Salvador Dali: The Vision of Hell (1962)
There is little doubt as to the genius of Salvador Dali’s early work, but critics disagree as to the value of the works completed after 1939, and almost everyone questions or decries the “work” produced by assistants and the many so-called “approved forgeries” of the 60’s and 70’s. Dali’s work and his life is currently enjoying a much deserved reprise, with three movies slated for release later this year (2011). I’ve recently been re-reading Ian Gibson’s 1997 Biography The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali (New York: W.W. Norton). Gibson seems to have presaged the interest and new-found emphasis on Dali’s eccentricities and his sexual proclivities or predilections. I think that most people, even most students who think of Dali, think of the impossible moustache, and probably the “melting clocks” of The Persistence of Memory. The image of the melting clocks is so much a part of the popular culture now, that it may even have eclipsed the fame and reputation of its maker.
History is littered with the dirty little secrets of great men and women, if we only know where to look or whom to ask. And while we might expect complete reports rife with lurid details from snickering detractors; it is seldom –even rare— that we find so many frank assessments from friends and even from the man himself. Unfortunately, with Dali, we can never quite be sure if he is telling us the truth, embellishing a lie, or simply adding to his own myth. Indeed, even when reading about Dali, in the accounts of friends and detractors alike, one is often confounded by the same questions and concerns. Gibson’s book weighs in at a hefty 800 pages. In part it reads like a phonebook of the Avant-Garde: enough names, places, numbers, images and allusions to peak one’s interest, but scarcely enough cohesive thought to hold it: Gibson seems too enthusiastic about the journalistic credo of “the who’s, the what’s, the when’s and the how’s”, and all but neglects the possibilities of “the why’s”. His book is no doubt a remarkable achievement, albeit riddled with long passages of subtext, subterranean innuendo and gossip that ultimately lead us nowhere—and a little out of breath, besides.
To attack Dali’s work, we must be as subtle and as brash as the maestro himself, pick our path and lunge at it sideways. We might begin with a more or less standard approach, one suggested by the artist himself and disparaged by Gibson. One of the facts of Salvador Dali’s life, was that there were at least two (but in fact several more) Salvador Dali’s:
“Salvador and Felipa’s [Dali’s parents] first child was born on 12 October 1901. The birth certificate, couched in Spanish, not Catalan, as the law required, states that the child was named Salvador Galo Anselmo: Salvador after his father, paternal great-grandfather and other Dali forbears; Galo as a tribute to his ill-fated paternal grandfather; Anselmo in deference to his maternal grandfather, Anselm Domenech, and the latter’s son. [His note omitted.] We know hardly anything about this first Salvador, who died twenty-two months later, on 1 August 1903, victim, according to his death certificate, of ‘an infectious gastro-enteritic cold’”(49).
“Nine months and ten days after the death of his brother, as if conceived in the urgency of grief, the ‘real’ Salvador Dali came into the world, the signal event occurring in the family apartment at 8:45 p.m. on 11 May 1904.[His note omitted.] …The child was not named Salvador in memory of his dead brother, as has often been asserted, but for the same reason as the had been the latter—family tradition (in Catalunya, as in the rest of Spain, it was common for the same Christian names to be regularly handed down from generation to generation…. It would have been unheard of, certainly, to burden the new son with the second and third names of his deceased brother, and of course the Dalis did not do this. Felipe was no doubt chosen as the male form of Felipa, the child’s mother, while Jacinto was a gesture in the direction of Raphael Dali Cusi, Don Salvador’s brother whose full name was Rafael Narciso Jacinto” (50-51).
This is the basic information we need to refute Dali’s own accounts and the subsequent accounts of others who claim that somehow Dali was living in the shadow of his dead brother, or that the morbidity of such an association had somehow informed the formers work. Gibson continues in an attempt to settle the matter:
“In Dali’s extant adolescent diaries there is no mention of his dead brother, although of course there may have been in those that are missing. The references to him occurring in subsequent writings are shot through with misinformation and fantasy, in what proportion deliberately or unconsciously it is impossible to say. In the Secret Life [one of several ‘auto-biographical’ works] Dali states that his brother was seven years old, not twenty-two months, when he died, and that his demise (from meningitis, he alleges, in blatant disagreement with the death certificate) occurred three years before his own birth, not nine months; he also says that his brother had ‘the unmistakable facial morphology of a genius’, showing signs of ‘alarming precocity’. [Again his note omitted.] Later in The Unspeakable Confessions, Dali claimed that his parents had committed ‘a subconscious crime’ by giving him the same name as his brother and thereby forcing him to live up to an impossible ideal, a crime aggravated by the fact that they kept a photograph of the dead child on a cupboard in their bedroom in, as Dali would have us believe, significant juxtaposition with a reproduction of Velazquez’s Christ” [Another omitted note] (51-52).
