Annual Meeting

October 10-13, 2002

Pasadena, California


 

Dalí Atomicus, or the Prodigious Adventure of the Lacemaker and the Rhinoceros
Elliott H. King, University of Essex

'I think that in order to proceed from The Lacemaker to the sunflower, from the sunflower to the rhinoceros, and from the rhinoceros to the cauliflower, one must really have something inside one's skull.' - Salvador Dalí


In 1973, Salvador Dalí stated, 'The atomic explosion of August 6, 1945, shook me seismically. Thenceforth, the atom was my favourite food for thought.' This statement may challenge the common perception of Dalí - an artist whose name generally invokes images of melting clocks and phantasmal landscapes but who is less frequently allied with the hard sciences. Only in recent studies have scholars begun adequately considering the influence of science on Dalí's work, though often such research remains focused on his more popular 1930s production, executed during his association with the Paris Surrealists. In the 1930s, Dalí - an official member of André Breton's circle since 1929 - was fascinated by physics, particularly Einstein's theory of relativity and the concept of 'thick space'. While an analysis of Dalí's attraction to science in the 1930s is compelling, it is just to suggest that his interest was aimed primarily at substantiating his own methodology, which is to say that scientific language gave some credence to the soft-structures and elongated protuberances that featured prominently in his imagery. In contrast, his 1940s and 50s production - christened the 'Atomic Period' - was an arguably more explicit application of scientific concepts, as Dalí endeavoured to reinterpret more traditional, often religious imagery through the lens of contemporary scientific knowledge. This scientific/religious amalgam proved a rupture from Dalí's 1930s introspective production, not fully abandoning psychoanalysis but drawing more heavily from mythology and Christian imagery in the artist's quest to 'become classic'. As Dalí's Atomic Period works include the artist's most explicit religious references contemporary with surprisingly erudite allusions to science, these images are perhaps the most illuminating means towards deciphering Dalí's 'mysticism', or, more accurately, his hybrid cosmogony, 'nuclear mysticism'. This mysterious tenet - initiated in the late 1940s - incorporated such diverse aspects as atomic physics, eroticism and Roman Catholicism, in addition to Surrealism and Catalan mysticism. Pictorially, Dalí employed an unorthodox symbol - the rhinoceros horn - to signify the myriad of geometric, psychoanalytic and religious notions inherent to his evolving cosmogony. His justification for codifying these disparate elements was consistently nebulous, but, given compelling evidence, I would suggest that Dalí's Atomic Period illustrates the artist's attempt to rationalise Christian dogma, affirming for himself the 'truth of religion', which is to say the validity of God.

In a statement included in his 1941 Julien Levy Gallery exhibition catalogue, Dalí announced a resolution: to 'become classic' - presumably championing a return to Renaissance aesthetics, though he was at the time vague as to what this crusade actually entailed. Dalí had in fact long celebrated the influence of academic painters on his own 'hand-painted dream photographs', identifying the démodé art pompier artist, Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier, in 1933 as the inspiration for his miniaturist technique. Whereas the Surrealists (and, in fact, the 1924 definition of Surrealism ) had long advocated automatism as the pre-eminent vehicle for accessing the subconscious, Dalí's technique was highly academic, influenced by Raphael, Vermeer and Velásquez. Dalí's preferred route to the subconscious was the paranoid-critical method - a particular self-induced 'psychosis' allowing one to perceive multiple images within the same configuration. The paranoid-critical method is of paramount importance to the artist's oeuvre and will be a recurring theme in this examination. 1939 arguably marks the pinnacle of its experimentation, exemplified by the paintings Dalí selected for his exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery that year; including Apparition of Face and Fruit-Dish on a Beach as well as Endless Enigma. This selection should be contrasted with the works in Dalí's subsequent 1941 exhibition at the Levy Gallery - the first New York exhibition following his 1939 expulsion from Surrealism. While some works (e.g., Soft Self-portrait with Grilled Bacon) seem directly congruent with the works of years prior, other works seem to reflect his 'classical' ambition - Family of Marsupial Centaurs and The Golden Age, for example. In addition to their mythological subject matter, these two paintings are rigidly geometrically diagrammed - a facet of Dalí's style that would develop over the ensuing decade. Though it would be years before Dalí penned his 'Anti-Matter Manifesto' of 1958, already the seeds were sown for his statement, 'Today the exterior world… has transcended the one of psychology'. Indeed, already Dalí was refocusing his attentions from the unconscious to the conscious.

