My blog today looks at two paintings by the same artist, completed twenty-nine years apart. There is an obvious a similarity about the works and yet they could not be more different. As a non-painter, it is this difference in style which intrigues me. The artist in question is Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, better known simply as Dali.
Dali was born in 1904 in Figueres, a Spanish Catalonian town close to the border with France. He was born into a middle-class background. His father, Salvador Dalí i Cusí, was a lawyer and notary and a fierce Catalan federalist. His mother was Felipa Domenech Ferrés, a demure and pretty Barcelona girl, two years younger than her husband. Felipa’s mother had been a talented craftsman, who had run a long-standing family establishment that specialized in making objets d’art. Felipa Domenech before her marriage to Dali’s father in 1900 used to help her mother in the workshop and developed a considerable skill as a designer of `artistic objects’. She was deft with her fingers, and was accomplished in drawing. She would spend time fashioning delicate wax figurines out of coloured candles which was a source of amusement to her son.
It has been recorded that young Dali was both an intelligent and a precocious child. His father was a strict disciplinarian and, thankfully for Dali, this was countered by the love he received from his mother, who often indulged her young son in his artwork and his many eccentricities. This coddling of her son was probably partly due to her fear that she would lose him to illness as she did her first son. It was not just his mother who spoilt him as he was the centre of attention of his maternal grandmother, Maria Ana Ferrés and his aunt Catalin. His mother doted on him and at the first sign of illness he was allowed to take to his bed. In her controversial book about her brother entitled Salvador Dali, Seen through the eyes of his sister, Dali’s sister wrote how her mother only rarely let young Salvador out of her sight and would often sit by his bedside for hours at night as he slept for if he awoke and found himself alone, he would cause quite a commotion. However his father’s relationship with his son was quite different. He would never tolerate his son’s so-called eccentricities and often punished him. Dali would often turn to his mother for affection after being chastised by his father and this would further annoy his father who looked upon Dali’s closeness to his mother as a kind of threat to the affection she gave to him, her husband and in consequence the father-son relationship deteriorated. I am sure psychologists would consider this triangle of affection to have caused some of Dali’s future mental turmoil.
Dalí had had an older brother who was born nine months before him. He had also been named Salvador but had died of gastroenteritis in infancy, just nine months before the artist was born. The naming of their second son the same as their deceased son (as was the case with Vincent van Gogh and his deceased elder brother) may have played on Dali’s mind and he once recounted the story of the time, when he was just five years old, that his parents took him to the grave of his older brother and told him he was his brother’s reincarnation. Dali later wrote of this event and of his dead brother, saying:
“…[we] resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections. ” He ” was probably a first version of myself, but conceived too much in the absolute…”
In 1908 his sister Ana Maria was born and it is her who features in the first of today’s paintings. Dali started school at the age of four, attending the Escuela Pública (public school) in Figueres. This was not the local Catholic school which he could have attended but his father who held an anti-Catholic sentiment decided to send him to the local state school. Dalí had an aversion to school life, found concentrating during lessons very difficult and he spent most of his time daydreaming. This lack of attention to his school work and his seemingly lack of progress with his academic work after the first year annoyed his father and caused him to have a re-think about his son’s schooling. He eventually decided to have his son transferred to a private Catholic school, one run by the brothers of the French La Salle order, where all of his classes were taught in French. This had a profound effect on Dali’s future life as although at home he spoke Catalan, he had been taught Spanish at that early school. With his transfer to this new French speaking school, French was to become the language that he would use during his artistic career. Dali was still not happy with life at school, maybe because he was bullied but also to him, being confined in a small classroom, which he looked upon as a kind of gaol, was very claustrophobic.
What Dali liked was the school holidays when the family would spend time together in the seaside town of Cadaqués, where his father had been born and where the family had a small holiday house. It was during these long summer holiday periods that he felt free from the constraints of school life, free to paint and draw pictures of his family and his beloved Catalan coastline and it was whilst holidaying at Cadaqués that he met the artist, Ramón Pichot, who was a family friend . Pichot was an artist who painted mostly in the style of the Impressionists, but more importantly to Dali, Pichot also liked to experiment with some styles of the Catalan avant-garde.
On February 6th 1921 Dali’s mother Felipa died of breast cancer. The death of his mother hit the sixteen year old Dali very hard. It was a very traumatic time in his life. He described the time as:
“…the worst blow of my life. I worshipped her; she was unique….. Weeping and with clenched teeth I swore that with all the power of the holy light which would one day circle my glorious name I would rescue my mother from death and from fate…”
Dali’s father quickly married his deceased wife’s sister Catalin who had already been living with the family for the past eleven years.
