

Another iconic Dalinian work is the ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, an ekphrastic painting which contains the entirety of Ovid’s myth of Echo and Narcissus in a singular image. 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, symbolises how, as he gazes into the watery depths, he falls in love with his own image.. How he drowns in his own image even. The mirror image being a gigantic hand is particularly pertinent in that it represents at once this idea of an aggrandisement of the self (narcissism) but at the same time this idea of how love denotes, in psychoanalytic terms, the ego-ideal: which is the perfected and grossly augmented rendition of self. So through these 2 central mirrored images we have a depiction of both outer world and inner psychology, and the decay of reality through narcissistic self-love.

Millet’s Angelus

But there was one particular image which plagued Dali for much of his life, an image which he described as at once ‘the most troubling of pictorial works, the most enigmatic, the most dense, the richest in unconscious thoughts that has ever existed’ (The Tragic Myth of Millets Angelus). This image was Jean Francois Millet’s Angelus, and it not only appears in a plethora of Dali’s artwork, in various forms, but was also the primary influence for his paranoiac-critical manifesto, The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus (1933). The painting seems to have been for Dali, the very pinnacle of that manifest-latent divide: a kind of mythologised rendition of the very essence of surrealism and psychoanalysis. The grim aspect of the standing figures left Dali no doubt that here were two people mourning a child, and he continued to write his entire Tragic Myth, based on this unproven belief. Many years later he expressed ‘the great mythical theme of the death of the son, an essential sentiment that became apparent in my Tragic Myth, was confirmed once my thesis had been completed, without my having yet been able, until recently, to verify it’ (intro, Tragic Myth). His obsession, reflected by the innumerable allusions and appearances of the Angelus in his artworks, led to this astounding discovery, only verified a century after the work’s conception by modern x-ray technology. Hidden deep beneath the many layers of soil and 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’s angelus / conclusion

The image is above all, a symbol of lurking truth behind all obsessions, all repressions; the kernel of trauma, the origin or source point which Freud seeks to locate and uproot. But the Angelus also seems to act as a symbol of Dali’s own buried childhood, the haunting by his youth, and the curse of age. The decaying landscapes which are overlooked by these looming seers of the Angelus are transformed under their gaze. They are statues: solid, unfaltering monuments of the object, manifest world, lost and misplaced totems in the vast and eternal dreamscapes of unknown latency… 





Painting with words – Text Art inspired by Ballard and 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. 



Salvador Dali’s Night Before Christmas (flash fic)

Twas the night before Christmas and 7-year-old little Salvador Dali was in his favourite place: deep in the psychic vastness of his unconscious mind. He swam through dreams with prodigious ease, and his dreams were nothing like that of his friends, for theirs tended to revolve around petty matters like toys and candy canes and sibling squabbles. Oh no – to compare little Salvador’s dreams with those of others his age was like comparing the collision of two neutron stars with that of two glass marbles. His dreams were fuelled by such a combustion of imagination that he often awoke to find himself in a monochromatic, an ashen world, a world through which he would stumble dazedly, searching for some portal which would take him back to the cornucopia of his dreams, in which he could once again soar.

Deep in the dead of this night, little Salvador awoke suddenly upon hearing a loud noise. He sat up with a start, his eyes taking a moment to adjust to the pitch dark. There seemed nothing out of place, everything was as expected. His school uniform still hung on the cupboard door, his father’s silver pocketwatch still lay on his bedside cabinet, his books on DaVinci still splayed haphazardly across his little desk. Dangling above his desk was a cardboard solar system which spun idly, the lunar rays casting planetary shadows onto the walls, so that they thrummed with a silent and cosmic intensity. He put his head back on his pillow and willed himself hungrily back to his other world, his surreality, and consciousness again dissolved like melting butter in a pan. Then, mere milliseconds before he tipped back into the land of Freud, there came a clear but gentle tap… tap… tap… at the window.

Salva slowly turned over to face the window, eyes still feigned shut. He could see the faint swaying outlines of the vines which clambered over the house… perhaps one of the tendrils was tapping the window as it wafted in the wind. He frowned, closed his eyes, and once again began to drift away. seconds later… tap… tap… tap… only this time it was different. Quicker, more urgent, and somehow, less natural. His heart fluttered a little now, a caged hummingbird. But little Salva was not easily spooked, for the vibrant ferocity of his dreams was matched only by the sheer otherworldly horror of his nightmares. He untucked himself and crawled over to the window on all fours. The tapping had stopped, but he could still see the blurred shape of a thick vine, which moved with odd, jerking movements. He got hold of the corner of the curtain and pulled it open just a sliver…

“OH DIOS MIO!!!” he cried,

stumbling backwards and pulling the curtains clean off the rail. There, almost filling the entire frame of his window, was the face of a gigantic swan. Salva crawled backwards over his bed frantically, falling forcefully onto the floor on the other side, the moon’s dazzling light tracking him like a prison spotlight. The great swan peered down at him curiously, as though observing a strange misshapen cygnet in a fit of frenzy.

