Surrealism is based on the exchange and juxtaposition between images grounded in reality, versus the unconscious and/or irrational. Among the many great surrealist artists of the 1920s and beyond, one that defined this movement so powerfully in both their persona as well as in their work, was Salvador Dali. He is famously quoted as stating: “The only difference between myself and a madman is that I am not mad!”—a phrase that perhaps touches most deeply on the fine balance his work stands on between the realms of reality, and surreality.
Salvador Dali was more than an artist—he was an icon and muse himself for other artists, film directors, and many more. Yet at the heart of his artistic inspiration was the disintegration of sanity itself.
He was the pioneer of the Paranoiac Critical Transformation Method, a way of perceiving reality in which irrational knowledge stemmed from the state of paranoia and creating a “delirium of interpretation”. Ranging in intensity from merely imagining other shapes within natural ones to even inducing states of paranoia in order to envision the surreal scenes Dali is known for, this method was the creative source of Dali’s surrealist works.
Dali’s “hand painted dream photographs” (a term he uses to describe much of his work), reflects this fluid exchange between the reality of the landscapes and recognisable features in his works, with the displacement of the unfamiliarity of his famous melting clocks and hordes of ants that both symbolise the passing of time.
‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931) incorporates these features alongside the realism of the Catalan cliffs gleaming golden in the background of the landscape, a nod to Dali’s own homeland. One of the most fascinating features of this piece is the fleshy mass in the centre of the painting. In this, it is possible to discern facial features: a nose, eyelashes, and what could be taken as a tongue. The deformed, melting way in which it has been painted adds to the general atmosphere of decay. Twisting philosophical and unconscious threads of thought, Dali himself states that the intention of the work, using Paranoiac Critical Transformation Method, was to “systematize confusion and thus help to discredit completely the world of reality”. The menacing undertones are clearly derived from the negative energy of the paranoiac state: the twisted facial features, insect-like eyelashes and swarming ants.
Whilst the contradictory and dense philosophical theories Dali proclaimed may be complicated to interpret, it is clear that the exchanges between the real and unconscious incite a gross fascination for the viewers. Genuine hallucination rather than mere imagination thus serves as the stimulus for surrealism, drawing new lines in the way in which reality may be exchanged in art for the unconscious imagination, however subversive the paranoiac mind can twist familiar imagery.