Dali's Optical Illusions

August 2000

Publication: The Times

In a lecture delivered in 1931, Salvador Dalí famously declared: “The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.”  Aside from the kind of humorous showmanship for which the Catalan artist became notorious, the comment also reveals a more serious point.  Dalí appropriated the term “paranoiac” for an approach employed in many of his paintings.  This was based on the psycho-analytical methods of Freud and Lacan, who defined paranoia not as a mental disorder defined by delusions of persecution but, rather, as a psychological state where external reality is interpreted according to an all-pervading obsession.

While Dalí is certainly one of the most popular artists of the twentieth century, his work although familiar, paradoxically, remains obscure or partially understood.  What this show attempts  to demonstrate  — successfully — is how Dalí used a whole range of what can be loosely described as “optical” techniques to achieve his ends.  These included stereoscopic imagery, photography and holograms, as well as studies of perspective from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But, as the exhibition’s curator, Professor Dawn Ades, points out, Dalí’s aim “was always to make the illusion of the reality of his images as convincing as possible.”

In fact, Dalí was uncharacteristically modest and dismissive about his own representational pictorial technique saying of his paintings: “They don’t count pictorially.  They’re badly painted...If you compare me with any classical painter whatsoever then I’m an absolute non-entity.”  In fact, Dalí’s ability to convince on a pictorial level partly accounts for the popularity and the seeming accessibility of his work.  This set him apart from many other members of André Breton’s Surrealist movement (which Dalí eventually joined in 1929) because populism was at odds with the avowed intellectual élitism of the group.

Dalí experimented with a wide range of styles and techniques, including Cubism, defined, in part, by Picasso, to whom Dalí paid homage in a painting dating from 1926, entitled Femme Couchée.  Whereas many of Picasso’s Cubist works were characterised by multiple perspectives relating to a single image, Dalí’s woman although stylistically linked to Picasso’s monumental female forms, does not employ classical perspective.  There is, therefore, a distinct rupture of perception, caused by what the eye expects to encounter (i.e. the  diminishing size of the body, corresponding to the supposed “distance” from the eye of the viewer) and what actually appears in the painting.  It is a subtle but subversively disquieting technique.

Another approach favoured by Dalí was his use of anamorphosis — a type of distorted perspective fashionable, again, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Here objects are presented on the picture plan as elongated and distorted but, when viewed from an oblique angle, read as normal images.  This method underpins works such as Fantasies Diurnes, painted in 1931, which invokes Holbien’s The Ambassadors which dates from 1533.  But Dalí’s interest in anamorphosis stems not from his interest in creating pictorial puzzles, but rather as a starting point for creating increasingly complex distortions linked to trains of thought.  Embedded in the skull-boulder of Fantasies Diurnes are various objects, including a key and another smaller head, as well as the repeated words “William Tell” — a story which Dalí interpreted as an Oedipal castration myth.

It would be quite wrong to think of Dalí as a dilettante, merely toying with the scientific ideas underlying his visual distortions.  He was, by contrast, an omnivorous intellect passionately interested in optics, genetics, psychology and a bewildering array of other subjects — these fuelled his art and are inextricably linked to the powerful and complex ideas it seeks to convey.


Dalí’s Optical Illusions

Dean Gallery

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Belford Road


0131 624 6200

Until October 1


Published in The Times, Around the Galleries, 09-08-00