The Surreal Methods of Salvador Dalí

By Daulton Dickey

“Je suis le surréalisme,” Salvador Dalí once famously proclaimed. I am surrealism. While at first it might sound like a typical Dalinian eccentricity, his assertion might reveal hidden depths if we pause to consider it. After all, Dalí wasn’t simply a visual artist. He was also a performance artist, in a sense. His persona, the eccentric surrealist artist, served as possibly his greatest creation, and it allowed him to explore the subconscious in new and interesting ways.

When Andre Breton founded surrealism in the early 1920s, he envisioned it as a literary movement. In fact, his First Manifesto of Surrealism focused on the written word. He could have hardly anticipated its transference into the visual arts or its success in the public sphere, a success largely dependent on Dalí’s art and penchant for self-promotion.

Breton treated surrealism not as a trivial literary movement but as a serious investigation into psychological mechanisms responsible for our thoughts and behaviors. These mechanisms, as Freud posited, were consciously inaccessible to us. In defining the word surrealism, he wrote “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.”

As Freud pursued the unconscious through psychoanalysis, Breton sought to explore it through literature—and, later, the arts. The First Manifesto of Surrealism contains several games, such as automatic writing and exquisite corpse, designed to access the subconscious mind. 

In a nutshell, the surrealists sought to shut off the conscious mind, so to speak, and allow the subconscious to speak to us via symbols and seemingly incoherent strings of words. Directly allowing access to the subconscious might prove invaluable to the science of psychology. In a sense, Breton conceived surrealism as a sort of phenomenology of the subconscious: open access to it, then observe the data. 

In the late 1920s, by the time artist Joan Miro introduced Dalí to most of the surrealists, the young painter was well situated to embrace and exploit the infant art form. A serious painter since he was a child, Dalí had explored the classics as well as then-current avant-garde movements such as Cubism. Voraciously curious, Dalí had also devoured the writings of Sigmund Freud and had already incorporated Freudian symbols—dealing with themes such as sexual repression and death—into his artwork. 

As a child, he acted out and tested adults and authority figures in myriad ways, and the consequences of his behavior allowed him to consciously tweak or alter his personality, and through these acts he developed a startling and off-putting, eccentric and demanding presence. Through this persona he fashioned a living piece of art, one on display in real time. 

Appreciating his persona, even if we might find it obnoxious or excessive, is key to understanding his famed declaration: “Je suis le surréalisme.” His persona, the eccentric surrealist, enabled him to transfer art as an activity to activity as a way of life. Through his actions, strange as they might seem, he developed methods critical to his art, both on the canvas and in the world.

Before giving lectures, for example, Dalí would put on a pair of shoes several sizes too small. The shoes hurt his feet, affecting his performance onstage. His inability to stand still, his frantic rising voice, his irritability manufactured a mania underlining the topics of discussion. The pain also shifted his state of mind: irritability replaced anxiety or excitement, and through his altered state he delivered powerful and shocking performances. When a local politician died of a heart attack at one of his lectures, Dalí expressed pride in his performance.

Intent on accessing and exploring his subconscious, he also pushed himself mentally to explore new realms. Since Freud and the surrealists viewed the imagery of sleep as the language of the subconscious, Dalí pushed himself to extract symbols and images from dreams. During one ingenious method, he’d exhaust himself then sit upright at a table. A dish sat on the table in front of him. He’d prop his head up with one arm—fist nestled under his chin—and hold a spoon in the other hand. As he fell asleep, he’d drop the spoon. It’d hit the plate with a clatter, waking him, allowing him to record any imagery he might have encountered.

Through his methods he made brilliant and unexpected associations, adding depth to his art. Ants or even a grasshopper might represent death in some sense, for example, or the fleeting physical nature of the universe might betray itself as solid objects soften or transform into amorphous blobs. These associations gave us the brilliant imagery we often find in Dalí’s works. To dismantle logic and conscious understanding of cause and effect, the great surrealist developed his most important technique, the Paranoiac-Critical Method.

“My paranoia reversed the order of physical values,” he wrote (Maniac Eyeball: 81), “for to me effects can just as well be causes. I shortcircuit [sic] the logic of reactions by introducing irrational elements into the chain so as to cause mutations.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t provide the steps necessary to conjure the method. We’re left only with the consequences and a broad understanding of it. In essence, he’d provoke mental distress, stoking extreme paranoia, which altered his consciousness and allowed him to make unexpected and extraordinary associations while in a paranoid state.

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening

If we examine most of Dalí’s paintings, we’ll find extraordinary associations. In one example, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944), a woman lies nude with her eyes closed, unaware of a pomegranate floating beside her. A bee buzzes around it. Hovering in the distance, another pomegranate decays. A rifle, a fish, and two tigers emerge from it. The rifle races toward the sleeping woman as the tigers leap to catch up. They roar; one rears its head back as a fish births it via mouth. In the distance, an elephant with legs as long as a four-story building lumbers—with grace, somehow. We can almost hear its feet produce a thud sound whenever they hit the ground. Everything floats: rocks, the pomegranate on the ground, even the woman.

Yet she sleeps.

Here, Dalí connects two disparate occurrences—a woman dreaming and a bee flying around a pomegranate—and from this conjunction he draws on subconscious imagery and associations to make inferences about the worlds inside our skulls. We’re confronted with thoughts of sex and death in the starkest possible terms. By depicting our repressed thoughts and desires in a visual medium, he also shifted the foundations of the universe.

Salvador Dalí was himself the cause of a series of associations and effects: his pathological fears and timidity, his eccentricities, his fanatical self-absorption and ego, his obsession with his namesake—an older brother who died before Dalí was born. He mastered the art of persona by teasing out and exaggerating his fears and repressed thoughts, turning them into personal quirks, always on display through his behavior. This allowed him to mask his shyness and timidity and it strengthened his confidence, inspiring him to hone his craft while cultivating his imagination.

While today we remember Dalí for both his imagery and his persona, we rarely seem to connect the two. Such failure blinds us to the closed feedback loop he created. Creatively, he fed on himself, physically and psychically, and produced his most interesting creation: Salvador Dalí, the eccentric and baffling artist. In a sense, he himself became his greatest and most frustrating work of art. For this reason alone, he spoke honestly when he said, “Je suis le surréalisme.”

Daulton Dickey is a pataphysical surrealist currently living in Indiana. He’s the author of Flesh Made World, Still Life with Chattering Teeth, and other books he failed to publicize.