Dali the Divine: In Praise of the Spanish Surrealist

By Emma Meehan

My favourite pieces are those which prompt the most visceral initial reactions, and continue to demand those same involuntary responses every time I lay my eyes on them. These are the pieces to which my Looney Tunes alternate would respond with a double take, followed by a drop to the knees while animated stars circumnavigate my whirling head. Every art lover will recognise this sensation: the feeling as though an artist has slapped you across the face, kicked you in the shins, and left you for dead while their wondrous creation permanently digs itself into your brain. This is what Salvador Dali’s Honey is Sweeter Than Blood did to me, and I am yet to recover.

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Honey is Sweeter than Blood, Dali, 1927  Courtesy of www.dalipaintings.com

I was fourteen, lying in bed, congested with diffidence and bread, when this sibylline lady first appeared on my laptop screen. I can still recall the sense of airlessness her gorgeous form lended me, countering the feelings of entrapment within my own body. Accustomed to the heaviness of a distorted and cramped self-image, I was elevated by Dali’s sensual and sybaritic exploration of the human form. Every fold of her skin was a celebration; she was radiant. Her facelessness was particularly striking; it felt as though she extended my own identity into something cosmic. Rather unusually, I felt relaxed, having found a degree of comfort in my own skin. Dali had given me the opportunity to be suspended amongst the spheres and displayed in monumental beauty with this perfectly imperfect lady. For this privilege, I felt I would be eternally grateful.

Dali’s beheaded Lady of the Universe has been embedded in my conscience since she first slapped me across the face.

However, as years went by and I grew in experience, I developed cognitive dissonance on the subject of Dali’s lady. What was once so edifying for me now had sinister and oppressive implications. With the issues of representation and gender politics in visual art as contentious as ever, I could no longer decide whether her facelessness signified universality or unattainability. I felt like Natalie Imbruglia; torn.

Dismemberment is recurrent in Dalinean iconography, so is the inclusion of a crutch; symbolising the demands of the human body and our invariable inability to satisfy them. With this knowledge, I suddenly felt as though Dali had damned this lady to her own personal cycle of entrapment in the female form – a feeling I was no stranger to. I could not decide if he was celebrating the unmodifiable beauty of the female form or solemnising this woman as his own personal Pandora. Was this just another boring example of a male artist exerting his aesthetic dominance over the female nude? How could I ever reunite my will for sexually egalitarian art with my persistent love for Dali?

The perceived ‘debasement’ of Dali’s art was called into question by many a critic during the first half of the 20th century. In a time which preceded the postmodernist cauterisation of shock value, Dali and the Surrealists were renegades. In his 1944 essay reviewing Dali’s recently published autobiography, George Orwell concluded that the artist’s works were ‘diseased and disgusting, and any investigation ought to start out from that fact.’ The ‘diseased and disgusting’ qualities Orwell found in Dali’s Surrealism may have resulted from a uniquely psychological artistic process known as automatism.

Stemming from Freudian theory, the automatistic process was thought to grant art much needed spiritual renewal.

By removing any cognitive restrictions artists once had during the creative process, the Surrealists facilitated brutally honest psychological art. The unleashing of themselves onto a canvas without conscious barriers would hopefully reveal the deepest extremities of their subconscious. Dali is thought to have adopted this process around the 1920s, with Honey is Sweeter Than Blood being one of his first automatistic paintings.

With this in mind, it struck me that by unchaining the deepest desires and complexities of his psyche through this nude, Dali presents me with a challenge. Perhaps rather than claiming the female nude, Dali is offering his surrender to the female nude. By admitting his psychological deference to this lady, Dali could be subverting the male monopolisation of the female nude in art and finally giving her the power and complexity she had been denied for centuries. If so, cool. The representation of the complexities of the human body is a recurring motif in Dali’s art. From his Premonition of Civil War to The Great Masturbator, Dali often depicted the human form in self-inflicted agony. Bodily parts were cyclically squeezed and disintegrated into a floppy-doppy mess of flesh and bone.

What he seems to say is that the human body is a demanding monster; the vessel through which we express all of our nuances and neuroses. We are all its slaves.

Dali’s preoccupation with the monstrous capacities of the human body is most infamously expressed in his iconic collaborative photograph with Philippe Halsman in 1951, “In Voluptas Mors” (Voluptuous, or Desirable Death).

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“In Voluptas Mors” (Voluptuous, or Desirable Death), Dali and Halsman, 1941

This brilliantly psychological portrait is overflowing with Dali-esque elegiac freakiness. His layering of female nude upon female nude results in the formation of a magnetic skull, which overshadows his own profile. Dali’s voracious lust for the female form obscures his own identity. To me, this photograph reveals Dali’s remarkable appreciation for the complexity of the female form. He surprasses antiquarian ideals and denies romanticisation in order to erotically display a perplexing interplay between the mind and the body. The female form here is a void; a mysterious abyss which could potentially lead to the termination of all Dali knows. But this fact does not deter him. He is perched directly in front of the abyss, directly in front of the danger.

Dali did something similar in Honey is Sweeter Than Blood. By harmonising the anguish of living with the demands of the human body with the sensory beauty these demands evoke, Dali admits the complexities of the female form. Rather than sprawling his female nude across a couch with idealised grandeur (I’m talking to you Titian), Dali distorted, dismembered and twisted the female nude into something unrecognisable.

I think this is what felt so gratifying for fourteen-year-old me. I located beauty in this lady’s malformations, and realised that my own ‘malformations’ also had beauty. The complex relationship I had with my ceaselessly sprouting acne, fat rolls, and even my disproportionately small head was visualised and made beauteous. Dali had given me a woman who seemed equally complex. This is why I continue to love Dali to the marrow; he courageously embraced psychological messiness. Sometimes in the interest of shock factor and self-aggrandisement, perhaps, but always in the interest of honesty. So from both my fourteen year old and present selves, thank you Dali the Divine!

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