Salvador Dali: scientific artist or an artistic scientist?
Dali’s intellectual curiosity about all things science – including physics, mathematics, psychoanalysis, the atomic bomb, DNA, and more – inspired and informed his art
Salvador Dali’s interest in science began at an early age. As an adolescent, he read scientific articles. He accumulated a library of approximately 100 books on physics, quantum mechanics, the origins of life, evolution, and mathematics. Besides, Dali subscribed to many science journals through which he kept current with scientific thought, inquiry, and investigation. The science texts in Dali’s library were annotated with notes and comments in their margins. Dali was particularly interested in mathematics and optics.
The physics of surrealism
Surrealism was a school of art and action based on “psychic automatism,” meaning experience based in dreams and the subconscious. Developments in physics informed surrealist thought and art. Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum physics were part of a world where determinism did not exist, where particles could be in two places at once, and where the very observation of objects could create their identity.
Art historian Gavin Parkinson of the University of Oxford talked about Dali’s particular interest in Einstein’s theory of relativity: “…it offered the idea that reality could not be reduced to a single flow.”
An example of a painting clearly affected by Dali’s curiosity about and interest in physics and mathematics is Nature Morte Vivante, painted during a period that he called “Nuclear Mysticism.” Nuclear Mysticism is made up of a variety of theories seeking to demonstrate the relationships between the conscious mind and quantum physics. The painting is at The Dali Museum in Florida, who describes it in part this way:
To Dalí, the presence of math in both nature and man-made objects indicated a greater force of order in the beauty of the world. The perspective of the cauliflower draws attention to its spirals but also evokes the image of a nuclear explosion, something that was certainly weighing on minds in the 1950s. Through a cauliflower, Dalí calls attention to the logarithmic beauty of the natural world while also bringing to mind the great and devastating feats of science and math that have changed the world.
Dali’s intense curiosity about mathematics with art drove him to study the ideas of mathematical elaboration in paintings by artists like Fra Luca Pacioli, with assistance from mathematician Matila Ghyka. Dali’s preparation for new paintings included letters with mathematicians, now kept in archives. One Dali painting for which mathematical elaboration was important is Hypercubic Christ, now at New York’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis
Dali was very familiar with Freud’s theories and applied them to the interpretation of his own consciousness. Themes that emerged from that interpretation through the language of Freudian symbols appeared in Dali’s work, including the Oedipus complex, incestuous desires, perversion, birth trauma, the death instinct, and others.
Dali’s own “paranoiac-critical analysis” owed much to Freudian principles of psychoanalysis. Dali’s paranoiac-critical analysis went something like this: a “conscious extraction of elements that make up the inner world of the paranoiac.” In paintings, it was often presented as a double image. The double image created a representation that, without transforming its outer appearance, formed a second image so that the viewer could see both.
One of Dali’s most well-known “double image” paintings is Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, painted in 1938.
The atomic bomb
Dali lived in the United States from 1940 to 1948, and the development of nuclear weapons and the explosion of nuclear bombs had a significant impact on him. He told writer Andre Parinaud: “Since that time, the atom has become my favorite subject of reflection. Many of the landscapes painted over this period express the great fear I felt at the news of that explosion. I was applying my paranoiac-critical method to the exploration of that world.”
One painting that emerged during this period of nuclear curiosity was Uranium and Atomica Melancholica Idyll
From 1962 to 1978, Dali’s works were particularly influenced by genetics and DNA. Dali paid tribute to scientists Crick and Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA, in his 1963 painting – all 10 feet by 13 feet of it – GALACIDALACIDESOXIRIBUNUCLEIC-ACID (Hommage to Crick and Watson)
It’s safe to say that there was not a scientific theory or inquiry during Dali’s lifetime that did not capture his imagination and inform his work. His art is all the more fascinating for it.
A deeper dive – related reading from the 101:
Meet these three transformative artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo
Architecture may be one place where art most obviously meets science