20th Century and Contemporary, Drawing & Prints, Painting, Sculpture

An Even More Complicated Dalí—Yes, Really

Most people are unlikely to associate science and religion with a man who is best known for painting melting clocks, who threw buckets of paint on nude models, and who kept detailed records of his dreams. Yet for the bulk of his career, those two subjects influenced much of Salvador Dalí’s work. He painted Madonnas and Christs and theorized about the scientific possibility of God. The idea that he might die a nonbeliever concerned him—maybe. He aligned himself with Franco and the Spanish Catholic church under Franco—possibly. Salvador Dalí: The Late Work from the High Museum of Art details and explains the contradictions that existed in both the artist’s work and his life.

Many critics argue that his career after the 1930s was repetitive at best. Elliot H. King argues that Dalí’s work after 1940 developed new themes, especially in relation to nuclear science and Catholicism. Although scientific and religious themes appear in his early art, he was now compounding the loaded content with his new style, what he called “classicism.” (Of course, he listed Gaudí as one of his “classic” inspirations, along with Vermeer, so we can agree that his definition varies from most.) The Surrealists believed that Dalí had turned his back on Surrealism, moving from sacrilegious to sacred images. In reality, while his work “was an unapologetic assault on the dominant mode of abstraction,” he had not departed from Surrealism. In his usual way, he had reworked an idea, in this case classicism, to fit his own needs.

Why Dalí chose classicism, though, is a layered issue. Studying the old masters, for whom religion dominated their work, may have encouraged him to rework traditional scenes, like the Madonna and Child. So far did his interest in the relationship between religion and science progress that even the mechanics behind the Assumption of the Virgin intrigued Dalí, and “[h]e even wrote…to the Pontiff asking how exactly the Virgin levitated into heaven and how, once elevated, she stayed aloft.” When the Pope didn’t answer, Dalí imagined the answer had to be the newly-discovered anti-prons. He admitted he was not a true believer, although he wanted to be one, and searched for a scientific explanation for miracles. And for many, the fact he became a “secular” Catholic close to the time he began showing support for Franco seemed too convenient. King suggests that Dalí may have simply been “unprincipled” politically, which, for a man who never follows rules in his art, certainly makes sense.

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