The history of art is a long and complex story, for art has been present for as long as man can remember. But the story of art, particularly modern art, can never be considered complete without mentioning the Spanish artist Salvador Dali. Famous for his creations, unique appearance, and eccentric behavior, Dali left a lasting mark not only on the artworld but also on the general public’s consciousness. He can be rightfully considered as among the artists who ushered in a new artistic movement, one that was neither seen before nor expected by society. But who exactly is Salvador Dali? What are his contributions to the arts? Why are his works valued highly? In answering these questions, it is necessary to consider the historical and sociocultural contexts in which Dali thrived. Only by situating his life’s work within its proper contexts can one appreciate the role Salvador Dali played in advancing Surrealism as an art movement as well as in changing modern art forever.
The World of the Early 20th Century
The early 20th century was a time of important changes in various aspects of society. Building upon and at the same departing from the developments of the 19th century, society was exploring new frontiers in the art and sciences. The field of psychology, in particular, was undergoing rapid transformation. During this time, a renowned psychologist by the name of Sigmund Freud was developing a new theory known as psychoanalysis. According to Freud, the mind is a vast complex that involves layers of thought, feelings, memories, and impulses beneath consciousness and these components of the unconscious mind significantly influence conscious behavior. Freud, for instance, believed that dreams are manifestations of fears or desires that lie in the unconscious mind (Thornton). The theory of psychoanalysis led to profound changes not only in the treatment of psychological conditions; as will be discussed later, it also found its way to the arts and other aspects of society. In some way, the rise of Modern art and Modernism in general has had the same dramatic impact on the 20th century like the Renaissance’s impact on the Western world during the 15th century.
Another important development of the early 20th century was the emergence of modern art. In the late 19th century, a group of artists in Paris began exhibiting their works outside of the Salon. The Salon was the academic body that held exhibits and awarded prizes. The group of artists, which included painters such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, and Edgar Degas, rejected what they considered the antiquated conventions upheld by the Salon. They produce works that departed from such conventions and in doing so spearheaded a new movement known as Modern art (Samu). By the time Dali came to prominence, Modern art was already firmly established through the proliferation of preceding styles such as Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism. Dali himself started out as a Cubist painter, with many of his early works exhibiting the hallmarks of the said style (Mukkamala).
Salvador Dali’s Art
Salvador Dali was born on the 11th of May 1904 in the small town of Figueres in eastern Spain. He was the son of a middle-class lawyer. Although Dali was raised under an environment of strict discipline by his father yet indulged by his mother, both parents recognized their son’s artistic talents and encouraged him to pursue art. In 1922, Dali entered the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid. He also visited Paris on occasion. It was during the 1920s that he became acquainted with influential artists and writers of the time including Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Joan Miro among others (Meisler). His exposure to these artists influenced his art. While Dali’s early works show a predilection to Cubism and Dadaism, he became known for his works that were squarely within the Surrealist style. The shift to Surrealism is often attributed to his acquaintance with Surrealist artists.
With his newfound passion for Surrealism, Dali began producing paintings that go beyond representation of the real world. Instead, these works depict an unseen fantastical world where objects assume unlikely forms. Human parts, animals, and inanimate items meld together to form otherworldly creatures set against expansive and desolate rocky landscapes not unlike vast wastelands. In his works elephants walk on absurdly long legs; disembodied eyes, mouths, limbs, and faces routinely appear; tigers leap out of fish; and amorphous entities hover like soft phantoms. Though these works often come across as incongruous imagery without meaning, it is precisely their lack of logical narrative that makes them Surrealist works. As the word surreal itself signals, these images are represent the bizarre.
Dali’s works attempt to capture and illustrate the experience of dreaming. Just like in a dream where logic is suspended and alien forms are encountered, Dali’s paintings take the viewer to unlikely worlds that defy conventional interpretations. These are the sort of strange imagery that can only be encountered in the depth of dreams. The viewer can only guess what his paintings and the elements they depict mean using psychoanalysis as a tool for dissecting his works. Consider, for instance, Dali’s most famous painting The Persistence of Memory. In this painting, clocks melt like soft cheese and ants gather on the cold steel cover of a pocket watch (“Salvador Dali”). Such images are so out of this world that their exact meaning eludes the viewer.
The traces of the unconscious, however, can be clearly discerned. Dali is said to have seen ants devouring an insect’s carcass as a young child. Using Freud’s assertion that childhood experiences find their way to the unconscious, many have interpreted the presence of ants in his works as a symbol of death and decay (“Salvador Dali”). In other words, the ants are not merely ants but instead are manifestations of the artist’s view and possibly fear of his own mortality. Looking at this image, it is quite easy for the viewer to sense Dali’s fear, too. The image of the ants is like a sharp tool that taps into the viewer’s consciousness. Dali’s depiction of a common insect conjures memories of carcasses overwhelmed by these tiny foragers. But no one has the monopoly of interpretation. Others have read the ants as Dali’s sexual desire, which he was unable to explore and satisfy due to a childhood experience of reading a book with illustrations of sexually transmitted diseases. Dali was apparently revolted to the point that it disrupted his ability to enjoy sex (Gibson 71).
The question of whether the ants represent death and decay or sexual desire is not the primary point of Dali’s work. One could write a dissertation on one element and the conclusions would still be contestable. The point is that these images are not rendered randomly but instead have underlying meaning. Such is typical of his work; they are characteristic of Freud’s argument that arbitrary elements of the unconscious have meaning. Dali’s articulation of his unconscious is what makes him an important figure in Modern art. Dali had contemporaries who also created Surrealist works, but few were able to capture and illustrate the otherworldly experience of tapping into the unconscious. With his works, Dali made tangible an unseen world that lies deep beneath the veneer of waking existence. He brought to the public’s attention a marriage of art and psychology and in the process brought the expression, production, and consumption of art to new horizons.
Gibson, Ian. The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí. London, Faber and Faber, 1997.
Meisler, Stanley. “The Surreal World of Salvador Dalí.” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2005. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-surreal-world-of-salvador-dali-78993324/. Accessed 5 October 2020.
Mukkamala, Krishna. “Salvador Dali: A 20th Century Artistic Genius.” Modern Influences on Contemporary Art. http://www.people.vcu.edu/~djbromle/modern-art/index.htm. Accessed 5 October 2020.
“Salvador Dali.” Museum of Modern Art. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79018. Accessed 5 October 2020.
Samu, Margaret. “Impressionism: Art and Modernity.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/imml/hd_imml.htm. Accessed 5 October 2020.
Thornton, Stephen. “Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/freud/. Accessed 5 October 2020.