After a long minute, still rasping, he peeked over his bed. The swan was no longer there. He stared at the window wide-eyed, til it seemed like long moments passed. Was he dreaming? He poked himself on the nose and let out a snort. After a few more minutes, when he was convinced that the swan must have been the shadow of a dream seeping into reality, he hopped back into bed, and closed his eyes once more. Just one more peek? No. No more peeking. Just one? He looked over one last time and this time he saw a slender hand appear, reaching slowly from beneath the window ledge. He stared wide-eyed, unable to move. It was normal-sized, and it was clearly a woman’s hand, but it looked strangely faint and ghostly. It seemed to glow. Then, with no effort at all, the hand pushed on little Salvador’s locked window, and it swung open wide. He jumped up onto his bed and put up his fists, but before he even had a chance to react a flurry of snow swept into his room, coating him like a snowman and his bed like an iced cake. Squinting into the blizzard, little Salva saw the woman was beckoning him outside. ‘NO! Leave me alone!’ He shouted. And she vanished from out into the white night.

For a few seconds he felt very stupid stood there covered in snow. But then he felt some other feeling well up. Courage. Perhaps out of sheer wonder, or perhaps sheer madness, he ran towards the open window and looked outside frantically, searching the shadows of his snow-covered garden below. No-one was there. He leaned out further, trying to look beneath the jutting roof edge. Then suddenly he felt something grip the back of his pajamas and in one quick motion he was hauled up and out of his window like a lost pup and dropped onto the back of the great swan who perched on his roof. Before he could even utter a yelp, the swan began hopping across the rooftops with its giant webbed feet, before spreading its great white wings like the almighty sails of the Argo and soaring off into the night sky. Soon the snow-caked rooftops of the sleeping city of Figueres were barely visible, so small they seemed almost Lilliputian, the street lamps nothing more than a swarm of distant fireflies.

As they flew higher and further away from all traces of humanity, the world he had known just moments before seemed but a distant memory, and little Salvador realised that his initial state of panic had now completely subsided, lost in a crashing tide of wonder and awe. The real world with all its logic and laws, its linearities and geometries slowly began to melt away…

High above them, where the moon once perched, there was now a perfectly formed egg which floated horizontally. It had a slender crack running through its centre, from which there dribbled a thick molten yolk. Far below there was a great checkerboard lake, the surface covered in thick ice checkered black and white. Here and there he saw soldiers scampering across the ice, slipping and sliding, as well as armoured knights, and horses which galloped with a speed and grace that eclipsed all the others he had ever seen. A few miles on they came upon a vast plain littered with windmills, only in place of their rotor blades were gigantic spinning butterflies; the dust from their luminescent wings billowed as they spun wildly, sending a shimmering mist into the sky. There were groves of snow-capped trees shaped like craniums, and great crystallised monoliths alongside building-sized baguettes which were buried deep into the earth. There were mechanical statues with clockwork hearts, and strange giant rubber faces which hobbled around on wooden crutches, and ghostly nomads who were somehow only there if he didn’t look directly at them, dancing in his peripheral vision. Everywhere he looked there were new wonders to behold, but the swan flew on.

As they passed over the next alpine peak Salva was met with a sight which filled him with such wonder that tears streamed from his eyes. A formation of reindeer towered high above the snowy fields, lolloping on spindly, elongated legs. Their enormous antlers groped for the stars like fuzzy cacti, and seemed to converge above their collective heads into some chestnut coral reef. Occasionally elfin sprites danced in and out of the ossiferous weave of antlers like the baby-faced soldiers of a celestial anthill. Then, at the rear of the reindeer squadron there came a gigantic moose of the purest white with great crimson antlers. Cradled above its enormous head, resting in the antlers which were like godly open hands, rested a golden throne of such splendour and opulence that the night faltered in its aura. There, seated in his bejeweled throne, was Papa Noel. His colossal white beard swirled like a nimbus, his red cheeks bloomed like rose apples, his cloak seemed made of purest gold. but what stood out most of all was his incredible mustache – at odds with his white beard it was jet black, and it swept outwards and upwards like two royal scimitars, swishing loudly as he turned his great head. As Salva gazed at him time seemed to melt away, seconds became millenia. Then he saw Papa Noel glance down at his watch, and as he did it started to drool from his arm like fresh oven-baked brie. Time was running out. Then, as the watch fell from his wrist and little Salva gazed upon this resplendent figure, he felt the world began to melt. The snow became dripping white paint, an avalanche of paint, and it oozed down over great troupe of reindeer so that they began to stumble on their frail legs, dragging the giant moose and the throne down with them. As they plummeted towards the ground, so too did the great swan upon which Salvador sat. He fell through the sky faster and faster, the ground coming closer and closer, and so he raised his arms, bracing himself for the cold white impact below…

Then he was back in his bed.

holding his bedcovers out like great wings.

It was a dream.

Nothing more.

With this realisation he put his face in his covers and began to sob.

He felt the covers dampening as he clutched them to his face.

He noticed there was some paint smeared on his covers.

Then after a few moments he heard something.