I will add a third, pair of salient quotes on this point [and then I’ll be tempted to leave you to read the damn book for yourselves—notes and all!]:
“As for Dali’s Portrait of My Dead Brother, executed in 1963, it is based on a photograph of another child, considerably older than the defunct twenty-two-month-old. [His note here was also omitted.] …
“Most of what Dali has to say about his brother appears to be make-believe masquerading as true history and intended to supply the curious with an arresting but spurious justification for the artist’s eccentric behavior . It is also, perhaps, a red herring designed to put biographers, whom arguably Dali feared, firmly off the track. In the latter respect, it must be said, he succeeded only too well” (52-53).
It seems to me, that Dali is not trying to throw off his biographers as much as he is trying to force us to see him as he wants to see himself, as a figure of reverence; the kind of reverence usually only afforded the sainted dead or martyred. The ‘doubling’ of the self is not a ‘paranoiac-critical’ exercise in excess, but one of a more ordinary exegesis. I suggest that his ‘spurious’ comments about his youth, his dead sibling, even the half-recollected, half-concocted accounts of his upbringing by his father and mother, [or even his relationships with Bunel, Lorca and others] are not Romantic quests into the abyss to retrieve or restore the lost memory of a forgotten twin; but are his failed attempts to reconcile the fractured contents and wonton impulses of his own precarious psyche.
Onanistic obsession suffuses Dali’s work almost from the beginning. [Gibson’s book indexes almost forty references to masturbation alone. Dali’s Secret Life is full of confessions that would seem to suggest, that he linked the act of masturbating to the creation of his own work as well as to the thematic content.] This too may be little more than a purposive play on words, as in: ‘connecting’, by failing to “connect”. It is perhaps even more likely that Dali is playing with the alchemists’ idea of the coniunctio oppositorum: the union of opposites, in which the “opposites” are within the self. His apparent, obsessive need to return to the theme would thus, I suppose, underscore a secondary meaning of onanism as coitus interruptus. For all of that, it becomes apparent that Dali’s inner turmoil resolves eventually to nothing more than the good Catholic twin, and the evil Hedonistic twin; not the somber internal conflicts recovered by a reflexive Freudian dream analysis, but the tawdry repertoire of music-hall melodramas. Drawing on the somewhat over-rehearsed text of the Secret Lives, in his discussion of Honey is Sweeter than Blood [circa 1927—but apparently a lost work—shown in a photo on his page 210] Gibson defaults at the brink of a similar realization”
“…Dali recounts yet another act of masturbation: ‘Once more I wrenched from my body that familiar solitary pleasure, sweeter than honey, while biting into the corner of my pillow lighted by a moonbeam, sinking my teeth into it till they cut through the saliva-drenched fabric.’ [His note—you guessed it—omitted!] If masturbation is a pleasure sweeter than honey, and honey is sweeter than blood, one wonders it blood, in the context of this painting, might not stand for sexual intercourse (and the fear of it), the statement ‘honey is sweeter than blood; thereby being equivalent to ‘masturbation is sweeter than fucking’” (214).
To which analysis the obvious response is that in 1927, the artist is neither concealing his latent desire for Lorca, nor a repressed or aberrant fear of intercourse [with men or women], but is only confessing that he is simply twenty-three. Gibson proudly displays the hook (if not the line and sinker) when he remarks that
“In 1950 Dali said he considered Honey is Sweeter than Blood one of his most important paintings, explaining that it contained ‘all the obsessions of my entry into Surrealism’” [note omitted] (215).
Gibson further compounds his problem [with his analysis] by seizing on yet another set of de rigueur provocations by Dali:
“Dali, a self-confessed worshipper of the female posterior, always insisted that he loathed large breasts as much as women’s genitals, stating his preference, among the body’s orifices, for the anus” [note omitted] (215).
