Salvador Dalí Assures Us That There Are No Limits

Salvador Dalí Assures Us That There Are No Limits

Written by:
Kat Roberts
Sep 27, 2021

In Salvador Dalí’s most famous painting, the iconic The Persistence of Memory, the eye bounces from one disturbingly amorphous figure to another. On the horizon line, a clock oozes over a decaying olive tree; below it, a disembodied face is draped over a rock in the coastal landscape of this dreamlike scene. The distortion and unease of these central figures are striking, and it is easy to miss a small, upended clock in the corner of the painting. This clock has tipped onto its face, hiding its timekeeping hands from view, and its body is teeming with ants. 

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Although Dalí himself insisted that his 1931 painting was inspired by nothing more than a melting slice of Camembert cheese he had seen at a picnic, critics have long conjectured that it is a treatise on the slippery, unknowable nature of time. According to this widely accepted interpretation, the ant-infested clock represents the concept of objective time being devoured by death.

This painting, its surreal imagery, and Dalí’s seemingly nonsensical insistence that it was, in fact, a portrayal of a mundane foodstuff, provide a microcosm of the central conflict of the painter’s career: the tension between the real and the perceived. In fact, Dalí was a force that existed outside of these competing realms and created his own space, a place between atoms, a dream world where anything was possible.

Dali, The Person

Dalí himself is a figure mired in controversy. At many points throughout his wild and eccentric years of fame, he even seemed to seek it out, almost using scandal as an artistic medium in itself. Among detractors, a common criticism of Dalí is that he is a phony, a sellout, all image and no substance. Although his meticulous painting style stands as strong evidence to the contrary, the painter himself did little to dissuade those who made such claims.

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He brought his pet anteater onto a popular American talk show and threw it into the lap of another guest. He appeared in commercials for Alka Seltzer and designed the wrappers for off-brand candies. He even found himself exiled from the Surrealist movement after he portrayed Adolf Hitler in multiple works and called Spanish dictator Francisco Franco “the only intelligent man in politics”. 

These antics, some harmless, others less so, can be interpreted as bids for safety and privilege under oppressive regimes. They may also, however, be seen as a drawn-out and twisted piece of performance art. Perhaps, with his peculiar behavior and labored persona, Dalí was challenging his audience, which grew to include the entire world, to confront the existence of something that they could not believe was real. After all, Dalí’s quest in his visual art was the materialization of the unreal, the fabrication of dreams. 

 

The Wild Philosophy Of Salvador Dali

In the ancient book On the Nature of Things, the Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote that the anima, a concept that we might now equate with the soul or consciousness, has the power to create simulacra. According to Lucretius, humans are not capable of perceiving the true nature of an object, so our consciousness creates a visual representation of that object that we are able to comprehend. Dalí referred to Lucretius multiple times in his own writing, and made even more frequent mentions of Sigmund Freud, a contemporary whom Dalí idolized. Freud wrote famously of dreams — of their connections to the material world and their significance in understanding our own subconscious thoughts — and Dalí followed closely in his footsteps, modeling most of his artworks after his own dreams and visions.

In order to access these visual representations of subconscious thought, Dalí invented an approach that he coined the Paranoiac Critical Method, wherein he induced negative thoughts and brought himself into a state of paranoia, from which he drew the surreal and sometimes frightening images depicted in his work. By turning these paranoid fantasies into physical images on canvas, Dalí proved that, through the creation of art, anything we can imagine can be made real. 

Even in this central principle of Dalí’s work, though, there existed a push and pull between imagination and reality, conscious thought and subconscious vision. Although many of the images that he produced are otherworldly and unimaginable outside of the medium of paint, Dalí’s work was also heavily influenced by the ordinary and prosaic aspects of his life.

His early paintings often took place in a stylized version of the shoreline of Cadaqués, a childhood vacation spot for which Dalí held a sentimental affection. Later in his career, religious and political iconography became recurring themes, notably in Christ of St. John on the Cross and The Enigma of Hitler, respectively. Although these works appear in his typical Surreal style, they do seem to reflect Dalí’s real-world upbringing and opinions. 

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Sometimes, as in the case of The Enigma of Hitler, these representations had very real consequences as well. The painting shows a small portrait of Hitler surrounded by ghostly objects, including various foods and a melting umbrella, which many critics saw as implying the weakness of Winston Churchill, who famously carried an umbrella everywhere with him. When asked about the meaning of The Enigma, Dalí appeared to defend Hitler and Fascism, and soon found himself in a kangaroo court orchestrated by the leader of the Surrealists, André Breton. Ultimately, Dalí was expelled from the Surrealist movement and ended up leaving Europe altogether to settle in California.  

Dalí’s was a life marked by great swells of success, but also by periods of chaos and tumult. His political sympathies are still in question today, and many art lovers view him in a negative light as a result of them. In addition to this, his relationships with women were strange at best, and predatory at worst, with a model under his employ even accusing him of assault in his later years. These bring up the age-old conundrum of the line between art and artist; can we appreciate, and even love, the work of someone who may have been, as George Orwell wrote of Dalí, “a disgusting human being”? 

No Limitations: But Is That A Good Thing Or A Bad Thing?

In some moments, Dalí pushed the limits of accepted thought with his groundbreaking approach. At others, though, he crossed boundaries in ways that, while intellectually daring, caused real harm to both society and individuals. Regardless of whether you see him as a madcap visionary or a fascistic sellout, the fact remains that Dalí was always expanding the border of what was possible in the world of art and of our very minds. As artists and thinkers in an era when Fascism and fear loom large once more in our cultural dialogue, it is essential to create without limits. In Salvador Dalí’s finest dreams, I imagine, people of the future would go on to make art that even he, in all his expansiveness, could not conceive: the art of a better world, the art of ideological fearlessness, the art of revolutionary kindness. By removing the limits of what we believe to be possible, we can make this new dream into our reality.


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Written by:
Kat Roberts
Sep 27, 2021

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