Dali’s Exploitation of Freudian Theories

November 11, 2014

In the early 20th century, Salvador Dali emerged as a surrealist artist.  Almost two decades prior, Sigmund Freud invented modern psychoanalysis with his scientific investigations.  By the time Dali emerged as a Surrealist artist, Freud had made discoveries on unveiling the unconscious and the function of dreams.  Salvador Dali exploited the psychoanalysis findings of Freud Sigmund through his ability to depict his unconscious thoughts visually in his artwork.

In 1885, Freud studied under Charcot, which is when his discovery of the unconscious occurred.  Charcot exposed that hypnotic suggestion was capable of creating hysterical symptoms.  These theories influenced Freud’s concern with the psychology of neuroses.  This had Freud thinking that maybe the sources of these symptoms are not in the nervous system, but in the patient’s mind, thoughts, and feelings? And perhaps, these thoughts and feelings are unattainable by the patients themselves?  In 1889, Freud set up a private practice, treating hysteria patients using methods of hypnosis.  His studies of the patients he observed let him to his discoveries of the unconscious.  Freud introduced us to our ability to distinguish between mental appearance and mental reality.  He found that individuals who are haunted by a consciousness are unable to recognize this.  The contents of memory are embedded in the individual’s mind, unaffected by reality.  Freud enables us to think of the shifting contents of our conscious minds.  What appear to be recollections in an individual’s mental world are misconstrued as reality. (Blackwell 15)  Freud discusses our ability to shift from appearance to reality in The Unconcious: “Unconcious processes can only be observed by us under the conditions of dreaming and of neurosis; that is to say, when the processes of the higher system Pcs revert to an earlier level by a certain process of degradation.” (Blackwell 15/1950 vol. iv, p. 20)

Dali’s life began on May 11, 1904, the second son born to Salvador Dali I Cusi and Felipa Domenech Ferrés.  His older brother, whom was named Salvador as well, died of gastroenteritis nine months before Dali was born.  At a young age, Dali’s parents instilled in his head that he was his brother’s reincarnation.  Dali came to believe this concept and conveyed this relationship his some of his later work, such as Portrait of My Dead Brother.  It was evident early in his life that Dali had an eccentric imagination.  He had a cynical and violent aura and was self-obsessed.  His father, an atheist and Republican, had strict views on parenting.  His mother was the only nurturing figure in his young life, encouraging him to pursue an artistic career.  Dali’s conflicting beliefs with his father created an unsteady relationship between the two, but it remained the only parental relationship that existed after his mother’s passing when he was a young teen.  These adolescent years were influential in the entirety of his artistic career.  The relationships he had with individual members of his family, whether positive, negative, spiritual, or nonexistent, were all influential in the shaping of his artistic personality.  (Ades) All of these memories were instilled in Dali’s mental world. 

During the summer of 1929, Dali concentrated on working like a surrealist and creating Dismal Sport (Le Jeu Lugubre) while living in Cadaques.  It was evident to his peers that he was in a state of immense mental excitation, almost on the verge of hysteria. (Ades 70)  Dali recalls a visit from his surrealist acquaintances, “From hour to hour my fits of laughter grew more violent, and I caught in passing certain glances and certain whisperings about me which I learned in spite of myself the anxiety which my state was beginning to cause.  This appeared to me as comical as everything else, for I knew perfectly well that I was laughing because of the images that came into my mind…” (Ades 70)  When he would described these mental appearances to his guests, they were unable to understand Dali’s humor.  Dali slept with the painting on the easel at the end of his bed.  He hoped his fixation would allow visuals to enter his mental world, seeing images precisely placed in his composition.  Dismal Sport’s successful representation of dominant strands of Surrealist activity led to Dali’s acceptance as a member of the Surrealists.  Dali’s ability to combine automatism and the dream narrative in one visual representation becomes a direct link to Freudian theory. 

