Dali and the Stage of Surrealism

Apparatus and Hand, 1927

At a certain point in his life as an artist, Salvador Dali fused Illustration and Formalism, two modes of painting that at first glance appear to be incompatible. He also made that fusion his theme, and in doing so placed it in the theater of painting. The new Dali Museum in St. Petersburg Florida affords an excellent opportunity to see this unique drama. On simultaneous view for the first time is the museum’s entire collection of the artist’s paintings, from the early Impressionist and Cubist inspired works to the large elaborately detailed paintings of his later years. It is the work from his Surrealist period, beginning in the late twenties, that marks the drama I want to write about. When seen next to the earlier and the later works we must admit that we are a witness to something unique in Dali’s oeuvre, that is, something unlike what had been done before in painting, and seen only diffusely or as a well rehearsed game in the artist’s later works.

View from the spiral stairway at the new Dali Museum

Painters don’t conveniently fall into categories, which can only provide basic guidelines. Thus, in finding adequate descriptions, one speaks of landscape and flesh with regard to de Kooning’s abstractions, and one admires the play of paint in Goya and El Greco, which paradoxically directs attention beyond the illusions of painted appearances. In fact, from speculation on techniques of the ancient cave artists down to the head games of Jasper Johns, the history of painting is a long story with countless detours about the relationship of craft to image. But on the level of the canvas, in a single act, painters did not usually set out to make a statement about this relationship until Dali came along. Only in more recent decades, long after Dali produced the Surrealist works, has this practice become commonplace.

Today we are used to seeing illustration juxtaposed with geometry, as well as works that draw attention to the process of both making and seeing art. But when Cézanne moved toward Cubism, he was not combining two modes of perception so much as moving painting toward Formalism, which reached an extreme in the works of Ad Reinhardt. And we now know that this movement did not convey a linear progression to a more advanced form of understanding, but merely a movement in a particular direction. While some artists acted as though they were advancing a cause, others simply recognized that possibilities for painting were opening up. Dali is a fascinating case. The Surrealist works show that he chose not to choose between the two modes. Whether in doing this he represented a retrograde movement, culminating in the less vital classicism of his later works, I’m not certain. But it can’t be denied that his Surrealist paintings are very beautiful works of art.

From those first experiments toward Surrealism we see the two tendencies as if competing for ascendancy. Gradually what at first seemed a struggle became a game until, with the later canvases, it became a display of skill. But long before these large show pieces, and just after the early years of experimentation, Dali, barely thirty years old, became aware of the drama, and this drama became one of the great acts of twentieth century art. In a brilliant moment Dali encased this drama within the frames of a series of small and exquisite paintings.

The Spectral Cow, 1928

In early works such as The Spectral Cow we see the artist exploring a Picasso-like distortion of the figure. The results bear a resemblance to Miró’s work. But unlike Picasso and Miró, composition was not Dali’s strong point. He liked to focus on details; he had the eye of an illustrator. In the Spectral Cow paintings as well as works such as The Unsatisfied Desire (1928) and Beigneuse, Dali brought large balloon-like forms to tiny focal points. The energy with which the eye is brought to these points is at odds with the minimal stylization of the large forms. And the tiny details, as well as textured areas, offer a strong contrast to the curvilinear movements.

Beigneuse, 1928

In Apparatus and Hand stylization and detail are better reconciled. It’s as if the simple classical device of perspective in this picture satisfied the artist’s taste for the literal enough to allow the abstractness of the central image, the “apparatus”, to retain its formal integrity. At the same time the blue shading of the apparatus causes it to both merge with and protrude from the blue background. The hand continues and multiplies this formal conflict. As a symbol of technology, the apparatus should be the tool subordinate to the human hand. But the hand seems to be stuck to the apparatus, subordinate to it, placed perversely and helplessly on its tabletop. The blue veins in the hand seem less like a point of union with the picture’s blue environment than a perverse echo of it, a useless pasted on twig, a twig itself being an immobile mockery of a hand. The hand seems less human than the apparatus which, with its tiny legs, assumes a humanoid form. But although less alive, more like a glove than a hand, it nevertheless bristles with an electric intensity. Here again Dali has reversed the terms, for it is our machines that operate on electricity. The hand seems to be the growth, the extension of the apparatus, rather than the contrary. The female torso floating in the background echoes the theme of reversal. It has been removed not only from an organic context, but also a classical art context, only to draw the apparatus closer to that context by placing it center stage, and in so doing the torso hangs in limbo, an ossified human fabrication.

If Apparatus and Hand is the pivotal shift toward Surrealism, the following five years show Dali peopling this new stage with the figures for which he is most famous: the soft clocks, faces and fantastic beings on the dreamlike plazas, beaches and deserts of his imagination. But in 1934 a particular moment of lucidity was reached in two very small paintings on wood panels: Skull and Its Lyric Appendage Leaning on a Bedside Table which Should Have the Temperature of a Cardinal Nest*, and Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano. Both paintings depict a skull and a piano, and in each the skull form is approaching the form of a piano. In Lyric Appendage the skull is actually connected to the piano by an extension beginning at the jaw, where the bone and teeth forms gradually morph into the wood and ivory of the piano.

Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano, 1934

The drama of these paintings involves a play of metaphor on structure. The skull, seen as a support or structure, is confused here with another structure, the piano, an object used to create art structures. In Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano, the figure sitting on the stone wall in the background provides a benign echo to the violent scene in front of it. A human is simply and innocently sitting on a human-made structure. He is at peace with his construction. But in the foreground the very structure of man is at war with technology. Man as the skull, distorted into the shape of his own tool, in turn attacks his tool. The seated man seems at his ease to enter or leave the scene at will. But in the foreground that which is supposed to be the support of the human face has perversely entered the outer world of action, the theater of artistic performance. The figure has his back to the theatrical crisis, and the viewer finds himself the locus of vectors connecting him to the human drama of the painting. (Here one might mention the boat, another structure, leaning toward the viewer as a conspicuous human cavity, like a castoff shoe.) The delicate structure of the painting freezes the violence of its content. And we, as if complicit with the blissfully ignorant seated man, see the violence taking shape but are nearly hypnotized, enchanted by a deeply disquieting beauty.

In the Lyric Appendage painting a house structure again provides a benign accompaniment, along with the bland landscape, to a disturbing scene. In this painting two more man-made objects accompany and support the skull in its struggle. But a compromise seems to have been reached, and so a placid human echo (the seated man) is not necessary to soften the violence. Here the skull, man’s support, becomes one with his tool, but tenuously, awkwardly, painfully, and with the help of other tools which are no more than crutches. The refracted metaphor calls out in a dark melancholy way. It’s a disturbing compromise, which seems to have been hard won and promises to be harder to sustain, despite the appearance of great age in the forms. But a perfect moment has been reached. A delicate, insidious balance has been attained and frozen.

Dali achieved such a moment to varying degrees of success in later paintings, but never again with this degree of profound and beautiful lucidity.

*I have never seen a reproduction that shows the true colors of this painting, which are very delicate pastel pinks, violets, tans and a very light, almost luminescent green.

View Dali’s early and Surrealist works

Mark Kerstetter writes poetry, fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.

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