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, inspiring Dalí to take his work in a new direction. It is possible that he adopted this interest partially in response to the Surrealists' newfound disdain for atomic science, which they once celebrated but now - post-explosion - considered irresponsible and destructive. Dalí ostensibly took no moral stance vis-à-vis atomic research, accepting it as a fact of the modern age that required assimilation into art if art was to be truly contemporary. Towards this end, Dalí acknowledged the discontinuity of matter, incorporating a mysterious sense of levitation into his Leda Atomica of 1947. Just as one finds that, at the atomic level, particles do not physically touch, so here Dalí suspends even the water above the shore - an element that would figure into many other later works. Further, Leda Atomica - a portrait of his wife, Gala - is organised, like Family of Marsupial Centaurs, according to a rigid mathematical framework, though Leda Atomica's design is considerably more advanced, suggesting the influence of the Romanian mathematician, Matila Ghyka, whose writings since 1931 sought the inherent harmony and proportion co-present in nature and art. Ghyka's primary interest was the Golden Number, the ratio (1+ v5)/2, frequently referred to by the Greek symbol, Phi (F). In approximately 1947 - not coincidentally the year Leda Atomica was executed -, Dalí met Ghyka at a dinner party. Soon after, Ghyka mailed a copy of his recent American publication, The Geometry of Art and Life, to Dalí, though he had no inkling of how important this text would be to the artist. Ghyka's influence is clear in Leda Atomica, in the 'Golden pentagon' that frames the figure and the mathematical formula in the lower right of the image - pr = (R/2) * v(10-2v5) -, which Ghyka specifically cites to calculate the side of a regular pentagon.

In 1949, Dalí completed the first version his Madonna of Port Lligat, codifying the influences heretofore considered and thus introducing the mode that would characterise the artist's Atomic Period. The Madonna of Port Lligat is a religious painting executed in the aesthetic style of the Italian Renaissance, specifically akin to Piero della Francesca's c. 1470 Madonna and Child, with an ostrich egg - a traditional symbol of the Virgin - symbolically suspended over the figures. The Madonna of Port Lligat reemploys the theme of matter's discontinuity, though here the figure herself is 'dematerialising'; her arms have detached, and her head has begun to split down the centre - aspects that had disappeared by 1950, when Dalí executed another, far larger version (again featuring Gala, both as the Virgin and as the small angels to her right, paranoid-critically derived from the cuttlefish shells on her left). Both paintings open the trunk of the Virgin like a cabinet, reminiscent of the 1934 Weaning of Furniture Nutrition, and both are arranged so that the point of intersection of the diagonal lines focuses one's eye onto the baby Jesus, or, more specifically in the second version, on the Eucharistic bread within Jesus' body.

Glaringly obvious though yet to be addressed is Dalí's newfound affinity for Catholic imagery - surprising when one considers the clearly anti-religious sentiments in his films executed with Luis Buñuel, Chien Andalou (1929) and L'Age d'or (1930). Dalí's Catholicism, which seems to have spontaneously manifested around 1939, is often regarded as an arriviste sentiment in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, when Franco established Catholicism as the national religion. As Dalí had weathered the whole of the Spanish Civil War abroad, had he not confessed to supporting Franco and declared himself an avowed Catholic, it is likely he would have been unable to return to Spain. Dalí admitted that his conversion to Catholicism was incomplete, though he seemed strikingly sincere in his quest for faith, as he reveals in a telling quotation at the end of his 1942 autobiography:



Heaven is what I have been seeking all along and through the density of confused and demoniac flesh of my life - heaven! Alas for him who has not yet understood that! The first time I saw a woman's depilated armpit I was seeking heaven. When with my crutch I stirred the putrefied and worm-eaten mass of my dead hedgehog, it was heaven I was seeking… And what is heaven? Where is to be found? Heaven is to be found, neither above nor below, neither to the right nor to the left, heaven is to be found exactly in the centre of the bosom of the man who has faith! At this moment I do not yet have faith, and I fear I shall die without heaven.

What I suggest is that Dalí's Atomic Period, and, indeed, the majority of his post-War production pursues to some degree this desire for faith, perhaps partially inspired by his 'classic' preoccupation, as he observed that belief in Catholic doctrine was characteristic among many of his artistic heroes - Raphael, Velásquez and Gaudí, for example.

