When asked to write an article about my favorite paintings by Salvador Dalí, I couldn’t say no.
I have looked at, thought about, learned from and expounded upon Dalí’s work more than any other artist I know. This is due mainly to the fact that I’ve been a docent at the Dalí Museum since 2012 and my fascination with the artist and his work continues to grow.
Choosing only three paintings to write about is not an easy task. There’s so much to consider and admire in all of Dalí’s work once you begin scratching the surface. In addition to being a great artist, I’m convinced he was a genius and his paintings, like his mind, work on many levels at once.
. . .
I’ll begin with The First Days of Spring from 1929. Dalí was 25 when he painted it and had just become a member of the Surrealist group in Paris. Freudian psychology was all the rage.
You don’t necessarily need to know anything about Freud’s work to sense that what Dalí has created has nothing to do with waking reality and everything to do with dreams and the subconscious. This is a landscape of nightmares. His intention was to shock us.
Leaving aside the subject matter for a moment, what is incredibly interesting about this painting is how Dalí made it. The wall label says it is oil and collage on panel. The oil paint is easy to recognize but where is the collage? Look closely and you’ll discern eight instances where he glued images onto the surface of the painting.
. . .
Almost dead center is a tiny black and white photo of Dalí as an infant. He places himself at the eye of this hallucinogenic vortex.
To the far left and far right are a trio of figures possibly cut from the printed pages of books or newspapers. We can assume this based on the brown discoloring of the now-vintage paper.
At bottom left, next to a gruesomely deformed, sexualized couple, is a portion of an actual postcard depicting passengers on a steamship gleefully cavorting on deck, oblivious to the context in which they have been placed.
In the lower right corner we find what some think is a rectangle of multi-colored linoleum. Looking from the side you can easily see that it’s about one-eighth of an inch thick. It adds a completely abstract element to a scene that already flirts with the incomprehensible.
Above that are what appear to be the sort of rub-on transfer images that children play with. We can only speculate as to why he chose the face of a young girl and a goat although it’s easy to make assumptions based on his propensity towards lasciviousness.
Like most of Dalí’s paintings, this one is a visual treasure hunt that rewards close inspection. Even if we don’t ‘get’ his intended message, he makes it loads of fun and worth the effort to spend time investigating this glimpse inside Dalí’s head.
. . .
Next on my list of favorites would have to be Daddy Longlegs of the Evening-Hope! from 1940. I know this painting intimately, having painted an exact copy of it a few years ago.
This was the first painting Dalí completed after emigrating from Europe to the United States just as WWII was commencing. In my opinion, he wanted this painting to knock the socks off the American public and showcase the breadth of his talent.
During the course of making my copy, I realized just how many styles of paint application were employed in the creation of this image. The two tiny figures in the background and the Winged Victory of Samothrace statue (upper left) are delineated with the merest amount of paint so as to be practically transparent.
The dead and rotting horse emerging from the cannon contains a vast amount of microscopic detail best appreciated with the aid of a magnifying glass. The flesh of the central figure draped over the branch is exquisitely supple with wonderfully delicate shifts in color and tone without the slightest hint of a visible brushstroke. He certainly was in complete control of his medium and he wanted us to know it.
Equally impressive are the many references alluded to in the subject matter. The average viewer will find it next to impossible to decipher just what was on Dalí’s mind but, suffice it to say, he makes references to Freudian psychology (not surprisingly), art history, war, his phobias, his father, dreams, shame, sexuality/gender/eroticism, impotence, the decadence of society, and the list goes on.
It all adds up to a nightmarish landscape none of us would likely want to visit.
. . .
Lastly, the enormous Hallucinogenic Toreador is endlessly fascinating and a huge favorite with museum visitors.
This painting, like so many others, is a veritable encyclopedia of Dalínian interests. Again, knowing the story behind all the imagery included here is not required to enjoy this grand work of art. Dalí relishes presenting us with a game of hide and seek. He challenges us to look very hard. To say the least, this painting contains more than meets the eye.
Can you find the large hidden portrait of the bullfighter? Start with his green necktie and his face will emerge from the torso of the Venus di Milo statue directly above it. This particular bullfighter was gored to death in the ring and the murderous bull is portrayed, as well. His head appears lower left below the arrangement of colored dots.
Speaking of Venus di Milo, can you find all of them? A thorough search yields a figure somewhere around 31!
But, wait! There’s more to discover. Somewhere in the painting is a Dalmatian dog. But rather than ruin the surprise, you’ll have to visit the museum and find that one on your own. Hint – it’s near the bottom.
At this point in his career Dalí was about 66 and putting less effort in shocking the public than he was in impressing us with complexity, depth and sheer size on occasion.
It can be said that in just about every painting Dalí ever created, he presents us with a vision of the world that was singularly his own. And that’s the point.
In both his artistic and personal life, Dalí knew it was up to him to decide how to make sense of the world and navigate through it. His work challenges us not to take anything for granted.
He encourages us to take stock of the raw material that makes us individual, to craft identities that celebrate our unique gifts, and share ourselves with the world.
We are all artists in that way.
Explore the Dalí Museum’s permanent collection