The Spiritual Aspects of the Art of Salvador Dali
by Shawn Eyer
The world of creative art is a quickly-moving, opulent, continuous flow of mental and spiritual exploration. The artist employs symbol and composition as a special language to communicate his thoughts. In the twentieth century, however, art has become so diversified and individualised that it is difficult to break through the mental fascination we feel for a work and achieve a true rapport, bathing in and absorbing the consciousness that the artist has so painstakingly transplanted for us within his brushstrokes. How often do the melting watches and burning giraffes of surrealist Salvador Dali confound and bewilder his viewers, who surely could understand the art but through the artist. For beyond the extreme eccentricity and publicity-generating antics of Salvador Dali lies an intensely potent spiritual vision, an ability to see through matter and into a more elemental reality... the foresight of a truly prodigious and productive forerunner of the coming age.
Dali was born in 1904 in Figueras, a tiny Spanish fishing village built in the rocks of Port Lligat. His childhood foreshadowed the rest of his life: it was tempestuous, scandalous, delirious, and exemplified by the presence of extremes. His mother was a devout Catholic, but his father was an equally staunch atheist. Dali's earliest reading was from the Voltaire and Nietzsche which dominated his father's bookshelf. At fifteen Dali wrote in his diary, "I went to church, confessed my sins and received the sacrament. My mother wants it this way; besides it is very interesting, and is the thing to be done." Awash on the seas of his own creativity, the young artist soon developed a cynical attitude toward all religion. Dali's youth was a time of incubation, when the bizarre symbols of his personal mythology were first appearing and his artistic talent was taking its first tentative steps to unfoldment. Dali began to paint at twelve, and engaged in formal art training.
Dali's life changed dramatically in the years to follow when he joined the surrealists, a group of artists determined to record images from the subconscious mind. By 1928 Dali exhibited regularly with the surrealists and had become influential within the small movement. Around this time he met his future wife Gala, an enigmatic woman often referred to as "the muse of surrealism." That it was a time of artistic experimentation and discovery is aptly reflected in his canvasses of that period. "I believe," he wrote, "the moment is at hand when by a paranoiac and active advance of the mind, it will be possible (simultaneously with automatism and other passive states) to systemize confusion and thus help to discredit the world of reality." Surrealism asserted religiously that the inner world of dreams and the images of the subconsciousness were more authentic and of greater import than the plastic appearances of the outer world. Many surrealists turned to bizarre techniques to pursue this conquest of the irrational. Automatism, or "automatic painting," while tending to produce monotonous pictures, was very popular and remains so. Later, hallucinogens became an inspiration of choice. When asked about drugs, Dali said, "I do not take drugs. I am drugs." As other artists self-destructed around him, Dali was refining his method of obtaining images from beyond conscious human intellect: paranioac-criticism.
The "paranoiac-critical" method of painting is the detailed reproduction of subconscious images either from dreams or spontaneous or self-induced delirium. In other words the process meant to slip out of focus with consensus reality in order to follow a dreamlike series of "irrational" association, and then to reproduce the result in some medium. The painter referred to these exacting pictures as "hand-made photographs." His 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory, showing soft watches hanging limp, symbolised the pliability of space and time. Dali felt that this work foreshadowed the discoveries of nuclear physics that matter is discontinuous and time is nonlinear. In fact, it was this realisation about the nature of matter that led Dali into the most productive and spiritual part of his life.
In 1952, Dali recorded in his journal: "It is true that Nietzsche, instead of driving me further into atheism, initiated me into the questions and doubts of premystical inspiration, which was to reach its glorious culmination in 1951 when I drew up my [Mystical] Manifesto . . . Nietzsche awoke in me the idea of God." Influenced further in the direction of mysticism by Gala, a longtime student of esoteric matter, Dali's work began to take on a religious character. His return to Catholicism prompted such works as The Madonna of Port Lligat (which was approved by the Vatican), Christ of St. John of the Cross, The Last Supper, and Corpus Hypercubicus. Hypercubicus is perhaps the most profound and beautiful example of Dali's religious works, and the most obvious representation of the artist's "nuclear mystical" work. In this work we see a shining, pristine Christ suspended beyond gravity against a hypercube, which is by its nature an atomic "cross." The foregrounded figure of Gala is the root of the picture, a reflection of the Logos and a manifestation of the Divine energies expressed through the atom. This canvas invites the viewer to meditate on the Christ as a physical reality.
The theme of nuclear mysticism is present somewhat in nearly all Dalinian work since 1950. Atoms explode into cubes and spheres, the material world is broken down into disconnected particles, and swirling cones ("rhinoceros horns") symbolise manifestation, appearance and purity. Other ontological symbols are used throughout Dali's version of the Tarot, where they often take on a hermetic, alchemical quality.
Dali's later art explores the subjects of quantum physics and genetics with a metaphysical vision. Evidence of the divine began to appear to Dali in everything. In 1963 he scribbled, "Moral law must be of divine origin, because, even before the tablets of Moses, it was already contained in the spiral, genetic code." His concept of a transcendent God had crystalised: "Based on my reason and based on what the latest scientific discoveries of our time have shown me, I am convinced that God exists. However, I do not believe in God as a matter of faith, because unfortunately I have no faith. On the other hand, God is not aware of the existence of Coca-cola, or of Salvador Dali, much less something called morals..."
Dali's opponents have criticised him for his total absorption in his art, arguing that it is self-indulgent and not relevant to the world. Nothing could be more distant from truth. Dali's interest in the evolution of the planet was intense, but finding the present time so barren, Dali addresses himself to the future. In 1976, Dali said, "The progress of the sciences has been colossal ... but from the spiritual point of view, we live in the lowest period of civilization. A divorce has come about between physics and metaphysics. We are living through an almost monstrous progress of specialization, without any synthesis." This Synthesis, Dali declared, would be brought about by the mystification of science. Dali's various works in holographic cylinders are only a few examples of his attempt to illustrate and symbolise the synthesis vital to the future.
Salvador Dali died in the morning on January 23, 1989, leaving behind dozens of books and thousands of paintings, drawings, sculptures, holograms and objects. Some months before his death, Dali told a reporter: "If someday I die, though it may never happen, I hope that people in cafes in Figueras will say, `Dali has died, but not entirely.'" The great portal of Salvador Dali is closed, but his work remains radiant and alive. In the future, when Dali's genius is comprehended and understood more fully, perhaps people will realize that in the truest sense, Dali is dead... but not entirely.
Salvador Dali. Diary of a Genius. New York: Doubleday, 1965.
Dawn Ades. Dali and Surrealism. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
Luis Romero. Dali. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Poligrafa, 1975.
This article was first published in The Beacon (Jan/Feb 1990) 53: 213-214. Copyright c 1990 Lucis Press, New York, NY. All illustrations of the work of Salvador Dali are copyright c Salvador Dali/SPADEM. Corpus Hypercubicus 1954 Oil on canvas, 194 x 124 cm Metropolital Museum of Art, New York