This latter quote must be cast into the pit with other such incitements, designed by the artist to bolster his own rhetorical resume under the aegis of the notorious, and set ablaze with the volatile concoction of his own social-sexual psychobabble. In short, to take Dali too literally, is to miss the point and the power of the ‘marvelous’ in his work, and more importantly, in his life. It is likely that all of his confessions and all of the reports of potty business and toilet talk among his friends were all just part of the act. There are in Gibson’s book a number of referenced quotes citing Dali’s discovery and shame concerning the size of his penis, his scatological themes, whether or not he was coprophagic and his fear of the dentate vagina, and other fears (esp. 112, 279, 367). The most alarming for him and perhaps for most of his readers occurs about midway through his book:
“Dali explains that he suffers from an oedipal fixation ‘of extremely important and determining character’. That we knew already. But the next revelation comes as a shock, for he now claims that his mother made him terrified of sex when he was a child ‘by sucking, by devouring’ his penis. Dali concedes that this might be a ‘false memory’, rather than the recollection of a true historical event, but either way, he now wants us to believe that it was his mother who caused his impotence [note omitted], an impotence so tenacious that only Gala has been capable of alleviating it, ‘the resources of her love surpassing in vital intuition the most subtle advances of psychoanalytic treatment’ [note omitted]. … He never seems to have repeated publicly the charge that it was his mother who rendered him unvirile, but the accusation is expressed here with such vigour that it is difficult to believe that he made it lightly” (367).
I have elsewhere discussed the idea of “lines” that are drawn and crossed, or not crossed; I have reasoned that [along with Thompson] the ‘only people who know where the lines are have already gone over them’; in the earlier work, I concluded that the truly transgressive artist, and that truly transgressive art, has no idea where the line is. Dali, in this statement, whether true or not, never seems to know that there might even be a line, on the one hand; and on the other—while he knows there might indeed be a line, he has no idea where it might be. Perhaps the reason the charge was not repeated, was because someone told him that the statement went too far—even for him. We, and Gibson, should keep in mind too, the report from Julien Green:
“…who recorded that Dali talked about Freud ‘like a Christian talks about the New Testament’. Green asked Dali if his life had been simplified by reading the work of the master. ‘Everything had been made easier for him by the solution of conflicts,’ Dali replied. Green took this to mean that Freud’s work had helped the painter to be a freer human being [note omitted]” (371).
Clearly, either Dali was lying or Green misunderstood what he meant by “the solution of conflicts”. Perhaps some of these conflicts were invented by Dali, to conform his own experience to the blueprint conceived by Freud, concerning the basis for psychosis, neurosis, or even ‘paranoiac critical’ methods of acting, thinking or painting. Dali’s real conflicts may have been as simple as the conflicts we might imagine between a devoutly religious mother and female household staff, and an equally adamant atheistic father. Gibson quotes from Dali’s 1952 account:
“My first teacher, Trayter, when I was very young, only made me learn that ‘God does not exist’, and that ‘religion was something for women’. This idea appealed to me from the beginning. At the same time I found an empirical confirmation of this in the bosom of my family in which the women went to church but my father, who was a freethinker, never. Besides, he [Dali’s father] embellished his succulently picturesque conversation with an uninterrupted series of the richest blasphemies” [The in-text note is Gibsons; his other endnote was omitted by me] (59).