The quest for faith adds a compelling dimension to Dalí's religious, nuclear imagery, though Dalí's faith was not without scepticism. Indeed, Dalí sought empirical proof of God's existence. This positions Dalí in a lineage of Catalan mystics - notably the poet, philosopher and theologian, Ramón Llull (1235-1316) - who sought to prove religious precepts through logic. Dalí certainly knew of Llull's writings, as Llullism was an important philosophical current in 20th century Catalunya. Further, Dalí was in frequent contact with the Catalan philosopher, Francesc Pujols, a professed Llullist who was celebrated in Catalunya for his 1918 History of Catalan Science; this tome traced Catalan religious thought from Llull to the then present, asserting that the destiny for Catalunya would be to prove the 'truth' of religion through the rigour of scientific inquiry. Though Pujols would surely have disagreed with Dalí's mechanism for uncovering religious 'truth', as Pujols was vehemently anti-Catholic, Dalí seems to have accepted the philosopher's challenge, delving into science to uncover true faith. Dalí came to believe that God was omni-present, spiritualising all substance at the sub-atomic level. Indeed, though it could hardly be proven, Dalí suggested that perhaps God was the mysterious substance being sought by nuclear physics.

In 1951, Dalí composed the most significant elucidation of his developing nuclear mysticism, 'The Mystic Manifesto'. In this 'manifesto', Dalí begins by distinguishing himself as one of the three great geniuses of Catalunya, in the company of Antoni Gaudí, whose Mediterranean Gothic architectural style Dalí championed in the pages of Minotaure; and Raymond de Sebonde, a fifteenth-century Spanish theologian whose most important work, Natural Theology (1480), taught that unaided human reason could establish the existence of God, thus uniting the claims of reason and faith. Dalí distinguished himself as the 'inventor of the new Paranoiac-Critical mysticism and saviour, as his very name indicates, of modern painting' - an appellation for Dalí that Pujols had also asserted as early as 1939.

This intention to 'rescue' modern painting deserves some, albeit regrettably brief, attention. It must be first understood that Dalí's figurative mode and incessant extolling of the Old Masters not only galvanised the Surrealists against him in the 1930s, but also later situated him in a diametric opposition to the avant-garde's propensity towards abstraction. Despite a successful 1941 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Dalí was not enjoying the critical acclaim he had in the 1930s. Clement Greenberg had published his 1939 essay, 'Avant-garde and Kitsch', which all but named Dalí as archetypal of popular culture, and the artist's new affinity for religious icons seemed all the more Kitsch - primarily commercial and only marginally subversive compared with his earlier production. But the images were dissident, as Michel Tapié observed in 1958: '[Dalí's] Christs, Madonnas and Assumptions have shocked yesterday's avant-garde far more than any conventional frontal attack upon the more superficial aspects of abstraction.' Dalí's battle against the avant-garde would be delineated at-length in his 1957 livrette, Dalí on Modern Art: The Cuckolds of Antiquated Modern Art, which argued for the revival of academic technique over the 'barbaric' abstraction that had typified most of the 20th century since Matisse. While Dalí's 1930s statements in the same vein aroused the Surrealists' aversion and arguably aligned him with a right wing aesthetic, this penchant seemed all the more political in the 1940s - a time when President Harry S. Truman was lamenting the state of 'so-called modern art', setting the stage for Michigan Senator George Dondero to accuse the avant-garde of being a Communist plot. One can see how Dalí's disdain for abstraction - then synonymous with modernism - situated him precariously, as The Cuckolds of Antiquated Modern Art was published exactly contemporary with Dondero's criticisms, though clearly their motivations differed. Dalí did not contest his maverick position; indeed, by his 1973 Comment on devient Dalí, he was instructing his readers 'How to be anachronistic' and berating his contemporaries for 'fearing to face perfection' and taking recourse in 'former periods of art', notably African tribal art - surely a veiled attack on Cubism.

While the Cubists cited African designs, Dalí quoted classical Greece, incorporating the Pantheon's oculus into two works from 1951, Raphaelesque Head Exploding and The Wheelbarrows. Dalí's nuclear fragmentations are evidently amplified in these two works, reminiscent of the artist's observation, '[I[f one wanted to give an accurate representation of a table, instead of being compact the table should resemble something like a swarm of flies.' In these two works, Dalí illustrates the atoms coalescing to form wheelbarrows, an allusion to his lifelong infatuation with Millet's Angelus painting (1868-73). This transformation is the first example of the paranoid-critical method's application to nuclear imagery, where Dalí 'sees' not only the atomic consistency of his subjects but superimposes his own psychic associations.

