While Dalí is best known for his bizarre surrealist style he was also a skilled classical painter and illustrator. As a student in Madrid, Dalí had an affinity for many art styles, from the academically classic to the avant-garde. This is demonstrated in his works, which combine classical and modernist techniques to create more realistic and traditional paintings. A stunning example is The Basket of Bread, painted in 1926.
While exhibitions of Dalí’s works always proved popular, his attempts to advance established art styles like Cubism, Futurism and Impressionism proved fruitless. It was not until he embraced the new Surrealist style that he was able to truly express his artistic talents and expand the way the world viewed art.
Dalí first met the Surrealists in 1928 when visiting Paris. Their work, which was fueled by influences from prominent members of the group such as Picasso and Miró, resonated with Dalí’s rich imagination, erotic desires and perpetual interest in Freud’s theory of unconsciousness
While Dalí didn’t officially join the Surrealists until 1929, some of his earlier works demonstrated the artist’s inclination to create dreamlike, almost surreal images. An early example of this is his 1925 piece Person at the Window, which portrays the artist’s sister Ana Maria. Here, Dalí exhibits his penchant to use bleak imagery contrasted with strong sunlight.
After joining the Surrealist movement, Dalí’s style rapidly matured. He further depicted bleak yet strangely sunlit dream worlds with meticulously painted common objects manipulated and morphed into bizarre creations. Dalí painted some of his best-known works during the period between joining the Surrealists and 1937.
In 1929 Dalí completed one of his most prominent pieces, The Great Masturbator. The subject of the painting is a large, nude, distorted human figure influenced by his future wife and muse, Gala. Unsurprisingly, sexuality is an overt theme in this piece. Behind the head of the nude female is a male figure thinly veiled and painted only from the waist down suggesting that fellatio may have occurred. Below the head of the main figure is a locust, an insect Dalí feared. This, combined with the sexual nature of the piece, is said to represent Dalí’s feelings of fear and intrigue on the subject of sex. Since his childhood, Dalí associated sex with decay and disease; an affliction stemming from his discovery of a book depicting sexually transmitted diseases.
Perhaps the most famous of Dalí’s paintings is The Persistence of Memory, which he completed in 1931. In this piece, Dalí altered his style as he became increasingly influenced by Freud’s psychoanalytical theories. Yet, many suggest the key theme of this piece is the passing of time one experiences during sleep. This is seen through Dalí’s unique use of melting clocks and the sleeping figure in the center of the piece. Interestingly, Dalí includes an ant covered orange clock in the bottom left corner of the painting; a frequent symbolic representation of decay in the artist’s work.
This theme of decay appeared once more in his 1934 masterpiece, The Specter of Sex Appeal, in which Dalí appears to contrast his own innocence by depicting himself as a child observing the distressed body of a woman constructed of miscellaneous objects, struggling to support herself on crutches.
The Surrealists expelled Dali in 1934 following accusations that he was a Nazi sympathizer with an affinity for fascism. Nevertheless, this did not affect his artistic style or reputation as he was already widely considered the premier Surrealist. However, after leaving the Paris Surrealists Dalí began to produce more religious works and his interest in scientific and nuclear study grew; an interest sparked by the bombing of Hiroshima. In his 1951 essay Mystical Manifesto he introduced his Nuclear Mysticism theory, which combined his interests in mathematics, science and Catholicism. Despite his new interests Dalí retained many aspects of his Surrealist style and continued to depict Gala, his lifelong muse.
Dalí‘s new style is best portrayed in his 1954 oil painting Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus). Here Dalí uniquely depicts Jesus’ Crucifixion by combining classical techniques, such as the drapery of the clothing, with his own dreamlike styling. The most significant change Dalí makes from classical representations of the Crucifixion is the cross itself. Rather than the traditional wooden cross Dalí uses a levitating hypercube (also known as a tesseract) that suspends Christ above a chessboard. Gala is also included in this painting represented as Mary Magdalene looking upon Jesus. Dalí also included further images of Gala and of himself in the knees of Christ.
Later in his career Dalí experimented with different art forms and often included optical illusions, and negative space. He was one of the first artists to use holography in his work.
During his career Dalí excelled at creating visually stimulating, surreal and psychologically fascinating works. Despite his relatively short association with the Paris Surrealists, his works are now synonymous with Surrealism and continue to inspire artists today.
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