It takes little imagination, or analysis to calculate the affects of a doting, religious mother and a distant, imperious and opinionated father on any child; Dali would (albeit perhaps in his own way) seek his mother’s approval, and to try to secure his own status as a painter of religious imagery, even over his father’s objections. For me, the connection becomes more apparent when we consider Dali’s appreciation for and admiration of Antoni Gaudi and his Art Nouveau architecture. And in particular Parc Guell, La Pedrera and Sagrada Familia. Gibson mentions and summarizes Dali’s article on Gaudi in Minotaure: “On the Terrifying and Edible Beauty of ‘Modern Style’ Architecture”:
“In the article Dali recalls that in 1929, in The Visible Woman, he had been perhaps the first painter of his generation to consider Art Nouveau architecture ‘the most original and extraordinary phenomenon in the history of art’. Since then he has come to the conclusion that Art Nouveau emanates from the world of dreams. In the flowing lines of a single Art Nouveau window, he argues, we find Gothic metamorphosing into Hellenic, Far Eastern and even Renaissance styles. Only dream language can match this. Moreover, Art Nouveau like the dream, expresses sexual desire. Dali has heard people comment looking at Art Nouveau buildings, that ‘you could eat them’. For him this puts it in a nutshell. And since if you love somebody you want to eat them, it follows that Art Nouveau architecture is also intensely erotic. Dali has found remarkable proof, in the lamps presiding over the entrances to the Paris Metro, that Art Nouveau manifests the urge to make a meal of the beloved: nobody has noticed that they are praying mantises! The accompanying illustration by the Hungarian photographer Brassai… forces one to agree this time with the justice of Dali’s ‘paranoiac-critical’ insight [note omitted]” (373).
In the long passage [and it is long for a reason] Gibson discusses one of the themes that recurs throughout Dali’s work from the period [Cannibalism—of people or of objects, Sex—with people or with objects, Desire, and Devouring] yet I am not sure he has read his own passage very carefully, or in the light of the statement concerning Dali’s childhood memory regarding his mother “devouring” his penis. Notwithstanding, more to the point here, Dali has established himself by 1934 as “one of Surrealism’s authentic and original exponents [Gibson’s note omitted]” (374). He has also nominated himself as a painter worthy to follow in the footsteps of Gaudi (the architect of the sacred) as a painter of the sacred, because he understands how sexual desire, even sexual perversity, the dream ‘domain of the artist’ and the religious tradition can all co-exist. Gibson includes an excerpt from the critic Jean Wahl on the same article, on Dali and perhaps on art history thereafter:
“Dali is a discoverer and a discovery, beyond any doubt one of the most authentic exponents of Surrealism. His comments to Teriade on objectivity and delirium, his pursuit of images capable of throwing us into ecstasy, his praise (in tune with Breton) of ‘convulsive-ondulatory’, ‘terrifying and sublime’ Art Nouveau, his idea of a dream space which should be the domain of the artist, his formula, so Baudelairian, that ‘beauty is but the sum of the awareness of our perversions’ …all of this is disturbing and exciting” (Wahl, qtd. in Gibson 375.)
There is little doubt as to the genius of Salvador Dali’s early work, but the critics disagree as to the value of his works completed after 1939. Robert Hughes, in Shock of the New, argues the point (Hughes 80, 237). I think Hughes and others are hasty in arguing for that timeline, against Dali. I believe that his paintings reveal a consistency of vision that out-weighs or overrides the self-promotion and personal excesses, that strain the sensibilities of critics like Hughes and maybe the rest of us as well (237). Three examples will help me to prove my point: The Vision of Hell (1962), The Madonna of Port Lligat (1949) and The Madonna of Port Lligat (1950). Separately, or as a group, these paintings can be fit into an understanding of Dali’s work. Each of the paintings betrays a different motive and influence, as well as many of the themes and symbols repeated by Dali, in various guises throughout his career. Hughes points out that the incorporation of incongruous elements is part of the Surrealist’s vocabulary and vision (Hughes 212-213). Each of the works also reveals the threads of continuity that help to define his expression of that vision.
The paintings are of very different sizes: The vision of Hell is hardly commanding at 34 x 24 ½”; the first version of the Madonna of Port Lligat is even less impressive at 19 x 15 inches. The second version of the Madonna (1950) is 12 feet by 8 feet. All three are works on canvas have been rendered in a style similar to Dali’s earlier and later works, except for the fact that they seem brighter, and almost optimistic—even the Vision of Hell—well, almost.
Specifically, the Madonna’s show elements of Dali’s earlier surrealistic works, although, in contrast to those works, in a much subdued form. We immediately recognize Dali’s flat, featureless land and seascapes, and the ubiquitous distant horizon evocative of de Chirico (Hughes 238). Hidden images lurk in the folds of the Virgin Mother’s robe, and in the distant hills, just as are found in many other paintings by Dali. In the segmented arch, beneath which mother and child hover enthroned, we find other allusions to dim allegories that are not somehow the “proper subject” of these particular pictures. There purpose is probably just to provoke what Hughes calls the hallucinatory fervor of the works completed in the thirties. Hughes also points out that capriccio images have been “used occasionally by artists since the sixteenth century” (238). Dali’s use of these effects may have been intended to provide his art with a historic pedigree, just as his reading of Freud had earlier provided him with permission.
