Unknown Masters Salvador Dali: painting the fourth dimension
The Surrealist painter Dali is largely seen as an eccentric, money-hungry artist. But such three dimensional descriptions do not capture the visionary who tried to paint the fourth dimension on his two-dimensional canvas.
by Philip Coppens
Artists are apparently supposed to be poor – you are supposed to suffer for your art. This is why we like Vincent van Gogh, who was very poor and in his time extremely unpopular. It provides art critics with a sense that these people were misunderstood, not appreciated, but how far we have advanced, for “now” we realise their talents. The Spanish Surrealist artist Salvador Dali, however, always made it known that he did not share this rather bizarre ambition. He wanted to earn money in order to work as he pleased. André Breton, the “Pope of Surrealism”, hence nicknamed him “Avida Dollars” – an anagram of his name, meaning “eager for dollars”. Indeed, Dali liked money, but it seems this is where most observers of Dali content themselves with: he was a painter, a surrealist painter, in love with money, who painted for the money. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Dalí’s artistic repertoire included paintings, film, sculpture and photography. Wherever he went, he stood out through clothing, coiffure and behaviour, supporting a moustache that was itself a work of art. If that did not cause spectacle enough, there were other means. In 1936, Dalí took part in the London International Surrealist Exhibition. His lecture entitled “Fantomes paranoiaques authentiques” (authentic paranoid ghosts) was delivered wearing a deep-sea diving suit.
His paintings are not only surreal, they are ingenious. There are his numerous depictions of what is known as soft watches or melting clocks, his ingenious method of conveying to the reader that time is tired. The idea was according to some based on his knowledge of Einstein’s theory that time is relative. He apparently got the idea when he was staring at a runny piece of Camembert cheese during a hot summer’s day – or at least that is the theory for those who do not want to underline his hallucinogenic indulgences.
The most famous of these enigmatic images is equally one of his most famous works: “The Persistence of Memory”, painted in 1931, in which these melting watches rest in an eerily calm landscape. In this other dimension, time is of no relevance. In his painting “The Search for the Fourth Dimension”, the limp clocks are still present, as well geometric shapes and figures; the pentagram somehow emerges from a cliff face; the pentagram is repeated elsewhere when he works his version of the Last Supper into this geometric shape. There is “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”, in which he has used imagery from Bernini’s famous elephant sculpture in Rome and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: an elephant supporting an obelisk on its back, but whose legs Dali has extended, as if this and the other animals on the painting appear to walk on stilts. There are many surrealist paintings, but Dali is one of few who is able to convince that this other world could also be real. It may be because he did not paint from his imagination or by combining real elements into surreal components; it may be because he never hid the fact that he was an avid drug taker… and before meeting the love of his life, his wife Gala, whom he considered to be his muse, he had also made it known that he considered himself to be “the Great Masturbator”.
Dali had a genuine interest in the mind and the occult. His interest in the enigma of the mind brought him into contact with Sigmund Freud. The meetings occurred in 1938, when Freud was ailing in his London residence. Dali would draw numerous portraits of the father of psychiatry. Late, he would design the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”, which heavily delves into psychoanalysis.
But he was more like Jung than Freud, open to an archetypal reality. He created a bespoke tarot card deck; authors like Roger Michel Erasmy have no qualms in describing him as a visionary. Dali was born on May 11, 1904, in Figueres, north of Barcelona and near the Spanish-French border. Apart from spending time abroad, specifically in New York, Dali remained anchored to his native region. Dalí’s older brother, also named Salvador, had died of meningitis three years before the artist’s birth, at the age of seven. When he was five, Dalí was taken to his brother’s grave and told by his parents that he was his brother’s reincarnation, which he came to believe. Later, Dali claimed they resembled each other “like two drops of water”. His older brother “was probably a first version of myself but conceived too much in the absolute”.
He began to paint at an early age and to paint, he said he brought up images from his subconscious mind. He induced these hallucinatory states in himself by a process he described as “paranoiac critical”. It seems that he “downloaded” information from this other realm, for his painting style matured with extraordinary rapidity, and from 1929 to 1937, he produced the paintings that made him the world’s best-known Surrealist artist.
So much so that by 1939, he had broken with others in the Surrealist movement, though he would remain their most eccentric billboard. That same year, he made “Dalí’s Declaration of Independence of the Imagination and the Rights of Man to His Own Madness”, published in defence of his “Dream of Venus” exhibit for the New York World’s Fair.