These exaggerated atomisations were not reserved for the secular, as Dalí equally blew apart the Madonna, perhaps most adroitly in his 1952 Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina, in which the Virgin - Gala - is portrayed 'disintegrating' into heaven. Her body includes a Pantheon-like oculus, as well as Dalí's famous 1951 Christ of St. John of the Cross and an altar for the sacrament. Dalí's perception of the Assumption was imbued with atomic science, however dilettante; 'The Virgin does not ascend to heaven while praying. She ascends by the very strength of her antiprotons…' , he explained. To explicate the Assumption, Dalí employs the notion of particles with corresponding anti-particles that, when collided, annihilate one another, creating kinetic energy. When the Virgin willed this atomic event - a feat of which she was capable, as each particle, as previously asserted, is permeated by God -, the resulting energy essentially 'rocketed' her skywards, as one sees more explicitly in his 1956 Anti-Protonic Assumption. Dalí thus attempts to rationalise Christian dogma with science; it is not 'miraculous' that the Virgin ascended to heaven but was, in fact, the product of a spiritually guided atomic reaction.

Within the swirling mass of drapery flanking the Virgin in Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina and Anti-Protonic Assumption, the material assumes conic forms akin to - though more 'defined' than - the 'shrapnel' of Raphaelesque Head Exploding. These shapes introduce a phenomenon that Dalí ostensibly 'discovered' (according to his Diary of a Genius) precisely on July 5, 1952: the ubiquity of the rhinoceros horn. It would seem that Dalí's initial infatuation with this symbol was strictly as a building block of imagery, as he suggests, writing:

Artists, all through history, have been tormenting themselves to grasp form and to reduce it to elementary geometrical volumes. Leonardo always tended to produce eggs … Ingres preferred spheres, and Cézanne cubes and cylinders. But only Dalí… has found truth. All curved surfaces of the human body have the same geometric spot in common, the one found in this cone with the rounded tip curved toward heaven or toward the earth … the rhinoceros horn!

After this initial discovery, Dalí surveyed his images and realised that all of them could be deconstructed to rhinoceros horns. Some paintings were actually redone to reflect this influence, such as Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1952-54) - recreated from the 1931 image -, or his 1957 reinterpretations of the Seven Lively Arts series, painted for the Ziegfeld Theatre after the original 1944 series was destroyed in a fire.

Dalí also uncovered the 'latent rhinocerisations' in others' works, notably Vermeer's smallest painting The Lacemaker (1669-70), a copy of which had hung on the wall of his father's study and had obsessed Dalí for a number of years. In 1955, Dalí asked permission to enter the Louvre with his paints and canvas to execute a copy of The Lacemaker. Given his preoccupations at the time, one might not be surprised to view the result: an interpretation that obfuscates the image with various-sized rhinoceros horns that loosely congeal to suggest the figure. Dalí explained, 'Up till now, The Lacemaker has always been considered a very peaceful, very calm painting, but for me, it is possessed by the most violent aesthetic power, to which only the recently discovered antiproton can be compared.' Asserting that The Lacemaker was truly a vivacious assemblage of rhinoceros horns, Dalí felt that it would be compelling to pit a copy of the painting against a living rhinoceros, declaring that The Lacemaker would triumph because it is 'morphologically a rhinoceros horn'.

All that remained for me to do was to show my audience the poor rhinoceros carrying at the end of his nose a tiny Lacemaker, whereas The Lacemaker herself was a huge rhinoceros horn possessing a maximum of spiritual strength because, far from having the bestiality of the rhinoceros, she was further the symbol of the absolute monarchy of chastity.

Towards deciphering this statement, A. Reynolds Morse writes that the rhinoceros horn symbol is derived from the unicorn. Unicorn horns, or 'alicorns' - commonly rhinoceros horns or, more frequently, narwhal tusks - were highly valued in the Middle Ages for their alleged medicinal powers and capacity to protect against poisons. The alicorn's supposed purifying power led to the unicorn adopting within Christian allegory the connotation of chastity, and the animal became a symbol for the Virgin Mary. Dalí, again through loose association, thus combines the alicorn's suggestion of chastity with the unicorn's historical roots, and the rhinoceros horn becomes further laden with significance. When Dalí declares that The Lacemaker possesses a 'maximum spiritual strength' derived from her divine chastity, it is not truly The Lacemaker that is chaste but the rhinoceros horn. The two are interchangeable; The Lacemaker is a rhinoceros horn (or an assemblage of horns), and the rhinoceros' actual horn is, in fact, a Lacemaker. The painting triumphs over the living rhinoceros because it is entirely comprised of these animated, spiritualised horns, whereas the rhinoceros wields only the single diminutive horn/Lacemaker on its nose.

