Le surréalisme, c’est moi | Elliott H. King

‘Le surréalisme, c’est moi’

The Surrealist movement was already four years-old when Dalí made his first trip to Paris in April 1926. There he reconnected with his close friend Luis Buñuel, who had moved to Paris in 1925 and come into contact with the Surrealists despite warnings from his mentor, the director Jean Epstein: ‘Beware of Surrealists, they are crazy people,’ Epstein purportedly told him.[1] It is possible that together Dalí and Buñuel even visited the Galerie Surréaliste, which had just opened the previous month with an exhibition by Man Ray.[2] For his part, however, Dalí was initially resistant to Surrealism, pursuing instead the dual channels of anti-art experimentation and meticulous academicism.[3] ‘Nobody loathes Surrealism as thoroughly as Dalí!’ wrote the painter Sebastià Gasch in 1927.[4] By the time Dalí made his second visit to Paris in 1929, however, Surrealism’s influence – particularly works by fellow Catalan Joan Miró, who had unofficially affiliated with the Surrealists in 1924 – was clear. Dalí celebrated his first solo exhibition in Paris that November at Galerie Goemans with the Surrealists’ leader, André Breton, contributing the catalogue introduction and purchasing for his own collection Dalí’s painting Accommodations of Desire; Dalí had, in Breton’s words, opened the ‘mental windows […] absolutely wide for the first time.’[5]

Though enthusiastically endorsed by Breton, Dalí’s early Surrealist paintings were a marked departure from the automatism that until then dominated the movement’s artistic output. By contrast with ‘passive’ processes such as automatic drawing and frottage, in which the artist attempts to broach the subconscious by surrendering conscious control to chance, Dalí flaunted virtuosic power over his medium – skills honed through formal training at Madrid’s Real Academia de San Fernando. At the same time, however, his work remained deeply and deliberately indebted to Freudian symbolism in keeping with Surrealism’s admiration for psychoanalysis. His 1930 painting, The Hand. The Remorse of Conscience, for example, portrays a seated figure based on a statue in Barcelona of the Catalan poet and dramatist Frederic Soler, whom Dalí depicts with soiled pants, bleeding eyes, and a monstrously large left hand. The hand, here and in other paintings of the period, likely represents the shame of masturbation, while the enucleated eyes may invoke the story of Oedipus, a tale that weighed heavily on young Dalí’s mind following his estrangement from his father in 1929 – a seminal event in the artist’s life prompted by his affair with Gala Éluard and the debut of his 1929 painting, Parfois je crache par plaisir sur le portrait de ma mère. Psychoanalytic allusions in other works such as Au bord de la mer (1931) and Suez (1932) are more veiled, though once spotted, the eroticism of Au bord de la mer’s ghostly phallic figure or the latter’s extended spoon spanning the composition to make tantalizing contact with an erect protrusion on the opposite side are unmistakable.[6]

From his entry into the Surrealist group, Dalí explored a wide variety of media. Having already developed an avid interest in film and photography, he co-wrote the script for Un Chien Andalou (1929) with Buñuel and contributed key passages to its sequel, L’Âge d’Or (1930). A gifted writer, he also produced voluminous theoretical essays for Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution and, later, Minotaure. Among his most outstanding contributions to the development of the movement was his 1931 theorization of the ‘Surrealist Object.’ Although Breton had offered the possibility of so-called ‘Dream Objects’ as a means of Surrealist expression as early as 1924, it was Dalí who most thoroughly explored this new category of sculpture. The Surrealist Object, Dalí argued, was neither aesthetic nor anti-art but a tangible, poetic materialization of pure thought aimed at destabilizing reality.

Among Dalí’s earliest Surrealist objects was Surrealist Object Functioning Symbolically (1931), an apparatus built around a woman’s leather shoe containing a glass of warm milk and a soft paste ‘the colour of excrement’:

The mechanism consists of the dipping in the milk of a sugar lump, on which there is a drawing of a shoe, so that the dissolving sugar, and consequently the image of the shoe, may be observed. Several accessories (pubic hairs glued to a sugar lump, an erotic little photograph) complete the object, which is accompanied by a box of spare sugar lumps and a special spoon used for stirring lead pellets inside the shoe.

