Dalì and the eye: the instrument for seeing paranoia.

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Monday, 2019, December 23


On 12th December the exhibition “Salvador Dalí - Enigma” was opened to the public in the city of Prague. The exhibition is curated by Beniamino Levi, President of the Dalí Universe; whereas the creative project was developed by Phantasya S.r.l. under the artistic direction of Roberto Pantè. It is an exhibition itinerary aimed at showing the visitors the many secrets coming from the subconscious and the dreamlike fantasies of Dalí, presented through the language of modern psychology.

Inside the exhibition there is a space dedicated to the oil on canvas “L'Oeil Fleuri”, part of the extravagant scenography that Salvador Dalí devised for the production of the ballet “Tristan Fou”  in 1944. This artwork illustrates to the visitors of the exhibition the obsession that Dalí had for the image of the eye, the visual instrument that showed itself to be fundamental for seeing the paranoia and the metamorphoses created by “double images”.


Dalì and the eye: the instrument for seeing paranoia.

In Surrealism, the eye occupies a central place and becomes the main subject of many artists’ works. In 1936 René Magritte painted the eyes of “a man who looks at the sea, observed from behind, but whose face is still visible” entitling his work “La maison de verre” (the glass house). In 1927, Man Ray created “Boule de neige” (snow globe), a bubble showing the image of a painted eye inside it”. In 1944, Dalí created the Surrealist object “Métronome” by fixing the image of an eye to the rod of a metronome.

For Dalí, the eye is the instrument for showing the spectator “invisible things” and the theme of the “double image - the image which suggests or turns into a second image either at first glance or on being stared at intently”. We can state with almost complete certainty that, without sight, Dalí would never have invented the famous “paranoiac-critical method” and used the “double image” concept in his art.

Dalí’s extraordinary creativity is closely connected to the role of the eye, the gaze and observation, that implement its capacity to construct visions, to look beyond the image observed at first glance. Dalí experimented this skill from his childhood. At the age of nine, he discovered “the camouflage phenomenon” by observing a marine plant that frequently grew on the beaches of Cadaqués.

In his autobiography “The secret life of Salvador Dalí” he wrote: “These plants when seen at close range are composed of small, very irregular leaves supported on stems so fine that the slightest breath of air animates them in a kind of constant quivering. One day, however, some of these leaves struck me as moving independently of the rest, and what was not my stupor when I perceived that they walked!  Thereupon I isolated that curious and tiny leaf insect from the rest to observe it at leisure and examine it minutely. Seen from behind it was impossible to distinguish it from the other leaves among which it lived, but if one turned it over its abdomen appeared no different from that of any other beetle except for its legs which were perhaps unusually delicate and which were in any case invisible in their normal position.   The discovery of this insect made an inordinate impression on me for I believed I had discovered one of the most mysterious and magical secrets of nature.  And there is no shadow of a doubt that this sensational discovery of mimesis influenced from then on the crystallisation of the invisible and paranoiac images which people most of my present paintings with their phantasmal presence”.

The phenomenon of the “invisible images”, the “double images” that hide behind a first observation, has been experimented by many artists over the centuries and is clearly visible in Dalì’s paintings.

Some examples of them include “The invisible man” (1929-32) where, the blue pupils of the eyes are also the heads of skeletal bodies; “Apparition of face and fruit dish on a beach” (1938) where, in the obscure depths of the eyes an amphora appears along with the head of a sleeping girl’s body wrapped in cloth. And then “Old age, adolescence, infancy” (1940), whose central part shows two open and scrutinizing eyes, which are at the same time a landscape with paths, cypress trees and leaves shown in detail.

The famous painting “The persistence of Memory” (1931), in the middle of which there is a cliff that transforms into the Dalí’s profile must also be mentioned. The eye is closed, like in the painting “The great masturbator” (1929) and “Le Sommeil (Sleep)” (1937) and, when you observe his eyebrows, his mouth and the famous Dalí moustache appear.


Finally, “Impressions of Africa” (1938), which contains an infinite number of eyes, starting from Dalí’s right eye that observes the outside of the painting and captures the eye of the spectator. The orbits of Gala’s face show at the same time both the arches of the portico of a building, whereas those of the farmer and of the musician blend in with the rocky forms of the background.

For Dalí, the eye also becomes a means to illustrate the horrors of the Second World War in the painting “The face of war” (1940); the eye cavities of the skull open the view to other skulls that, in turn, show other skulls inside the eye cavities, thus starting an endless visual process.