Tap… tap… tap…

He didn’t believe it at first. Wishful thinking, nothing more.

Then he slowly lifted up his head and through the glaze of his tear-filled eyes he saw there was a woman standing at the end of his bed.

He jumped and held his covers up to his eyes.

She was smiling gently, glowing softly, her aura serene.

The woman reached into her pocket, though the motion was unusual, more like opening a chest of drawers. And she took out what looked like a simple thin piece of wood, the end of which was covered in the finest hair. It was a paintbrush. She placed it into his hands and he looked down at it. When he looked back up she was gone. He walked to the window and looked down on his garden, the he looked up in the hope he might see the great swan. But there was nothing.

He looked around at his dreary room, and his grey walls, and then again out of the window over the bleached landscape, and then he did something quite unexpected; something completely unconscious. He lifted the paintbrush, and he began to paint over all that he saw. He used no oils, no watercolours, he used only his imagination…

‘Thank you, my muse’ murmured Salva, and he painted and painted and painted until eventually he fell into a deep, dreamless and harmonious sleep.



NB: The final image is Dali’s ‘Leda Atomica’ (1949). MERRY XMAS!!! xxx

Millet’s Angelus: The Enigmatic Source of Salvador Dali’s Paranoiac-critical Surrealism

Jean Francois Millet’s Angelus (1859)

There is likely no greater example in art of a single work 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 hung on a secluded wall of his grammar school. But the obsessional, paranoiac aspect to the image would not come until a striking vision in 1932 at which point ‘it 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, Tragic Myth). From that point on the work brought about frequent delirious episodes in Dali, during which the symbols and figures of the Angelus would appear in his daily life to plague and haunt his consciousness.

Dali’s The Angelus (1935)

It was from such paranoiac visions however that the systematic approach to Dali’s work would emanate, and would come to formulate the 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’ (from Dali’s 1935 essay ‘The Conquest of the Irrational’). The Angelus thus served as the genesis of Dali’s latency-driven works which would later represent a crucial component of the surrealist movement at large. The analytical frame to Dali’s technique is expounded in his 1938 work, The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus, a work which was believed lost for many decades following the outbreak of the second work war.

The male figure from the Angelus appears in Dali’s ‘meditation on the harp’ (1932-33)

Dali’s persistent visions, which are reflected in the innumerable allusions and appearances of the Angelus in his artworks, led to an astounding discovery, which was only verified over a century after the work’s creation by modern x-raying technology. 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 (perhaps a conviction which colluded with the burdensome death of Dali’s brother in childhood), though in the image there is nothing which explicitly suggests such, other than the grim aspect of the standing figures. But Dali had little doubt that there this was a depiction of the death of a child, and he continued to write his entire Tragic Myth, his entire paranoiac activity 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, and there, beneath the many 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.

homage to millet.jpg
Dali’s ‘homage to Millet’ (1934)

To finish, here’s a sublimely surrealist description of the Angelus written by Dali:

“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’ (found in the appendix of Tragic Myth)


NB: Just as a short additional piece of Dalinian trivia, another fascinating story/conspiracy theory involving the Angelus has to do with the legendary Van Gogh and his cutting off his ear. Another of Dali’s recurrent delusions of the Angelus was the association of the woman figure with the praying mantis; seen as evoking Freudian notions of the atavistic, primal instincts of the mother figure, and her aspect, in conjunction with the bowed head of the father figure, which Dali saw as being reminiscent of cannibalistic urges following the death of the child (note that in all the works by Dali containing both figures, the female towers above the male to represent this mantid analogy). Dali goes as far as to say 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), thus situating the mantis at the very centre of his own decipherment! What’s interesting though, and what links Van Gogh here, is that Van Gogh showed a similar obsession with the Angelus image, but only whilst in his  most delirious state of madness. Now get this, in the late-80s, whilst Dali was very ill and not wholly in his right mind, a scientific discovery was made involving mantids: the mantid is the only known living creature on earth to have what is known as a ‘cyclopean ear’, that is a ‘single, midline ear’ (discovered by Yager and Hoy). This discovery was found a great many years after Dali’s conception of the mantis being so central in the Angelus, and even further after Van Gogh’s psychotic episode during which he cut of his ear, and yet it gives some clarity to the reasoning behind Van Gogh’s cutting off his ear and not any other part of his body, a mystery which baffled historians for many years. Could this indeed be the answer, lying deep in the unconscious workings of this enigmatic painting?! Could it be that the unconscious presence of the mantis also infected Van Gogh in his delirious state and led him to the act of severing his ear?! We will never know for sure, but it is certainly a theory which champions the authority of the unconscious mind, and which undoubtedly makes Dali all the more endearing.

Salvador Dali – Don Quixote

“Maybe the greatest madness of all is to see life as it is rather than what it could be” -Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

“There’s a method to my madness, and a madness to my method” – Salvador Dali

A small selection of Dali’s artworks based on Cervantes’s timeless classic Don Quixote:























NB: images (mostly) sourced from The Salvador Dali Museum.