The bizarre device nullifies any of the sculpture’s individual elements’ utility, imbuing each with prosaic significance that recalls the famous juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table from Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror. The same might be said of another of his famous objects, Retrospective Bust of a Woman (1933), which combines a porcelain bust (decorated with ants), corncobs, a zoetrope strip, a bread loaf, and a bronze inkwell in the shape of Jean-François Millet’s painting, L’Angélus. Again, the result is a profound construction with elusive but undeniable significance. The phallic forms of the corn, bread, and pens dipping into ink were familiar in Dalí’s work, as was his burgeoning obsession with Millet’s nineteenth-century painting, which he interpreted as an erotic encounter between a cannibalistic praying mantis/woman and her emasculated mate.[8]

Dalí’s meteoric rise to fame on both sides of the Atlantic meant increased opportunities to expand into more populist means of expression. He collaborated with the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli on Surrealist-inspired gowns and hats, and with Duc Fulco de Verdura on Surrealistic jewellery; he supplied artwork for Vogue and Town & Country magazines and wrote a (regrettably unrealized) film script for the Marx Brothers in Hollywood, decried by Groucho as ‘too Surrealist’; his ballet Bacchanale premiered in New York in 1939. While such ventures certainly contributed to the popularization of Surrealism, especially in the United States, the Surrealists viewed them as diluted debasements of their core ideas and revolutionary character. By 1939 the artist’s perceived reactionary politics, capacity for self-promotion, and other capricious statements led to his formal expulsion from the movement. Ironically this did not tarnish Dalí’s fame, for already he was by far the most famous of the Surrealists and, even if unjustly, for many its central mouthpiece; when Esquire magazine asked the artist in 1942 to define Surrealism, he replied simply, ‘I am Surrealism!’[9]

Over the ensuing decades both Dalí and Breton sought actively to diminish the other’s significance in the history of the movement, but even Breton, who ridiculed Dalí’s art after 1936 as having ‘no interest whatsoever for Surrealism,’ could not deny his key contributions to its development.[10] ‘For three or four years,’ the poet later recalled, ‘Dalí incarnated the Surrealist sprit, and his genius made it shine.’[11]


Elliott H. King, Dalí scholar

[i] José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1994), 80.

[ii] Ken Wach, ‘Paris,’ en Ted Gott (ed.)., Dalí: Liquid Desire (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009), 95.

[iii] L’exposició individual de Dalí 1926, aquell mateix desembre a les Galeries Dalmau de Barcelona, va estar dividida en dos espais ben diferents: pintures tradicionalistes i ‘obra cubista i neocubista’.

[iv] Sebastià Gasch, ‘L’exposició col·lectiva de la Sala Parés’, AA  no. 19 (31 d’octubre 1927), 95. Citat a The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí, d’Ian Gibson (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), 171.

[v] André Breton, prefaci, Dalí, Galerie Goemans, Paris, 20 November – 5 December 1929, sense numeració de pàgines.

[vi] El títol de Suez fou afegit més tard, ja que el quadre es va dir originalment Paisatge agnòstic. Vegeu Dawn Ades (ed.), Dali: The Centenary Retrospective (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 168.

[viii] Vegeu Salvador Dalí, Le Mythe tragique de l’Angélus de Millet, Interprétation ‘paranoiaïque-critique’ (c. 1932) (Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1963).

[ix] Salvador Dalí, ‘Total Camouflage for Total War,’ Esquire, no. 2 (New York), Agosto 1942: 64-66, 129-30.

[x] André Breton, ‘Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism’ (1941). Traduït i publicat a Surrealism and Paintin. André Breton (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2002), 73.

[xi] André Breton, Entretiens 1913-1952, Paris, 1959. Citat a William Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), 213.


Text published in Dalí. Master at Metamosphoses. Galeria Mayoral, 2015. p. 11