The smaller earlier version of the Madonna imitates the diminutive size of Dali’s earlier canvases, while the over sized stature of a year later mocks the dimensions of Abstract Expressionism. Hughes might not like to admit this connection, advanced by the mere incongruity of size, but nevertheless he makes reference to it. “That intensity was also bound up with its small scale—the opposite, in this respect, of Abstract Expressionism, whose impact was largely dependent on the engulfing size of the canvas” (238). If Dali’s first Madonna whispered her theme, the second shouted hers. The Madonna’s head in the first version is split at the top, where the light would otherwise merely describe a highlight. The light divides the image without, at first seeming unsettling. The arms of the first Madonna are not attached to her torso. Yet her hands are piously clasped over the willowy white figure of the infant Jesus. Above and behind the enthroned Virgin and Child, the arch describes for both Madonna’s the hortus conclusus of medieval hymns to the Mother of God. The theme is repeated in the 1949 painting by a “window” painted into the infant Jesus. This helps the viewer see through the body of the Virgin to the horizon beyond.
The sea shells and oversized anemone recall another medieval epithet for Mary, as the “flower of the sea”(Jung 254). The “enclosed garden” motif also refers to tradition, history and thus to “pedigree or provenance by showing us the metaphors of the medieval church. The sea behind (from which the shells have come and of which Mary is seen as the flower) is bound by an imaginary enclosure (a frame) the arch is the “gate”. The arch also encloses the figures of Mary and Jesus, much as Mary encloses Jesus; this is the not the same kind of “doubling” of the self, we have grown used to in Dali’s work. The doubling here is a more traditional, theological cue: The arch represents the Mother Church and what Dali imputes to be her “imperfect embrace.”
A pair of lemons sit curiously, on a ledge under and directly in front of Mary’s throne, (the 1949 version, not 1950). The ledge may be a plinth, a coffee table, a truncated altar or the Surrealists’ dissection table. The lemons refer to the citrinitas, and recall the gold of alchemy, and the alchemist’s quest for the perfection of matter (Jung 263). The scroll at the opposite end of the table is another medieval convention, and probably refers to the prophecies about the birth of the Messiah; here in Dali’s vision it has been tossed aside. The seven architectural elements that compose the arch recede to a vanishing point on the distant horizon. The space in between in the 1949 version of the painting is empty; in the 1950 version the space is occupied by dancing angels. The diminutive size of these angels alludes to their distance from us; and perhaps by default, their distance from us refers to the more human nature of both Jesus and Mary, who are nearer and therefore accessible to us. It is after all an ecclesiastical painting, and Mary and Jesus must fulfill the ecclesiastical role of intercession with the divine on our behalf.
The number seven also plays other significant roles in the allegory. We are reminded of the seven pillars of the temple of Jerusalem which Christ as Messiah, will rebuild on Earth; not present perhaps, but not quite missing either are the seven planets, the seven metals of alchemy, as well as the seven sacraments and virtues that will eventually eradicate the seven deadly sins and overcome our human vices. We should also note that in the 1950 Madonna, Jesus has become an enclosure too; another “doubling”, another reference to the sacraments, as well as a reference to the Community of the Church and the sacrifice of the Mass to which the faithful are called.
In these two paintings, (even given the extreme differences in size) Dali insists that we find in his work the spiritual tradition of painters like Cimabue, Duccio and Tiepolo. The framing arch is found in both the Maiesta of Duccio and the Enthroned Madonna of Cimabue. The joined hands seem more expressive of Tiepolo’s Immaculate Conception, or even Mary Magdalen as depicted by Donatello. The separated arms and hands in both of Dali’s paintings could allude to their being “lifted” or appropriated from such a non-traditional source, to elicit and provoke an additional emotional response in the viewer. In Tiepolo’s piece, the hands express Mary’s piety, she was born without sin; Donatello’s Magdalen would lend an association through gesture with non-Canonical books, especially in Europe and France in particular, that connect the two Maries as mother and the wife of Jesus. Both renderings would fit within Dali’s symbolic vocabulary, and the Hermetic and Alchemical traditions we have been alluding to thus far, however tangentially.