Furthering the significance of the unicorn's association with the rhinoceros, both powdered alicorns and rhinoceros horns are fabled aphrodisiacs and are morphologically phallic. Owing to Dalí's extensive use of Freud - particularly in the 1930s -, few have interpreted the rhinoceros horn symbol far beyond a sexual reading. Though the horn's phallic morphology should not be ignored, the symbol is obviously far more complex than such a construal suggests. Consider Dalí's 1954 Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by Her Own Chastity, in which the rhinoceros horn is perhaps at its most overdetermined. Here, the horn respects its precedent as a basic design element but is also clearly sexual, both comprising the callipygian figure and acting as a sodomizing phallus. The woman is thus sodomized - 'auto-sodomized' - by her own constitution, which, as in other Atomic Period works, consists of various animated rhinoceros horns. The rhinoceros horn in this image thus mutually represents the polarities of eroticism and chastity - a contradictory juxtaposition, perhaps derived from the coalescence of polarities figuring in some Eastern religions (e.g., Taoism) and alchemy, that featured prominently in 'Dalínian mysticism'.

By 1955, the already fecund rhinoceros horn had become all the more overdetermined, as Dalí 'realised' (surely through books such as Ghyka's) that the same logarithmic spiral could be uncovered in rhinoceros horns, nautilus shells and the spirals of the sunflower. Though Dalí traces this epiphanic moment to the summer of 1955, his longstanding interest in Phi and correspondence with Ghyka suggests that he should have been aware of a relation between Phi and natural growth patterns as early as 1947. This is further indicated by the unexpected and enigmatic rhinoceros in the bottom left corner of The Madonna of Port Lligat or the 1950 watercolour, Rhinoceros Disintegrating. On December 17, 1955, Dalí delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, 'On the Phenomenological Aspects of the Paranoiac-Critical Method'. His lecture concerned the associations among sunflowers, cauliflower heads, and The Lacemaker, the common denominator being the logarithmic rhinoceros horn. The title of this lecture - again citing the paranoid-critical method - suggests Dalí's psychic associations; indeed, by this time Dalí was interchanging these symbols in his work, seeing 'paranoid-critically' each in the others.

Dalí confirmed the paramount importance of physics to his oeuvre in the 1958 'Anti-Matter Manifesto', by displacing Freud - emblematic of Surrealism's infatuation with the subconscious - as his 'father' in favour of physicist Dr. Werner Heisenberg, responsible for the famous 'uncertainty principle'. Indeed, Dalí maintained his pursuit of the conscious over the unconscious for the remainder of his production. As for his personal crusade - the pursuit of faith -, by 1968 Dalí was unabashedly declaring himself 'an apostolic Roman Catholic, apolitical to the highest degree and spiritually monarchist'. Professing to the ubiquity of spirituality, he told André Parinaud in 1973, 'Eroticism, like hallucinogenic drugs, like atomic sciences… comes down to a common denominator: God is present in everything'. All too often, such statements are taken as rhetorical, aimed towards promoting Dalí's persona as a 'mad genius'; few appreciate that Dalí was gravely earnest, and to dismiss his work as nonsensical or humorous undermines the brilliance of these images, which are unique not only in their ability to merge academic aesthetics with contemporary science but also in their capacity to assemble a myriad of references in the artistic component of a surprisingly lucid 'Panalogia' - Catalan philosopher Francesc Pujols' cognomen for a universally-applicable scientific model. One recalls Dalí's recurring proclamation, 'My painting is but a fragment of my cosmogony' ; though art was generally the medium in which Dalí worked, as his paranoid-critical method suggests, his thoughts were well beyond the surface of his painted canvases. Whereas the 1930s saw the visage of Federico García Lorca materialising from a fruit dish, in the Atomic Period it is not Lorca's countenance that one sees in Dalí's coruscating corpuscles but the intangible face of God.