Dalí made the eye a true obsession by using it not only in his paintings, but also making it become the main subject of his sculptures, his sets, his photos and, along with his famous moustache, the characterising element of his face.

In cinema, Dalí used the theme of the eye as an instrument to talk about the dreams born from psychoanalysis and to obtain a strong, penetrating and realistic visual impact. In 1945, invited by the film director Alfred Hitchcock, Dalí produced a series of four paintings in shades of grey, a colour canvas and almost a hundred preparatory drawings for the famous “Dream sequence” of the film “Spellbound” (1945) based on the novel “The House of Dr. Edwardes”.

The painting, of monumental dimensions (5 metres by 11), created for the film set, offers the spectator glass eyes, bizarre surrealist objects and shapes that, by simultaneously moving, interact to form an imposing and at the same time grandiose backdrop.

“Spellbound” was one of the first films to deal with the subject of Freudian psychoanalysis.  Dalí threw himself headfirst into this painting role, creating a surrealist sequence of oil on canvas that captures the illusionary nature of the sub-conscious in an extremely vivid way.

As Hitchcock himself said: “I could have chosen De Chirico or Ernst, but neither of them was as imaginative or extravagant as Dalí”. The sequence developed by Dalí presents a spooky scenery of painted eyes, a roof and the gentle slope of a hill. The first part of the sequence shows an enormous pair of scissors piercing the backdrop of painted eyes. The scene reminds of the one that Dalí created 16 years earlier, in 1929, when he worked along with his friend Luis Buñuel on the screenplay of the film “Un Chien Andalou”.

The history of cinema is full of scenes of eyes that remind of the bull’s-eye of “Un Chien Andalou” and the eyes dreamt by the American actor Gregory Peck in the film “Spellbound”. Some examples of them, the change from the visual shots to the shot of the detail of James Stewart’s eyes out of their orbits in the Alfred Hitchcock film “The man who knew too much”  (1956) and the hypnotic manipulations in the film “The diabolical Doctor Mabuse” (1960) where the thousand eyes of “Spellbound” spy from the opening credits. They are the same hyperthyroid eyes that stare, frighten and hold the dress of the dancing girl that reaches the spiral apex of a decapitated sculpture in the short film Destino” (Destiny), the result of the collaboration between Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney, in 1945.

In the bronze sculptures of the Dalí Universe collection, the image of the eye is often without detail or, even, shows a different image, espousing the concept of the “double image”. In the sculpture Alice in Wonderland” the eyes, like the whole face, are hidden by the thick foliage that precedes the floral explosion of the whole head. The absence of facial features of St. George and of the Princess Selene in the sculpture “St. George and the Dragon” is a typical Dalian choice, to highlight the purely symbolic meaning of the figures.

Dalí even managed to illustrate the image of the invisible eye in the sculpture Surrealist Newton”, by creating an oval hole in his head. The emptiness of the face, which becomes the invisible face of Newton, reminds of Magritte’s idea. For the Belgian painter, a person’s face was an “invisible thing” that could not be represented.

On the other hand, Dalí illustrated an open and well-defined eye in the sculpture “Profile of Time”. This bronze work was intended to be an elegy to the concept of the “double image”. If we observe the clock by bending our head left, it reveals a hidden image. The face of the clock turns into a profile, that of Dalí. The curve of the forehead, beside the number 10, reminds of his large hallucinating eyes in the circle; the elongated shape of the drop, symbolises the artist’s nose; and finally, the upward curve of the profile line, that describes the number 9, is intended to be a clear reference to the famous Dalian moustache.

Amongst the glass sculptures of the Dalí Universe Collection that Dalí made in collaboration with the prestigious French glass factory Daum Cristallerie in the 1940’s, there is the Daum works “Oeil de Pâques” that will be exhibited in the “Salvador Dalí - Enigma” exhibition in the city of Prague. This work, created in 1969, reminds of the transparent sky and the Mediterranean Sea for the cobalt blue colour of the glass, and the Dalian obsession for the image of the eye and of the egg. Dalí recognised glass as the perfect instrument for  “expressing metamorphosis” and its properties for a surrealist transformation of light and colour into a three dimensional form.

The eye-egg pairing present in the sculpture “Oeil de Pâques” was reused by Dalí in the photographic field too, with the 1971 shot, that shows the actress and model Amanda Lear photographed as a nun, with white eyes, while she holds a plate with two egg whites. The photo, entitled “The eyes on the plate of Saint Lucia”, illustrates Saint Lucia, the Christian martyr, holding out her eyes on a plate.