Dali’s use of the symbolic language of alchemy is more than accidental; these symbols are also a language devoted to at least the possibility for transformation. Indeed Surrealism itself is a language in words, paint and imagery of transformation. Dali, even in these relatively late works, has not strayed far from the painterly style of Messonier, and the poetic and literary content of Baudelaire and Lautreamont [Songs of Maldoror—Gibson reminds us of Dali’s illustrations for Maldoror, several of which make explicit the theme of cannibalism, for example (368)]. Hughes notes the connection to Messonier “…whose detailed canvases stood for everything that was not modern: an accuracy more than photographic, with paint as smooth and licked as bathroom porcelain” (238).
The colors and sensibilities of the Vision of Hell (1960) were perhaps indirectly borrowed from Matisse, by way of Joan Miro “…whose lurid and fuliginous colours, glowing between encroachments of black, fill an otherwise neutral subject with such anxiety that the fork, jabbed into the bread roll, seems to be committing an act of murderous spite” (Hughes 255—he is referring to Miro’s Still Life with Old Shoe, 1937). It may seem at first that Dali has borrowed his allegorical utensils from Miro, as well as his colors. Until we remember some of Dali’s other, earlier works from the late twenties and early thirties, as the Meditation on the Harp (1932 -34) for example; or the likelihood that both artists are referencing the Hieronymus Bosch altarpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights.
In his “return” to Surrealism, “The Vision of Hell”, Dali does not altogether abandon the smooth surfaces of the layered washes of the two Madonna’s, but he does seem to show more of his brushwork on all levels of his painting. The bright orange colors of the plane (above which the vision appears, and through which the carving forks first appear, and then thrust through the figure to the left) are applied in thick, even strokes; although in places, no attempt has been made to smooth the surface in preparation for the subsequent washes. At several points, the highlights have been led onto the canvas by the artist’s brush as a single white strand, to form a ridge of built-up paint, and no doubt for a specific effect. This is especially true on the robed figure of the Virgin, (or her Double). She appears in the upper right corner of the scene and floats well above the vibrant orange wasteland, opposite the larger, twisted and impaled figure to our left. Her familiar robe dissolves into a pool or stream of water as her mantle vaporizes into the clouds that surround her. Dali has created for her another staple of medieval convention, the mandorla.
The agency at work on the robe and mantle are the alchemical acetum fontis as described by Jung (148) that dissolves and resolves matter from its basest to its purest form, and “doubles” or sardonically parodies the lac virginis, of medieval iconography. The confluence of these two “fluids” consubstantiate the mandorla itself in a satire of the central mystery of the Mass. The archetypes shown here are not just the obvious ones relating to the subconscious, but are also those related to the transformational properties of water, vinegar, wine, religion, alchemy, mother’s milk and the person or representation of the Blessed Virgin. Mary is, of course referred to in many ways by medieval Church literature; most significantly here, she is ironically presented as the fons signatus or “sealed fountain.”
One of the eight carving forks passes through the apparition of the virgin, and into the side of the opposing figure. Mary’s mantle, robe and the water and clouds into which they dissolve, also have those uncharacteristic, ridged white highlights—that are simultaneously thick and thin. Yet where the fork passes through Mary, it and the robes are painted in very thin washes of blues and umbers, in order to give the effect of the illusory and ethereal nature of the vision. The fork itself is substantial, but Mary is unaffected by the penetrating menace it embodies; yet the fork passes through her entirely. Mary is standing in the tradition of Our Lady of Dolours, Our Lady of Mercy or Our Lady of Carmel, the latter mentioned by Sister Lucia in an account Dali read before undertaking the commission. Mary’s attitude is suggested by her gesture, this in imitation of the two versions of the Madonna of Port Lligat. The positioning of the hands in all three paintings is far too exact to be coincidental, and must have been intended by Dali, as significant to his statement. I believe that, more than any recognizable theological argument, Dali wanted his viewers to identify this painting, and the painter with both the various historical traditions of great religious paintings, as well as the images he established in his own earlier (important) works.
