Art, Conscious and Madness

Salvador Dalí and Surrealism

Surrealism, emerged in the 1920s, had one purpose: free the unconscious mind’s creative forces. French writer André Breton founded the surrealist movement with a manifesto in 1924. Declaring it as dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. (Breton, 1969) Under the influence of Sigmund Freud’s views, Surrealists desired art to reflect the unconscious. Artists like Max Ernst, René Magritte, and Joan Miró opened a new world of fantasy, dreams, and surreality. But Salvador Dalí first comes to mind when we say Surrealism. 

Dali Arrives

Salvador Dalí, The Great Masturbator, 1929, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

Dalí, born in 1904, grew up in Catalonia. Later, he went to Madrid to attend the Academy of Fine Arts, where he met Federico García Lorca and Luis Buñuel. In this early period, Dalí mostly produced under the influence of Cubism and Dada (Cubist Self-Portrait, 1923) and even realism. (Figure at a Window, 1925)

Later in the 1920s, he gradually became impressed by Surrealism. He made a grand entrance not with a painting but with a film he made with Buñuel, “Un Chien Andalou.” It’s a collage of disjointed scenes resembling dreams, most famous for the eye-slitting razor. It caused quite a splash and granted a robust place for Dalí among the Surrealism. Dalí also made “The First Days of Spring” and “The Great Masturbator” the same year. In a desert-like setting, we see numerous objects created with free association, random things that come to mind. 

The Surreality of Dreams

Like all surrealists, Dalí, too, was significantly influenced by Freud. The state between the conscious and the unconscious marveled him to the point that he conceived his images in a half-awake, half-asleep form. He used to get up just before falling asleep to paint or draw anything that came to his mind. His most famous work, “The Persistence of Memory,” clearly reflects this particular method. We see melting clocks in a dream-like landscape, a dead tree, ants eating metal, and an obscure figure, probably an eye.

Salvador Dalí, The First Days of Spring, 1929, oil and collage, Salvador Dalí Museum, Florida

Dalí’s 1944 painting “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening” is another example. Here, we’re in a dream with a sleeping nude, elongated elephant, tigers, and pomegranates. The title suggests that we’re at that obscure moment between sleep and waking up, between the conscious and unconscious. That is the primary source for Dalí’s vivid irrational images, as well as his sculptures, installations, and other artworks. (F.i., Lobster Telephone, 1938)

Consciously Painting the Conscious

Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937, oil on canvas

In 1937 Dalí finished the painting “Metamorphosis of Narcissus.” Dalí’s interpretation of the Narcissus myth is astonishing; again, in a dream-like setting, a hand emerges from the ground holding an egg from which a narcissus blossoms. Next to it, an identical form of writing is the figure of Narcissus. That’s an example of Dalí’s famous mirroring double forms. Result of Dalí’s “paranoiac-critical activity,” a psychological state where people see one thing as many, simultaneously.

What is more important is that Dalí took this painting with him on his way to London to do something he’d been dying to do. To meet Freud! He made an impression as Freud wrote to his friend, the mediator for this meeting, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig that Dalí changed his mind about Surrealism. He says that the young Spaniard had fanatical eyes and perfect mastership. (Freud, 1975)

Surrealism, Dalí and Politics

Like every art movement of that time, Surrealism was deeply political. Marxism, as well as Freud, influenced them. But Dalí wasn’t keen on politics; he’s interested in psychology more than anything. In 1934, Breton accused Dalí of being sympathetic to Hitler. Indeed, Dalí showed affliction for Hitler; in his diary, he writes lasciviously about his fascination with him (Dalí, 2007). As many believed it was just a provocation, especially to Breton. Dalí declared that he wasn’t Hitlerian “neither in fact nor intention” and eluded being expelled from the movement. (Greeley, 2006) Dalí continued his apolitical stance during the Spanish Civil War.

When the war ended with Franco’s victory in 1939, he sided with Franco’s fascist regime, which made his friends, including Buñuel, turn against him, and they expelled him from the group. Dalí maintained an unusual attitude and lifestyle until he died in 1989. His sharp wit, tremendous ego, fanatical eye, and remarkable style, and his mustache brought him enormous fame and an irreplaceable spot in art history, with hundreds of masterpieces proving his self-ordained genius right.


Breton, A., 1969. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Dalí, S., 2007. Diary of a Genius. Washington: Solar Books.

Dalí, S., 1942. The Secret Life Of Salvador Dalí. New York: Dial Press.

Freud, S., and Freud, E. (ed.), 1975. Letters of Sigmund Freud. New York: Basic Books.

Gibson, I., 1998. The Shameful Life Of Salvador Dalí. New York: W.W. Norton.

Greeley, R., 2006. Surrealism And The Spanish Civil War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Shanes, E., 2011. The Life And Masterworks Of Salvador Dalí. New York: Parkstone International.

Image Sources

Salvador Dalí photographed by Philippe Halsman

Salvador Dalí, Cubist Self-Portrait, 1923, oil and collage on paperboard glued to wood, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

Salvador Dalí, Figure at a Window, 1925, oil on papier-mâché, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

Film still from Un Chien Andalou

Salvador Dalí, The First Days of Spring, 1929, oil and collage, Salvador Dalí Museum, Florida

 The Great Masturbator, 1929, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

 Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Salvador Dalí, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, 1944, oil on panel, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Salvador Dalí, Lobster Telephone, 1938, rubber, plaster, paper, painted metal, Tate Modern,

Salvador Dalí, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937, oil on canvas, Tate Modern, London

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