Salvador Dali: Images of the Surreal

Article excerpt

Looking Carefully

The Surrealists were a group of artists who sought to explore an inner reality beyond the rational world of the sense. Influenced by the psychoanalytic theory of their contemporary, Sigmund Freud, Surrealist painters often used symbols to portray bizarre, dreamlike landscapes.

The Surrealists had an innovative approach to form in addition to their unique choice of theme. They were interested in more distinct forms than the Impressionists, who often depicted objects dissolved in bright sunlight. Like Dada artists, they experimented with new subjects. Unlike Dada artists, however, the Surrealists were not in favor of anarchy as a way of protesting politics and war. Poet and critic Andre Breton was known as one of the founding fathers of the Surrealist movement. In his treatise of 1924, First Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton defined the doctrines of the movement. In it, Breton emphasized the importance of an "automatic" approach and a dream state for creativity.

Salvador Dali was one of the key figures of the Surrealist movement and one of the most controversial. He was intrigued by Freud's ideas of the unconscious mind, and the symbolic significance these ideas held inspired much of his art. Dali, more than many other Surrealists, combined realism into his strange landscapes, giving them a startling, familiar quality. His goal was "to record unconscious objects as precisely as possible."

In his famous painting, The Persistence of Memory, Dali portrays the landscape of his native land, Figueras, Spain, in a realistic fashion. The objects in the foreground have the technical precision of real watches, yet they are limp and lifeless, suggesting a lack of energy, of ability to function as a watch should. Or perhaps this is a conceptual effort to stop time. The scale of all the forms is greatly distored -- the watches are huge compared to the branches. The unnatural color of the watch faces adds to the feeling of unreality.

Some suggest the amorphous figure that looks like a rock is a self-portrait. Notice the shape of the nose and the long lashes. The object seems unconscious under the weight of the limp watch on top of it. Another watch is crawling with ants, still another is harassed by a solitary fly. Could these objects suggest Dali's fear of his own mortality?

What does the title of this piece suggest? Even though technical function of these watches is no longer apparent, do they continue to keep time? Perhaps Dali is telling us that time relentlessly continues despite the mechanical failure of an object or being.

In The Persistence of Memory, Dali has portrayed for us a world that exists inside of him. With his symbolism and hypnotic realism, he gives us a unique view of the psyche of a genius. This unreal nightmare world is bizarre and frightening, yet as familiar as a world we might have created in a dream.


Dali became increasingly independent from the Surrealists. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, he painted a series of religious works, including Madonna of Port Lligat. Dali was influenced by Renaissance artists such as Raphael and modeled his figures in light and shadow, making them look round and realistic. His composition for Madonna of Port Lligat is based on a Renaissance painting by Piero Della Francesca. The fractured figures of the Madonna and child and the fragmented architecture in this painting, reflect the explosion of Dali's religious faith and also may refer to the activation of atomic bombs at the end of World War II. The visual forms, punctuated with space, symbolize Dali's twentieth-century awareness that matter is not solid, but made up of moving particles. In 1949, Pope Pius XII blessed an earlier version of the painting, accepting Dali's religious sincerity.

Dali sets up a tension between the realistic forms and the unusual placement of objects next to each other. …