After the Second World War, Dali would create a series of 18 large size paintings, painted between 1948 and 1970, which Dali himself considered to be his masterpieces. Like any great painter, he not merely created masterpieces, he also experimented: he made bulletist works and was among the first artists to employ holography in an artistic manner. Several of his works incorporate optical illusions, showing his mastery in how to bring about a three dimensional universe onto a canvas. Though his masterpieces are well-known, what they mean is less known, if only because Dali is seen as a man who painted for money – i.e. with little symbolism. But there is an esoteric dimension to this man. Dali considered the station of the French town of Perpignan to be the centre of the universe. Art critics often accept that for Dali it was, for it was here that he shipped his paintings to their buyers. But there was more to it than that. Dali stated that he had a vision while inside the station of Perpignan, on September 19, 1963. “I had an example of a cosmogonic ecstasy, more powerful than the preceding ones. I had a precise vision of the constitution of the Universe.” And for Dali, that was the real reason why he saw the station as the centre of the universe – however bizarre that may be to anyone who has ever visited this unimpressive building.
The vision from 1963 was followed by a painting of the Station of Perpignan, one of his masterpieces, which went on display on December 18, 1965, in New York. In the invitation sent out for the opening night of the exhibition, Dali repeated his claim that the station would be the location from where the universe would start to converge. It was via such enigmatic statements that Dali came to the attention of Roger Michel Erasmy, who began to explore Dali’s strange world of hallucinations – an area where few had dared to go before. Specifically, Erasmy focused on Dali’s later years, when Dali was generally seen as “just mad” – but could have been in information overload? Was the gate from the other realm wide open and was Dali unable to regulate it?
His wife – muse – Gala died on June 10, 1982. Shortly afterwards, Dali deliberately dehydrated himself, possibly in an attempt to put himself into a state of suspended animation, as he had read that some micro-organisms could do. Dali’s perception as a madman was augmented in 1984, when he apparently tried to commit suicide by setting his bed on fire. In his work, the theme of an enveloping catastrophe came ever more to the forefront. There is the enigmatic “catastrophic writing”, written in a booklet on September 16, 1982, while he was at his castle Pubol.
His final “prophetic testament” was dictated to Antonio Pixtot, his most if perhaps only trusted ally at the time, on October 31, 1983. It contained catastrophic revelations, centred around four hallucinations Dali had experienced, apparently after the death of Gala, at the end of 1982. In these hallucinations, the French mathematician René Thom appeared. Though he had only ever met the mathematician once, in his hallucinations, Thom apparently convinced Dali of an upcoming catastrophe. Intriguingly, Dali stated that the centre of this catastrophe, which he linked with the disappearance – or abduction – of Europe, would begin between Salses and Narbonne, not too far from the station of Perpignan, which he had previously identified as the centre of the Universe. Dali drew the “Enlevement topologique d’Europe. Hommage à René Thom.” (Topological Abduction of Europe – Homage to René Thom) in 1983. It is one of his lesser known paintings, as most consider it nothing more than the desperate attempts of a man losing his sanity, having already lost the ability to portray his thoughts in wonderful compositions on gigantic canvases.
At first sight, there is little to suggest that the art critics have gotten it wrong. Erasmy, however, thought there might be more to this painting. Firstly, the name sits clearly within his series of visions that Dali had experienced. Secondly, the painting, in the bottom left corner, has a specific reference to René Thom, including a series of mathematical symbols.
The rest of the painting appears to be nothing more than two lines, against a grey background, and a cross. As Dali had stated that the abduction of Europe, the topic of the painting, would begin between Salses and Narbonne, Erasmy noted the similarity between the route of the A9/E15 motorway, between Salses and Narbonne, and the line to the right. The resemblance is indeed remarkable, however coincidental it may be. Still, the smaller, lighter, line to the left coincides with a part of a smaller, yet important secondary road, the D611, between Tuchan and Durban-Corbières. The similarity between the A9/E15 and D611 and the painting is so stunning that Erasmy asked Pixtot whether Dali had painted with a map in hand. Pixtot stated that he was present throughout, and that Dali had not used a map – but at the same time noted that the similarity was indeed stunning, if only because in his hallucinations, Dali had stated that “the spot” where Europe would be “abducted” was between Salses and Narbonne. As outrageous and mad as these claims may appear, Dali’s obsession with the centre of the universe was genuine. He met Thom, was well aware of Einstein’s discoveries on the laws of physics and was specifically fascinated with quantum mechanics and how this would change our understanding of the universe. In 1958, he wrote in his “Anti-Matter Manifesto”: “In the Surrealist period I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world and the world of the marvellous, of my father Freud. Today the exterior world and that of physics, has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr. Heisenberg” –the person who created the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In seeing the connection between quantum physics and the mind and how it will supersede psychology, he was decades ahead of his and our time. Specifically, he not merely understand, but was able to visualise this in his surreal other world that he created on his canvases.
