Arts & Entertainment

Dalí and the Art of Horror

The latest instalment of the Halloween series.

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) allowed his imagination free rein. The exotic, bizarre, grotesque and disgusting frequently appeared in Dalí’s art – much more than this short selection – so there is no shortage of images that deal with putrefaction, excrement, bodily deformity, idiocy, cruelty, sadism and so forth, in addition to images of outright horror. This selection focuses on the latter, though you will find plenty to disgust you in Dalí’s art.

What is aspect that is unusual about Dalí is that so many of these fantasies made it to canvas. Usually, with most artists, weird caprices rarer go beyond drawings for private amusement or cathartic expression. To devote time and energy to material that would under most circumstances be unsaleable shows a degree of dedication to one’s private obsessions, something very true of Dalí. Dalí lacked a filter between the private and public. He talked openly (and wrote about) about his darkest fantasies, despite understanding that he was repulsing people and breaking taboos. Dalí was a committed Surrealist in that he really did not care about the mores of conventional society.

The Face of War, 1941

The Face of War (1941)

This painting was made in the USA, after Dalí and his wife Gala had fled war in Europe. It presents a visage of multiple instances of death receding into an uncountable level, as groups of snakes fly at each other in mindless hatred. Although this painting is less powerful than his more extraordinary and original visions of the Spanish Civil War – a conflict in which Dalí was much more personally involved – this painting is a bleak conceit that aptly catches the mood of a world in the grip of unprecedented violence.

Salvador Dali Paints The Sickly Skull of Venereal Disease | WIRED

Poster for the US military (1942)

This oil painting was commissioned by the US Defense Department for reproduction as a poster to warn servicemen about the dangers of venereal disease. Seductive prostitutes under a streetlamp are avatars of death in the form of a skull. At the time, syphilis was a lethal and untreatable illness. This is an variation of Dalí’s paranoiac critical method, where two very different images can arise from one subject. This was typified by the imagination transforming a cloud into a figure, with both the cloud and figure existing at the same time. Here the artist deliberately constructs a skull out of figures that have narrative meaning. Ultimately, this poster was not put into production.

Atavism at Twilight, 1934 - Salvador Dali -

Atavism at Twilight (1934)

This painting is a manifestation of Dalí’s fascination with a painting called Angelus (1857-9) by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). It is a scene of two peasants praying at twilight in the middle of a field, with a wheelbarrow standing on the tilled soil. Dalí perverse imagination turned the encounter into a sexual fantasy, with the grave of a child nearby. In this version, the male peasant is dead and his wife prays for an absent child and a deceased husband. As in the best of Dalí’s classic period, the scene is light by raking evening light, which illuminates the rocks of the artist’s home land.

The Surreal Etchings of Salvador Dalí's Les Chants de Maldoror

Illustration for the Les Chants des Maldoror (1934)

This etching was designed by Dalí but likely executed by a master printmaker working at the studio which printed the edition. There was a proliferation of images of sewing machines among the Surrealists during the inter-war period, inspired by a simile from Les Chants des Maldoror (1868-9), a novel by the Comte de Lautreamont that the group revered: “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” The hydrocephalic person was a common image for Dalí and the wooden crutch indicated Dalí’s fear of impotence. The dead baby was a recurrent image following the infamous kidnapping and death of Charles Lindbergh Jnr in 1932. The drawings that Dalí made for the illustrated edition of Les Chants des Maldoror are among his best, full of invention and liveliness, executed with impeccable precision.

The Spectre of Sex Appeal, 1932 by Salvador Dali

Spectre of Sex Appeal (1934?)

A boy in a sailor suit (based on a photograph of the artist as a child) confronts a monstrous apparition that combines sexual imagery, food, putrescence and everyday objects, grown to a giant size. This painting is very small (18 x 14 cm), executed on wood and painted with minute brushstrokes. Dali’s technique at this time was so painstaking that Gala feared he would be unable to produce enough art to support the couple. Dalí later painted on a larger size and in a way that required less time; this also coincided with a diminution of attention to new ideas. Paintings such as this alarming vision formed a high-water mark of Dalí’s ability and ambition.

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936)

Although painted in the year of the start of the Spanish Civil War, this picture was conceived before the war began and had its subtitle applied retrospectively. Dalí’s fantasy of a beast fighting itself is ideally suited to the savage internecine of the conflict that ravaged his country. His sister Maria was tortured by the Republican security services, which only set Dalí further align with Franco’s Nationalists. The ugliness of the upturned face (the epitome of fury and suffering) matches the ravaged leathery hand and bony foot. The addition of the sad pharmacist searching the Ampurdan Plain and the scattering of food add a comic and pathetic contrast the horror of divided personage.

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