Ramón Pichot continued to mentor Dali during his youth and it was he who managed to persuade Dali’s father to let his son leave school and enrol at the San Fernando Academy of Art in Madrid. In the autumn of 1922, Dali along with his father and sister travelled to Madrid and Dali sat a gruelling six day entrance examination which comprised of the candidates having to prepare drawings of a classical sculpture. Dali passed the exam and aged 18, he became a student at the Academy. Life at the Academy was so different to life at school and Dali revelled in the freedom of self-expression. Whilst there he made a number of friends including Federico García Lorca, who would become one of Spain’s leading poets and dramatists and Luis Buñuel, who became an international film maker and film director half a century later. Whilst at the Academy Dalí experimented with a number of painting styles, mainly avant- garde, such as Cubism, Futurism and Purism, which he studied through reading articles and studying reproductions in art journals. Dali started exhibiting his work in galleries in Barcelona and Madrid and was allowed two solo exhibitions. He would also exhibit work at exhibitions with other Catalan modernists. His work was greeted with acclaim which boosted his confidence. He believed that he was progressing steadily in the art world but he believed such progression was, in a way, being nullified by the type of artistic tuition he was receiving at the Academy. He felt that neither the tutors nor the art syllabus was sufficiently challenging enough. His dissatisfaction led to him often criticising and openly challenging the authorities at the Academy which eventually lead to him being asked to leave in 1926.
I will leave Dali’s life story at this point to concentrate on the first of my two featured paintings, entitled Figure at a Window, which Dali completed in 1925. The painting is not one which we would immediately attribute to Dali. Like many of his early works it features two of Dali’s favourite depictions – the Catalan coastline and a member of his family. This early work by Dali, completed when he was twenty-one years of age, is one of Dali’s best known and most important early oil on canvas works. Dali used his sister Ana Maria as his model. She would remain the artist’s only female model until his beloved Gala came along in 1929. Salvador’s relationship with his sister was very close, even more so when their mother died in 1921 and in some ways she took over the role of the mother who had to constantly cope with the ever discontented son. The work we see is the height of tranquility. This serene and peaceful feeling one gets when one studies the work is a result of Dali use of the predominant colours of light blues and lavenders. There is a stress-free intimacy about the painting, which would soon disappear from his works. We cannot see the face of the girl. She has her back to us as she leans against the sill of the open window. She gazes out at the bay at Cadaques, the seaside resort much loved by Dali. This viewpoint, while lending the picture an air of intrigue, ensures that the viewer’s eye is drawn, like the girl’s, to the landscape ahead.
Although this is simply a painting of his sister looking out of a window with a view across a stretch of water, there is something about the way he has depicted the girl and the way she is dressed which adds a modicum of sensuality to the painting. The clothes Ana Maria wears cling tightly against her and one cannot help but notice the way the tight fitting dress accentuates the swell of her buttocks. It is interesting to note that a year later Dali painted The Girl of Ampurdam in which we once again see the rear view of a girl, standing in a provocative pose which again accentuates the curvature of the cheeks of her bottom. It is not certain whether Ana Maria was the model for this painting but once again we can be in no doubt as to the part of the female anatomy that appealed to Dali the most ! Ana Maria commented about the way in which Dali portrayed her and also incorporated the Catalan landscape:
“…During the hours I served him as model, I never tired of looking at the landscape which already, and forever, formed part of me. He always painted me near a window. And my eyes had time to take in all the smallest details….”
And now to the second painting, which although in complete contrast to the first, I am sure you can recognise a certain similarity. In this second work, which has the bizarre and somewhat tasteless title, Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity, the tranquillity and the innocent peacefulness of the first painting is nowhere to be seen. Why would an artist suddenly change the atmosphere of the painting? Why would he want to depict the violation of the female, who held a similar pose to the one in the earlier painting, which had been modelled by his sister?
For the answer to that maybe we need to consider a couple of books, one an autobiography and one a biography. In 1942 Dali published his autobiography entitled, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí and seven years later in 1949 his sister, Ana Maria published her own biography of her brother, Salvador Dali as Seen by his sister. Unfortunately Dali’s autobiography was a somewhat sanitised version of his life story and was quite different to the way in which his sister viewed him in her book. Dali was horrified by Ana Maria’s version of his life and the way in which he lived it. He felt it cast him in an unflattering light and viewed her words as a blatant betrayal and sadly his perceived view of her disloyalty led to the total collapse of their relationship. So incensed was he by this betrayal by his sister that in 1954 he decided to paint another version of his 1925 Figure at the Window which had featured her. He called his new painting Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity. The figure of the young woman was, according to Robert Descharnes 2002 Dali biography, Dalí, L’héritage infernal, based upon a photograph published in a 1930’s pornographic magazine.
In the painting we once again have a rear view of a woman who is looking out over a stretch of water at a distant landscape. She is depicted leaning over a rail with horned shaped objects being pointed at her. One of these horns has positioned itself as the one which will sodomize her. These horned shaped objects are phallic-like in shape. So what do the horns symbolise? According to one of his biographers, the rhinoceros horns in the painting were symbolic and that a rhinoceros is a very forceful animal as well as a very dangerous one. The one thing about a rhinoceros, though, is that they do not attack unless provoked. This adds another element to the painting. Is it that Dali was provoked by his sister’s autobiography to paint this work? If the woman is being sodomized, is it because she brought it upon herself? The railing, which she is bent over and which is shattered by one of the larger phallic horns, symbolizes a chastity belt and its destruction symbolizes the destruction of her chastity.
One would wonder who would want to own such a disturbing painting. However we do know who owned it up until February 2003 at which time he sold it at Sotheby’s London auction. It was none other than Hugh Heffner who had, on behalf of Playboy Enterprises, sold it for two million pounds. It had been hanging in the entryway to the dining room of the Great Hall in his Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.
I am not sure it is the kind of painting I would like to have hanging in the dining room of our Bed & Breakfast establishment.