The role of the eye also occupies a significant place in Salvador Dalí’s illustrations. The illustrated book collection of the Dalí Universe presents the important themes of history interpreted and illustrated by Dalí during the course of his life.

Amongst the 12 etchings of the book “After 50 years of Surrealism” there is the image of two busts, who have open drawers with a knob sticking out in place of their eyes, as a clear reference to the eye of Polyphemus.

One of the 20 wood engravings of “Tricorne” illustrates a girl wearing a dress whose shape is that of an owl butterfly, one of Dalí’s favourite insects, a symbol of the soul and change, of rebirth and metamorphosis. The two “simple eyes” on her dress are large and almost out of proportion with respect to the girl’s small face; they seem to stare at the observer with the aim of changing the point of observation to the centre of the figure.

The eye presented Dalí with perfection. The possibility of observing Gala as the miracle of beauty: “One single being has reached a plane of life whose image is comparable to the serene perfections of the Renaissance”, wrote Dalí in his autobiography. “And so as I watch her from the corner of my eye during the long hours I spend huddled before my easel, I say to myself that she is as well painted as a Raphael or a Vermeer”.

The eye presented Dalí with ambition. The desire that was born around the “most powerful libido-social attraction” for the Matas family and the afternoon meetings in which they used to drink mate together contained in a pot with the image of Napoleon on the outside. Dalí, who was then seven years old, looked at that pot of Mate and thought: “I wished to sip Napoleon’s liquid”, and he started to define his hierarchies: “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since”.

The eye presented Dalí with his obsessions. The visions born from seeing a bat crawling with ants, a meal accompanied by snails and by reading an essay, the vaulted ceiling that closed the walls of the school, the small skulls hidden in the image of the table tennis balls and of the berries of the cypress plant, in the courtyard of Mr Pichot’s farmstead.

And again, the eye presented Dalí with his beloved metamorphoses. The transformations connected to pleasure deriving from the capacity to discover new images hidden in a figure that Dalì knew how to understand with his imagination. “The most curious particularity of this phenomenon”, said Dalí, “consists of the possibility of always finding, as I wished, any of the thousand stages of the evolution of a figure, and to find it not simply as it was at the beginning, but as I had progressively perfected and enriched it”.

For Dalí, the eye was also an instrument. A visual element for analysing the Cosmos that, thanks to modern physics, can be observed as “finite space”, a space that contrasts with the “infinite” one of the Dalinian universe, as Dalí wrote in his “Diary of a genius”: “I am looking at the starry sky. It seems small. Am I getting bigger or is the universe shrinking? Or is it both things together?”

“The only thing that interests me is science” said Dalí. In the television special “1001 Visions de Salvador Dalí” (1978), curated by Robert Descharnes and Brigitte Derenne, Dalí talks about his vision ranging from the physics to psychology.

“Under Dalí’s eye” was the original title of the programme and, for this occasion, in 1976 Dalí created the drawing on paper “Architectural Project: Eye catching Economy”, with the illustration of twenty seven open eyes resting on a base and held up by a crutch. At the bottom right there is an image of a staircase leading to a door. Four years later, in 1980, on the basis of the drawing, Dalí created the bronze work “The Surrealist eyes” where the multiple image of the eyes clearly reminds of the spooky scenery of painted eyes created for the film “Spellbound”.

With his eyes, Dalí tirelessly studied, for his whole life, the philosophical, scientific, morphological, biological and religious discoveries that characterised his time, to illustrate them according to his own personal vision and imagination.

With his eyes, Dalí scrutinised the depths of the subconscious and at the same time observed, the heavens and all his work is a reflection of what he observed. On several occasions Dalí said: “My work is a reflection, one of the innumerable reflections of what I accomplish, write and think” and now we can add ”see”.



Diary of a Genius, Salvador Dalí, 1963.

The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, Salvador Dalí, 1942.

Dalí, The Hard and the Soft, Sculptures & Objets, Robert and Nicolas Descharnes, 2004.

Salvador Dalí: The Museum of Modern Art, JT Soby, 1946.

Catalogue Raisonné of Salvador Dalí Paintings (https://www.salvador-dali.org).

Dada e Surrealismo Dal Nulla al Sogno, edited by Marco Vallora, 2018