Salvador Dalí was a leading proponent of Surrealism, the 20-century avant-garde movement that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious through strange, dream-like imagery.
“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision,” – Salvador Dalí
The Enigma of My Desire is one of Dalí’s earliest contributions to the Surrealist movement.
Dalí’s mother died when he was 17 and his father married her sister the following year. Dalí’s carried his yearning for his mother with him through out his life, and is made evident in this painting, not only through the title, but also through the repetition of “ma mère” (French for my mother) on the rock like form.
- The rock: Dalí identifies himself the lower left of the larger rock structure, indicative of Dalí’s attachment to his mother and his identity in her. This attachment could also be indicative of a desire to be connected to his mother again, whether that be in the womb or to just be with her since she has died. Dalí’s rock is covered in ants which symbolizes death and decay as well as intense sexual desire.
- The ants: The placement of ants on Dalí’s rock could be indicative of Dalí’s awareness of his own mortality, especially in reference to the death of his mother. It also shows his intense desire for his mother, in line with Freudian psychoanalysis.
- The lion’s head: A lion’s head resides above the man and boy embracing and on the upper right of the rock; its connotation is fear and aggression. This use of the lion’s head could be indicative of the fear and aggression Dalí experience in his relationship with his father. The lion’s head could also be symbolic of Dalí’s anxiety about sex, rooted in the trauma he experienced after his father forced him to look at a book about venereal diseases.
- The little group on the left: Dalí himself embracing his father, with a fish, a grasshopper, a dagger, and a lion’s head.
The Enigma of My Desire is a reminder of human mortality, our own and those closest to us, encouraging us to appreciate others for the short time that we hold them in our presence. The piece reminds us of our impact on others and therefore that responsibility that we have been entrusted. It acknowledges that, good or bad, our parents are part of us; their influence is insurmountable.
The Great Masturbator is a self-portrait painted in July 1929.
- The rock: Dalí’s head has the shape of a rock formation near his home. The painting deals with Dalí’s fear and loathing of sex. He blamed his negative feelings toward sex as partly a result of reading his father’s, extremely graphic book on venereal diseases as a young boy. The head is painted “soft”, as if malleable to the touch; it looks fatigued, sexually spent: the eyes are closed, the cheeks flushed.
- The grasshoper: Under the nose a grasshopper clings, its abdomen covered with ants that crawl onto the face where a mouth should be. From early childhood, Dalí had a phobia of grasshoppers and the appearance of one here suggests his feelings of hysterical fear and a loss of voice or control.
- The woman: a woman moves her mouth toward a man’s crotch. The woman’s face is cracked, as though the image that Dalí’s head produces will soon disintegrate.
- The man’s legs: are cut and bleeding, implying a fear of castration.
- The stamen of a lily and the tongue of a lion: reiterates the sexual theme.
This painting expresses the destruction during the Spanish Civil War.
- The monstrous creature: is self-destructive just as a Civil War is.
This painting is not meant to depict choosing sides although Dalí had many reasons to choose sides in the Spanish Civil War.
His sister was tortured and imprisoned by communist soldiers fighting for the Republic and his good friend from art school was murdered by a fascist firing squad. Dalí also made this painting look very realistic and yet continued to bring in surreal concepts.
- The sky: ideas of tradition to this piece with a beautiful Catalonian sky, creating a contrast to the idea of revolution.
- The boiled beans: Dalí is quoted as saying the reason he included boiled beans was “one could not imagine swallowing all that unconscious meat without the presence of some mealy and melancholy vegetable”.
By this he meant that there were many hardships in the war so the Spanish citizens had to do their best to deal with their problems.
He played with themes of love, eating, and the war and how they are all related
Dali’s shifting perception of the war then in progress in Europe. The war’s devastation and its psychological impact on Dali can already be felt in some of his more somber canvases before his period in America. In this painting, however, his style shows a new, more philosophical classicism.
- The bottom right of the painting: the gaunt body of a classical figure, standing for the Old World and its emaciated civilization, reveals a central scene to a child.
- The rebirth: the male struggling out of a terrestrial globe, distorted into the shape of an egg, which cracks open and releases a globule of placental blood.
- The parachute-like floating cupola: seen in conjunction with the cloth at the bottom, forms an oyster-like configuration of fabric which open; to present the pearly clarity of Dali’s optimistic new vision.
- The small background figures: flank the global egg the left group, taken from Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael, and the right from studies related to John the Baptist form an allusive framing device.
This was a dream that Gala reported to Dalí.This is an example of Sigmund Freud‘s influence on surrealist art and Dalí’s attempts to explore the world of dreams in a dreamscape.
- The stinging bee: may represent the woman’s abrupt awakening from her otherwise peaceful dream.
- The elephant: a distorted version of the Piazza della Minerva sculpture Elephant and Obelisk by Gian Lorenzo Bernini facing the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.
- The pomegranate: floating between two droplets of water may symbolize Venus, especially because of the heart-shaped shadow it casts. It may also be used as a Christian symbol of fertility and resurrection. This female symbolism may contrast with the phallic symbolism of the threatening creatures.
- To the left of Gala: is a huge pomegranate that spills seeds on to the sea below. Out of the pomegranate an angry, pink fish is emerging with a wide open mouth. A snarling tiger leaps out of the fish. From this tiger another emerges, its tail in the mouth of the previous one. The tigers are rushing toward Gala, their claws at the ready, but it is the bayonet, mirroring the sting of the bee, that will wake her.
- The horse: represents strength and voluptuousness.
- The elephant: carrying on its back the golden cup of lust in which a nude woman is standing, emphasizes the erotic character of the composition.
- The other elephants: carrying buildings on their backs; the first carries an obelisk inspired by that of Bernini in Rome, and the second and third are burdened with Venetian edifices in the style of Palladio.
- Saint Anthony: using his cross to ward off the vision. The saint is naked, suggesting the saint’s weakness, and thus juxtaposing it with the power of the cross, which must overcome his temptation.
The focal point is the animal parade because it is the largest element in the painting, turning the viewer’s focus towards temptation.
Rose Meditative is something of an enigma coming from a painter whose works are primarily the stuff of dream and nightmare.
Dalí used this image again but in a more definitive way, depicting a nude woman with bleeding roses coming from her womb.
- The rose: represented menstruation and the internal reproductive organs of women.
- The background: intensely blue sky as a backdrop to a dominating central image that hovers over a Spanish landscape.
- The drop of water: on one of the petals of the flower, as realistic as a photograph. Dalí often used this effect of trompe l’oeil to highlight a small detail of a painting.