The painting was commissioned by the Blue Army, a sect of the Catholic Church devoted to the Blessed Virgin, to commemorate the vision of the three children of Fatima (of whom Sister Lucia was one), to whom the Virgin Mother appeared in 1917. The painting is a part of the religious and sacred iconography of Dali’s later work, but it also marks his return to the tortured excesses of his Surrealism of the Thirties. This is deliberate. Hughes reminds us (or at least me) that almost all of the Surrealists were Catholic, at least by birth if not by observance. Dali, in spite of the influence of his anti-Catholic, Atheistic father and Trayter, his non-traditional primary education teacher, and for all of his irreverence and lack of humility, still possessed something of his mother’s profoundly religious sensibilities and sentimentality. I also believe that Dali wanted to create for his mother and the Mother Church a relic that would have a lasting, intrinsic meaning and a more temporal value as well.
The cost of the commission was $15,000, and even for 1960 this seems a modest sum. It is unlikely that Dali needed to undertake the commission at all, it is far more likely that he did so for his own reasons. He was already famous by then, already rich, although how rich is a subject of some discussion (Gibson’s Chapter 13 deals with money matters in mind numbing detail describing how the Dali’s (Gala and Salvador—but mostly Gala) would only accept cash for payment, and flaunted tax laws of at least the United States, Spain and France (549-578). [I could not find a reference to the Vision of Hell in Gibson’s book, he does mention that in December 1960 Dali finished the Ecumenical Council, his “last full-scale ‘religious’ work” and “one of the worst paintings he had done in the genre” (552).] Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to believe that Dali had more ecclesiastical purposes in mind when he undertook the commission.
Perhaps he felt that by giving something of value to the Church, that at one time he might have considered his Church, or that was certainly his mother’s Church, might serve to offset some of his more heretical or even sacrilegious works. Even in his heresies, Dali never really strayed too far from an underlying piety and conformity that’s shown in the so-called “sacred works” that mark the middle of his career. (His many references to, and several versions of Jesus’ crucifixion, clearly belong to the same tradition of other “accepted” non-traditional crucifixions by Masaccio, Grunewald and El Greco.) His early period was more excessive, but still not too far from the Western religious tradition of “reform from within”, so that this “redemptive effort” would be impossible to imagine as his goal. The gift of a major work to the Church might convince critics of his sincerity as a reformer, or even as a visionary, of the Faith. But this was not a major work. And although he often styled himself as a Catholic Visionary, he styled his moustache with greater sincerity.
Let’s assume for a moment that Dali wanted to ‘give’ something to the Catholic Church, could the small canvas be considered a ‘major work’, one capable of redeeming the “Great Masturbator”? We know of Dali’s great admiration for the work of Gaudi, and that Gaudi’s Cathedral has already carved for itself a niche in the collective unconscious in ways that Vision of Hell probably never will (but Persistence of Memory already has surpassed). Could Dali have imagined that the Vision of Hell commissioned for the modest sum of a mere $15,000 could become his Sagrada Familia? It seems unlikely. Although, there is a parallel that one might draw between the smaller paintings typical of his early work. This is also significant when we consider the remarkably different sizes of the two Madonna’s of Port Lligat [19 x 15 inches (1949) and 12 x 8 feet (1950)]. The Vision of Hell, completed in 1962, was considerably smaller than most of the other works completed in the early 60’s, the smallest of which seems to have been five feet at least, on one side. In fact when I viewed The Vision of Hell, encased as it was in a back room at the Las Vegas Museum of Art, the very first impression that struck me, was how incredibly small it was. I could not measure it in the case, but it seems, now in memory to be much closer in size to the first Madonna of Port Lligat, than the second. And thanks in part to its mysterious disappearance for thirty odd years until 1997 (I saw it in 1999 or 2000) and the unusual place it seems to hold and the attention it receives from among many writers on the internet, its importance seems to be growing.