That makes Dali a visionary. Was he an alchemist? Dali met Uri Geller in Barcelona for a couple of days. Geller bent a gold fork in Dali’s hand; the latter took off to a room in his house, and locked himself in there for hours. For some, it is evidence of his madness. Perhaps, but when he emerged, he was holding a rock crystal sphere, which was his gift to Geller and which now sits proudly on the hood of Geller’s Cadillac, which is coated in bent spoons.
Dalí could indeed have been a true alchemist. In 1958, he painted a “meditative rose”. For an alchemist, mastery of divine geometry is the first step towards mastery over the elements. He noted that the rhinoceros horn grows according to a logarithmic spiral, which he then began to incorporate into his paintings. But the element he wanted to capture seems to have been Air. Before buying the castle Pubol, Dali had set his sight on Quermanco, between Figueras and Cadaques. In the end, the sale did not go through and he had to abandon his plan to use the castle as the stage for the installation of the Organ of Tramontane, a northerly wind. Dali wanted the organ’s music to be heard by the people of the region. Locals believed the wind could drive people mad – and it seems Dali was about to test the validity of that claim.
He was fascinated by DNA and the hypercube; the latter, a four-dimensional cube, is featured in the painting Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus, 1954). On his return from New York, Dalí announced that he was going to paint a picture he himself termed as sensational: an exploding Christ, nuclear and hypercubic. It would be the first picture painted with a classical technique and an academic formula, but composed of cubic elements. To a reporter who asked him why he wanted to depict Christ exploding, he replied, “I don’t know yet. First I have ideas, I explain them later. This picture will be the great metaphysical work of my summer.”
Once completed, Dali defined it as “metaphysical, transcendent cubism”: “It is based entirely on the Treatise on Cubic Form by Juan de Herrera, Philip II’s architect, builder of the Escorial Palace; it is a treatise inspired by Ars Magna of the Catalonian philosopher and alchemist, Raymond Lull. The cross is formed by an octahedral hypercube. The number nine is identifiable and becomes especially consubstantial with the body of Christ. The extremely noble figure of Gala is the perfect union of the development of the hypercubic octahedron on the human level of the cube. She is depicted in front of the Bay of Port Lligat. The most noble beings were painted by Velazquez and Zurbaran; I only approach nobility while painting Gala, and nobility can only be inspired by the human being.”
Observers have noted that this work is actually a marriage between faith and science and sits rightly within the series of Dali’s 18 masterworks. This marriage by Dali has been labelled “Nuclear Mysticism”, in short, a marriage of Christian imagery with modern forms and depictions. Dali was hence a modern alchemist. Could he also have been an initiate? No-one has asked the question, and at present, one should only pose it, merely noting that in “The Last Supper” (1955), God is painted without a head – echoes of Jean Cocteau’s mural inside Notre Dame de France Church in London, a mural claimed to be linked with Cocteau’s initiatory alliances. Dali frequently used this headless divinity, including “The Ecumenical Council”. And in “The Last Supper”, is the position of the divinity not similar to Leonardo’s infamous Vitruvian Man?
In the already cited “Searching for the Fourth Dimension” from 1979, we see the alchemist at work: there are allusions to Einstein’s space/time theories, by means of the wheels next to the cave – both concave and convex – and the sprawling soft watch. But what to make of the couple with their backs to the painter, a reference to Plato and Aristotle in “The School of Athens” by Raphael – which in itself has a rich history of esoteric acclaim? And why did he believe that Europe would be “abducted” from Perpignan, where centuries before an apocalyptic preacher, Vincent Ferrer, made similar claims… claims apparently supported by the exiled pope Benedict XIII? At best labelled eccentric, at worst a paranoid lunatic, truly, he should be seen for what he painted: a surrealist, a modern-day alchemist, a man with one leg in this reality, and one leg in the other, his waxed moustache strangely suspended between a world where gravity exists, yet does somehow not seem to affect him too much. When once interviewed on an American television show, Dalí referred to himself in the third person, proclaiming “Dalí is immortal and will not die”. In fact, Dali died several times. He had died a few years before he was born. He died as a young artist, when Dali broke with the Surrealist movement, whose members, like Bréton, began to refer to Dali in the past tense, as if he had died. He died when Gala died in 1982. He also died of heart failure on January 23, 1989, in Figueres.