Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, 1944, Oil on Canvas 51cm x 40.5 cm, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
Spain again. But this is the last one for a while. As I review and select for these pieces I keep returning in wonder to the incredible influence Spain has on modern art. Granted, Picasso and Dalí both made their bones in Paris which was the birthplace of so much of the 20th Century style, but they made those reputations on the strength of sensibilities born in España. Each of them towered over modern art both in influence and in the minds of the public, but of the two it was Dalí who went out of his way to romance his audience and dazzle them with genius and chutzpah like some super powered P.T. Barnum.
Part of his appeal undoubtedly lay with his masterful drawing skills; he had an uncanny ability to render the most grotesque objects and forms in ways which were nonetheless attractive to the eye, almost pleasant. Further, he was a man of deep intellectual curiosity. He may well posture like a fool, but always behind his compositions are deep references to art and science, history and literature. He seemed able to think a thousand ways about a thing in the time it took others to name the thing at all. No field seemed beyond him; he designed furniture, made sculpture, designed jewelry (including a heart of precious stones and metals that actually beats), designed sequences in movies for the likes of Hitchcock, and threw parties of such raucous splendor they are still discussed today.
I first became enamored of Dalí when I was a young sailor marking time at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The school occupies the grounds of the old Hotel Del Monte which was a favorite haunt of Dalí and the scene of some of his most scandalous parties. According to the brochure we used at the time, Dalí once hired the entire hotel, filled its magnificent lobby with cattle and hay bales, and greeted his guests there alongside his wife Gala who was dressed only in the meat chart he had drawn on her nude body. To a dumb boy from the South this seemed an extravagant way to entertain, but I had just enough New Orleans in me to be able to appreciate the gesture and admire a man who had found a way to have Mardi Gras all the days of his life.
This is quite a little painting here. The tigers with their stripes remind us of the bee with his. The pomegranate is a symbol found in every western faith you can think of from Persephone to Christ. The fish likewise is a symbol of Christianity and in older cultures a bearer of unlikely tokens and omens swallowed in the mysterious seas, a creature of magic and wisdom. In the foreground, bottom, a bee investigates a rotting pomegranate which in turn casts a heart-shaped shadow on the rock. From the tiger’s mouth emerges a second tiger from which emerges a rifle with bayonet and it is the bayonet touching Gala’s arm that will wake her. In the background an elephant with spindly legs bears an obelisk, and above the sleeping woman to the right we see a ragged tent opening for some unseen hermit. Dalí is building purposely on specific dream images taken from Freud, and the grounding of these images in reality creates a kind of harmony that our observing minds subconsciously accept. One could easily write a paper of a thousand pages to explain this work and still fall short of what the unconscious mind collects in a moment. The truly staggering thing is that Dalí did this sort of work all the time. Almost all are home runs. Amazing.
Of course it means little to us in these modern times. It isn’t like we are still influenced by Dalí’s surrealist designs in any practical way. They say that at the end he went stark raving mad, and I say, “How the hell would they know?” My favorite quotation from art comes from Dalí, and it only works for me because I know he meant it with all his heart. This is it.
“There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.”
Me too, buddy.