The painting was locked in an unadorned plain looking wooden case, behind non-glare glass. The painting itself seemed trapped in a box, well below eye level, and I had to stoop over to view it, and to crouch even more—almost sitting on the floor to see the bottom half of the picture. I was fortunate to spend about a half an hour or so alone with the painting—except for a roundtable meeting about twenty feet away (at which museum types were apparently meeting with an artist who was unhappily represented in a current or perhaps upcoming show.) As I crouched there, sketching furiously, trying to ignore the meeting that was taking place, I noticed some of the elements of the painting that I read about, but not seen in any of the online reproductions I had seen of the work. Immediately I noticed the pictorial references to Bosch’s Hell, in the upper left corner. A standard with a tattered banner, is flying above a burning and smoldering building, and is repeated by Dali twice: First the cross is carried by a solitary figure, who is walking across the orange plane of the picture, (identified by some as Lucia, and by others as St John.) The tiny little figure is only about an inch tall, and is remarkable mostly because of the cross it is carrying. The second appearance is in Dali’s signature; the down stroke of the “D” is tilted forward, elongated and crossed at the top in emulation of the flag bearing cross of St John in Bosch’s panel depicting Hell.
The great fissures in the surface of the plane, across which the little figure is moving, vent smoke and steam; and in the steam or smoke we can distinguish the onkoi, the masks of comedy and tragedy. Both masks appear to be Dali-esque self portraits, especially the one to our left. They have been drawn very loosely, but are distinct nonetheless; what does not seem as clear is which one represents comedy? Perhaps in this version of Hell there is only tragedy? Above the plane of orange and yellow (not really flames—but “flatness” the colors of flame), and dominating this “Christian” representation is a very disturbing, very distorted image of the pagan Mother Goddess. [Mary’s Double?] Or perhaps she is the Gnostic Demi-Urge of Creation [Yahweh’s Double?] She is pierced by eight large carving forks, perhaps a reference to the pagan wheel of the year [a Double for the Christian Calendar of Feasts and Holy Days.] The image seems to graphically imply that the old religion might provide the [cannibalistic] “feast” for the new one. At the very least, the juxtaposition of the pagan Goddess with the Queen of Heaven is sufficient to provide the kind of incongruity that might qualify this work to stand with other Surrealist masterworks.
A further revelation, an image that Hughes cites as peculiarly Surrealist (257) is the bronzed hermaphroditic child, who flanks the tortured image of the goddess. This figure springs from her wounds, and is baptized in the fires that rage above and below it. This child, drawn in deep perspective as viewed from the ‘top’ of its head and shoulders (thereby rendering it sexless) shows no trace of the calumny being inflicted on its dam. There can be no doubt that the source of this figure is the Revelation of John, and that his name is Abadon. He prefigures the Anti-Christ, the great Beast of the End of Times. And we are reminded that Mary’s message, as reported by Lucia and the other children of Fatima, was that if mankind does not repent their sins, that God will visit another great war on them, and eventually the prophecies of Revelations would be fulfilled. The serenity of the emerging figure of the Anti-Christ is what is most disturbing. Dali paints him in thin, bronze washes, that disappear as we look at them, it is truly remarkable, and for the religious, no doubt disturbing.
Dali’s Vision shows less of the pretense and posturing of his early work, here he is not as argumentative, he is instead, almost devout. [As if perhaps, he is the tiny little figure holding the standard of St John.] While the two paintings of the Madonna of Port Lligat are devotional or spiritual in theme, Dali wants us to see them as struck in a new light. He urges us to accept his new sensibility, brought about by, and in spite of the Surrealists, through his appreciation of the new sciences of Freud and Jung, that gave him and us a new vocabulary of images. Dali’s two earlier pieces display none of the scatological and masturbatory humor of his previous works, and they reveal no trace of what later became his self-promoting, self caricaturing style. These two Madonna’s properly belong to both important stylistic periods of his work (the profane, scatological, surrealistic; and the more mature, sacred, psychological—transformational—periods); and these two paintings provide us with access to thematic statements made in works like the Vision of Hell.
There is little doubt as to the genius of Salvador Dali’s early work. As for Dali’s detractors (even Hughes) who claim that all of his best work was done in the 30’s, I would suggest that they take another look. Maybe Dali has managed the alchemist’s trick of coniunctio oppositorum– of uniting the pairs of opposites into one—albeit with his self-confessed tiny little penis….
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Fisher, Sally The Square Halo & Other Mysteries of Western Art: Images and the Stories that Inspired them. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishing, Inc.
Gibson, Ian. The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Hughes, Robert The Shock of the New: The Hundred Year History of Modern Art, Its Rise, Its Dazzling Achievement, Its Fall. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.
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