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Salvador Dali: images of the surreal.

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. The sea shell looks strange next to the throne; the lemons seem out of place at the Madonna's feet. The cross and globe in the hand of the child symbolize power over the world. The egg is a symbol of birth and resurrection, or rebirth. The fish is a symbol for Christ. The lemons stand for fidelity, a reference to Dali's wife, Gala, who is the model for the Madonna. She is dressed in primary colors, red, yellow and blue, the basic colors from which all others can be made, symbolizing purity.

In both The Persistence of Memory and Madonna of Port Lligat, the space is strange; the backgrounds appear to continue forever, while the foreground seems close to the viewer. There is no middle distance to give a realistic impression of continuous space. The space seems disjointed. This is a technique often used by Surrealist painters to create tension, excitement and a feeling of the surreal.

Key Concepts

* An artist using intuitive images may alter them with a rational process to make stronger works of art.

* Changes in an artist's life and world affect the artist's work.

* Symbols can stimulate the memory and imagination, suggest associations, communicate information and add to the levels of interpretation of an artwork.

* The scale of forms in a composition may be distorted to an element of fantasy to a work.

* Images may come to an artist through an automatic process of intuition.



Born in a small Spanish town, Figueras, near Barcelona. Named after his brother who had died nine months before at about two years of age.


Attends the Fine Arts Academy in Madrid, Spain where he studies art history, reads writings by Freud on dreams and explores Cubism, Neo-Classicism and Realism.


Meets Picasso in Paris. Is expelled from school because of his difficult behavior and because of his belief that his teachers were unqualified to judge his work.


Meets Surrealist artists in Paris. Meets Gala Eluard, wife of Surrealist writer Paul Eluard, who later becomes Dali's wife.


Buys a fisherman's house for himself and Gala at Port Lligat, in Spain, as a studio and escape from social demands.


Show The Persistence of Memory at his first one-artist exhibition in Paris.


Visits the United States for the first time, with Gala. He subsequently visits the United States every year until World War II.


Civil War in Spain. Dali and Gala travel to Italy where they see Renaissance and Baroque art.


Meets Freud in London and draws his portrait.


Moves to the United States during World War II.


Announces his intention to return to the High Renaissance of Raphael, to become a classical artist. Has a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Takes an interest in nuclear theories after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Marries his life-long companion Gala in Spain. Continues painting, making sculpture, prints and films, exhibiting and publishing until his last few years of illness.


The Salvador Dali Museum opens in Cleveland, Ohio.


Teatro Museum opens in Figueras, Spain, designed by Dali for his work and the work of the artists he admires.


Made a member of the French Academy. Retrospective of his work opens in Paris at Center Georges Pompidou.


The Salvador Dali Museum is moved to St. Petersburg, Florida.


Dies in Spain.

Suggested Activities

The following activities may be adapted for both elementary and secondary students.

* Draw a picture quickly on a piece of paper, putting down whatever comes to mind. This will give you a sense of the automatic process that Breton wrote about. Now look at your picture and improve it, so that the parts look better together. This will approximate a practice of artists who start with intuitive images but refine their compositions according to rational thought.

* Following a discussion on Surrealism, draw or paint a landscape or a city scene. Include several objects or forms in the composition that would not normally be found in this setting.

* Create your own Surrealistic montage, pasting unusual images (from magazines or other sources) next to each other. Viewing the montages of Romare Bearden and the compositions by Tanguy, Ernst and Magritte will suggest possibilities for this activity.

* After discussing Surrealistic art, ask the class to draw or paint four to six objects in a still-life composition. Enlarge some of the objects and make others smaller to create a surreal effect.

* After viewing the watches in Dali's The Persistence of Memory and examples of Oldenburg's soft sculpture, form an everyday object in clay as realistically as possible and reshape the object into a distorted, yet visually interesting form.

* Look closely at a picture in an art book or in a magazine the way we looked at Dali's paintings. Do similar forms repeat? Is the space deep or flat? Are the colors realistic, symbolic or mainly expressive of the artist's feelings? Are the forms symbolic? What does the picture say to you? Draw or paint a picture in the style of Dali.


Ades, Dawn. Dali. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982.

Alexandrian, Sarane. Surrealist Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1970.

Janson, H.W. History of Art. New York: Abrams, 1962.

Melly, George. Paris and the Surrealists, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

Nadeau, Maurice. The History of Surrealism. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1989.

Selected Works: Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Museum of Art. Marquette University, Milwaukee: Haggerty Museum, Marquette University, 1984.

Russell, John. The Meanings of Modern Art. New York: The Museum of Modern Art and Harper and Row, 1981.

Lake, Carlton, In Quest of Dali. New York: Paragon House, 1990.

Kit Basquin is Curator of Education and Public Programs at the Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, Milwaukee.
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Author:Basquin, Kit
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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