Dalí’s Fascination with the Rhinoceros

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Tuesday, 2018, September 25

“The rhinoceros is the only animal that carries an incredible amount of cosmic knowledge within its armor ”.

Salvador Dalí


In Dalí’s childhood home, there was a woodcut xylograph entitled “Rhinoceros” by Albrecht Dürer (1515). It was the year 1515 when the enormous, impetuous and astute animal appeared for the first time in Europe, bought from Asia by the King of Portugal. In creating this woodcut, Durer wished to immortalize this famous event. 

Dalí was interested in the rhinoceros; he considered the horn a perfect logarithmic spiral; the perfect form present in nature.

The rhino’s horns ‘were ‘the only ones in the animal kingdom constructed in accordance with a perfect logarithmic spiral’ (Dalí quoted in H. Finkelstein, The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, Cambridge, 1998).

The Catalan genius was only nine years old, when his rhinoceros obsession started; an obsession he couldn’t separate from his admiration of Vermeer and Da Vinci. The triangle Dalí – Vermeer- Vinci is necessary to analyses Dalí’s obsession for the rhinoceros, and its horn.

The connection between the rhinoceros and the girl who sews diligently in Vermeers Work’ The Lacemaker’ ( 1669-1670) is connected to the study of the form of the sunflower, that Da Vinci elaborated on during his lifetime.

In 1954, when Dalí was 43 years old, his rhinoceros obsession reached its high, he made a decision. He went to the Louvre to ask permission to draw a copy of Vermeer’s Lacemaker. He created his own version, rigorously tracing the logarithmic curves. .

In the painting, Dalí noticed a series of ‘cones’. that he identified as horns. As he says in his Diary of a Genius’’ The Lacemakers is morphologically the horn of a rhinoceros” (Diary of a Genius). Finally he’d found the connection between the girl in Vermeer’s painting and the rhinoceros.

And Da Vinci? Why indeed is he included in the link between Dalí and Vermeer? Because the universal talent of the Renaissance profoundly inspired Dalì, in his morphological studies of the rhinoceros.

The history of art is rich in examples in which artists have imagined animal figures in geometric formats. Da Vinci studied the form of sunflowers….. Dalí also studied sunflowers, comparing them to logarithmic curves.

In 1954, Dalí discovered, “In the intersection of the sunflower spirals there is evidently the perfect shape of the rhinoceros horns ” (Diary of a Genius).

Dalí defined the rhinoceros as ..

“ not content to bring to the tip its the nose one of the most beautiful logarithmic curves, but also in its backside it bears a sort of galaxy of logarithmic curves in the form of a sunflower”

(Diary of a Genius).

The triangle is complete!…. Dalí, Vermeer and da Vinci and Dalí’s obsession for the triangle  “rhinoceros -lacemaker - sunflower”.

In 1954 Dalí created a feature film called The prodigious story of the lace-maker and the rhinocero’s directed by R Descharnes and Jean-Christophe Averty.

Dalí said, ‘I need to be in front of a real life rhinoceros’, and so it was!! He visited Bosco di Vincennes  a park in Paris, with his copy of the Lacemaker, and against the background of the slow steps of the rhinoceros François, he made a cut on the front of the copy of Vermeer's work with a narwhal’s tusk, once considered the symbol of wisdom, chastity and pristine purity

For Dalí, the rhinoceros horn was“the essential basis of every chaste and violent aesthetic” (Diary of a Genius).

In the 1950s started a magazine called  ‘Rhinoceros’, with the aim of discussing matters of a theological, esthetic moral and scientific nature.

He painted “Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina “” (1952) where seemingly he wanted to create a dialogue between God, the Son, and the rhinoceros.

According to Dalí, rhinoceros horns are symbolically born of the Creator and direct their motion towards the face of Gala and the crucified Christ. In his painting “Young Virgin Autosodomized by her own Chastity” (1954) and in  “ Microphysical Madonna (1954) the rhino horn becomes  a means by which to analyses the form.

Whilst the geometry of the horn represents the molecules of dna, it gave the painting its dynamic aspect. From that moment, dna molecules, in the form of the rhinoceros horn, begin to appear in Dalí’s  work.

In 1954, Dalí created ‘Portrait of Gala with Rhinocerotic Symptoms’ where the image fragments and seem to shatter. Rhinoceros horns are clearly visible in his works from the 1950s onwards, we note their presence also in some works during the 1920s and 30s. The painting “Self Portrait with the Neck Of Raphael ” (1921) and “Persistence of memory”, both have forms that remind us of rhinoceros horns. In his book “Diary of a genius, Dalí writes: “
The same horns are already found in my paintings of soft clocks [...] are "soft" horns that mark the exact time [...] rhino horns that come off and allude to the constant dematerialization of this element, which it increasingly transforms my work into a distinctly mystical element

In the painting “Self Portrait with the Neck Of Raphael”, Dalí creates his own self portrait which is influenced by his obsession with the rhinoceros. The rhino horn in this artwork is apollonian.

According to Dalí. ,”.
Raphael painted through the study of the composition in cubes and cylinders, and these shapes were similar to the logarithmic curvatures identified in the rhinoceros horns

In 1958 Mike Wallace interviewed Dalí, and he recounted. ‘the logarithmic curve in the horns of rhinoceros is a symbol of chastity, one of the most powerful symbols of modern times’.

Dalí was so obsessed with the rhinoceros, he said he wanted a statue made of himself in rhinoceros form’(I want my statue to be a cosmic rhinoceros, and his behind should contain, not the usual granulations, but a sunflower divided in two with a small cauliflower inside)

The obsession he had, not only was apparent through his art, and film, the cosmic animal featured in every part of his life. With the size of an elephant and the armor that resembles that of the turtle; the rhinoceros became the protagonist of a series of important photomontages made by Dalí and Philippe Halsman (1956).  Dalí held in a conference in Paris in 1955 on the subject of Vermeer's painting and the Rhinoceros; illustrated in  numerous works made on paper.

In 1955, during a conference at the Sorbonne, he presented the rhinoceros as an irrational animal, mystical, rich in surreal virtues,  representative of Spain and its people, “Me, Salvador Dalí, who comes from Spain the most irrational  and mystical country in the world”. (Diary of a Genius)
The rhinoceros therefore belongs to the surreal world and it is perhaps precisely for this reason that Dalí chose it to feature it in his art. The animal became the leitmotif of his delirium from the age of nine, he preserved, analyzed,  and idealized it.  "all my life I have not painted something so different  as a  rhinoceros horn ".


Also in sculpture, Dalí paid homage to the rhinoceros, considered it a "cosmic" animal, with the creation of the works "Rhinoceros Habille en Dentelles" (Rhinoceros Dressed in Lace) in 1956 and "Rhinoceros Cosmique" (Cosmic Rhinoceros) in 1950, produced in various sizes.

In both works, Dalí illustrated in three dimensions the rhinoceros as the symbol of strength and virility that manifests itself through the phallic element of the horn.

The presence of sea urchins, balanced on the backs of the animals, reminds Dalí's obsession with the contrast between "the hard and the soft". Dalí dressed the rhino in armor and, with this surrealist transformation, wished to bring this magnificent creature into a parallel and otherly world.

The two sculptures "Rhinoceros Habille en Dentelles" and "Rhinoceros Cosmique" are part of the Dalí Universe Collection, and are edited by Airaindor.

The monumental sculpture "Rhinoceros Cosmique" reaches a total height of four meters.

"The rhinoceros is the strong box of wisdom at the animal level, [...] more sculpted and worked than a bronze plate." (Les Passions Selon Dalí, L. Pauwels).