Nobody in the world had such a degree of paranoiac self-obsession as Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Though Surrealism as a whole was marked by an interest in the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and the ego, the Catalan artist took the idea of the singular art genius to a whole other degree, melding narcissism, sex, post-industrial revolution art movements, and hallucinatory drugs. Dalí coined his process of turning to the subconscious the “paranoiac-critical method.” It is arguably the most widely remembered vein of Surrealist dissociation to come out of this leftist group of Paris-based painters.
Taking cues from Cubism and other contemporary art movements, Dalí filtered everyday experiences through subconscious and dreamlike coding. In 1934, Time Magazine called his brand of Surrealism “distortions of familiar objects.” Inspired by the goals of Cubism, he was interested in capturing the variable ways humans can see multiple things in one object. He hoped to capture this phenomenon of multiplicity in each work through the use of optical illusion.
In the “Paranoia” (1935-36) he depicted a female bust without a head. A procession of soldiers forms the outline of a phantom, downward looking head. The soldiers are presumably serving the right-wing fascist state, which Dalí controversially supported—one of the reasons he would ultimately get kicked out of the Surrealist camp. Dalí saw his support of the Fascist party as a means of self-preservation. Being on good terms with the state meant evading taxes, a general practice of the wealthy in Spain. In “Paranoia” you at once see a reflective bust and the painter’s impression that the right wing power held political and cultural control of the Spanish state.
In Renaissance painting, which Dalí was learned, painters attempted to represent the world as they saw it. Dalí tried to capture his inner world as he saw it. His paintings often reduced large themes into overlaying symbols, making the exacting message of each hard to pin down. He rejected the theory that the melting clocks in “The Persistence of Time” (1931) were a representation of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. He instead described them as melting Camembert cheese in the sun. The melting dreamer and Catalonian cliffs in the background are autobiographical points, which suggest the melting clocks represent Dalí’s anxieties around his own mortality.
With hallucinatory drugs, Dalí turned to the unconscious to create his images. In the 1920s many of Sigmund Freud’s papers on psychoanalysis were translated to Spanish. Dalí read them ferociously and became obsessed with the details of his sexual past and identity. He was obsessed with his sexual inability, instigated by the loss of his mother and realization of his impotence in childhood and adolescent, respectively. In his hallucinations he would access “irrational knowledge” which held the web of explanations for his sexual desires, his experiences, and his “prideful exaltation of self.” Once sober he would paint his hallucinations, in hopes of pinning down the otherwise unconnected correlations.
Painted late in his career, “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea” (1976) dizzily intertwines a majority of Dalí’s thematic concerns. He set to work on this painting in response to a scientific American article on visual perception and the number of pixels needed to describe a unique human face. From afar you see Abraham Lincoln composed of 122 pixels. The graduation of colors in the pixels is tip of the hat to the Mark Rothko’s “Color Field” paintings, an introspective representation of the artist’s mortality. Up close you also see a small a more figurative depiction of Lincoln. The Lincolns reference his admiration of the president’s dedication to the American Civil War, also the appreciation he had for the US as his refuge during WWII. The multiple depiction of his wife and muse, Gala, a matriarch-like figure for him, nearly a decade his senior, are a reference to the solace he found in her. The work is pierced through the center with a focal point that is Gala’s head, Lincoln’s eye, and the sun in a Mediterranean sunset. The overlaying symbols are a compressed constellation of the artist’s “paranoiac” discontents that all make up his mission to define the self.
More of Dalí’s work can be seen at Dali17, the newly opened museum in Monterey, California, dedicated solely to his life and work. Fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, he lived in the seaside city for over seven years.
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