Freud’s theories allowed him to shift from reality to the appearance of patient’s recollections.  Freud put a strong importance on the significance of a patient’s childhood memories.  Dali’s newfound ability to shift the focus of his paintings to his unconscious is what led him to convey both real and imaginary scenes from his childhood in his artistic work.  Dali’s creative process forced him to relive childhood fantasies: “I could not localize precisely in time or space but … I knew with certainty I had seen when I was little.” (Ades 71)  In The First Days of Spring, Dali glued a portrait of himself to the painting, projecting his persona as an element of importance.  Within the composition there are subjects connected in strange way, such as a grasshopper adhered to a young man’s face. (Fannes 127) The association between the creature and the child’s face refers to a horror of Dali’s adolescence, “He had loved grasshoppers when he was a child, until one day he caught a slimy little fish … brought it up close to his face … and found that it had a face identical to the grasshopper.  From that moment he had a fear of grasshoppers so intense that his schoolmates quickly found they could play upon it to terrorize him … which never failed to provoke him to a state of near hysteria.” (Ades 71-2)    He also glued a small photograph of himself from when he was a child to the painting.  There are varying representations of a violent relationship between men and women.  The relationship between the figures and imagery suggest sexual acts between adults and children, as well as other allusions of sexual desire.  These profound relations that filled the compositions of Dali’s paintings were identified by Freud as primal fantasies within psychic life.  (Fanes 127) Dali’s excessive research into psychoanalysis, his way of finding visuals that conveyed these messages, and his new combination of personal imagery created a newly discovered confidence in his artistic abilities. (Ades 69)

Dali’s association with both the Surrealists and with the writings of Georges Bataille allowed him to open his eyes to more than one view: Bataille analyzed Dali’s representations of aberrations and perversities of his sexuality [reword] as a social psychologist.  André Breton viewed sex as a purity and an exploration of romance. [Omit or say something more to explain] Dali’s affair with Gala Eluard, the wife of the surrealist poet Paul Eluard, found Dali exploring new ideals of eroticism.  His lack of a sexual relationship in the past created new forms of sexual anxieties in his life.  Dali portrayed the complexities of his heterosexual anxieties in The Great Masturbator. (Ades 77) The painting depicts an abundant yellow face, featuring a “bird-like, flattened forehead and a large nose, pink-tinged cheeks, and a closed, long-lashed eyes.”  There is no mouth, the area fully covered with skin, exposing Dali’s repetitive unconscious fear of the grasshoppers.  In turn, the grasshopper is being threatened by the ants whom are congregating on its stomach. (Prestel 29)  A woman, with her eyes closed as well, is gracefully emerging from the neck of the peculiar head form.  The woman could possibly be a representation of Gala, her being a constant visualization in Dali’s mental world at this time.  The lion below the woman’s shoulder, with wide eyes and tongue sticking out of his open mouth, is the only trace of movement in the painting.  The body and stones lined with blue veins, along with the tiny silhouettes and scattered stones, conveys a surreal tranquility in the painting. (Prestel 30)

[Reintroduce idea #2 – automatism & dream narrative] As Dali emerged in Paris as a Surrealist artist, his unconscious continued to have direct bearings on important elements of his paintings.  His first Surrealist portrait was Portrait of Paul Eluard.  The grasshopper, a repeating creature in Dali’s paintings, is adhered to a fish, directly connecting the two to his childhood horror.  The lion, seen in The Great Masterbator, is seen here as well, facing a smirking joker mask.  These repeating figures are iconographical elements that Dali had been employing in his work since 1925.  But Dali’s study of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams changed the function of these elements in his paintings.  In 1929, these objects were now representations of allegorical dreams, comprised messages from the subconscious.  This principle would correlate to conveying emotions of desire through a lion, or fears of infancy through a grasshopper. (Fanes 125)  The depth of his artwork seems to represent the compositions De Chirico and the early surrealist artwork of Ernst, which Dali could have been inspired by during surrealist meetings in Paris.  The striking characteristics of Dali’s newfound artistic style seem to correlate with his vastly changing surroundings.  (Ades 69)

In the last months of 1929, Dali began to live with Gala in Paris.  She quickly became Dali’s primary inspiration and creative influence to his work as a Surrealist.  Gala’s established reputation and flourishing relationship with Dali strengthened his existence in Paris amongst the Surrealist Artists.


Or: say more on automatism

Remind us of “combination of automatism & dream narrative” at beginning of paragraphs




Ades, Dawn, and Salvador Dalí. Dali. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995. Print.

Dilman, İlham. Freud and the Mind. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984. Print.

Fanés, Fèlix. Salvador Dalí: The Construction of the Image. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.ki

Romero, Luis. Salvador Dalí. Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2003. Print.