Although some art historians still consider him to be little more than an exhibitionist hack and a sensation-seeking charlatan – and, indeed, his eccentricity, flamboyant manner, kitsch and commercialism did sometimes draw more attention than his artwork – the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) is indisputably one of the most versatile, prolific and renowned artists of the 20th century. Known for his technical skills and precise draftsmanship, his artistic oeuvre included painting, graphic arts, film, sculpture, design and photography, and his subject matter included dreams, the subconscious, sexuality, religion (including, as we shall see, Judaism and Israel), and science.
Dali’s best-known work is arguably The Persistence of Memory (1931) which depicts the fluidity of time as a series of melting watches and which is generally interpreted as a rejection of the assumption that time is rigid or deterministic. His images, which he claimed were drawn from his nightmares and paranoic visions, have influenced virtually every field in contemporary graphic arts.
Deeply influenced by Freud, who became a keen admirer of his work, Dali became known for his exploration of subconscious imagery, as he introduced many bizarre or incongruous images into his work, some of which suggest a straightforward Freudian interpretation and others which are highly idiosyncratic and continue to be debated by art experts. He is also the author of several books, the most interesting and revealing of which is arguably his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942).
There is some evidence to suggest that Dali held antisemitic beliefs, made comments that could be interpreted as pejorative towards Jews, and created several paintings that contain antisemitic themes or imagery, but the nature and extent of his antisemitism continue to be debated amongst art scholars and historians. His close relationships with rabid antisemites are a matter of public record and have been the source of controversy and speculation among critics and commentators, many of whom suggest that his associations with controversial figures were a way to further enhance his reputation as a mischievous provocateur; that his antisemitic statements and artwork could be attributed to his flamboyant personality and well-known proclivity for making controversial statements; and that his art accordingly often contained incendiary and shocking imagery.
As part of a “new world order,” Dali supported the enslavement of what he considered to be “inferior” races, particularly “the domination or submission to slavery of all the colored races” – which, he said, was possible “if all the whites united fanatically” – and he advocated for the establishment of a brutal world religion based upon unspecified human sacrifices and the “annihilation of Christianity.” Amplifying these beliefs in a 1935 correspondence to André Breton, an important French writer and co-founder of the Surrealist art movement, he wrote that there was a need for “new hierarchies and more brutal and stricter than ever before” and that “We don’t want happiness for all men, rather the happiness of some to the detriment of others.”
While there is no evidence showing that Dali had a personal relationship with Hitler, there is ample evidence in support of the proposition that he had an admiration, or even an obsession, with the Führer. When Hitler rose to power and his political goals became apparent, and during the Holocaust and World War II when millions in Europe were being murdered, Dali stood apart from the Surrealist artists, who distanced themselves from Hitler and anything related to Nazi tenets. He was fascinated by Hitler; admitted that he found Hitler “exciting;” wrote in The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dalí that “Hitler turned me on in the highest”; and characterized Nazism as “hyper original.” Dali’s attraction to the Führer was so well-known that the FBI suspected that he was a Nazi sympathizer.
Dali’s The Weaning of Furniture Nutrition (1934), in which he depicted a Nazi nurse wearing a swastika armband knitting while seated in a puddle of water, became another of his controversial and disquieting art pieces; the Surrealists were so offended by the painting that they demanded that Dali paint out the Nazi armband.
Dali’s Metamorphosis of Hitler’s Face into a Moonlit Landscape (1958) seems to be merely a haunting representation of a moonlit scene, with the blue hues of the melancholy landscape and the solo figure with the long shadow – perhaps Dali himself? – giving rise to a deep sense of isolation. However, it reveals something far more ominous when it is turned on its side: a somewhat ill-defined representation of Hitler’s face with his nose and mustache transformed into a dreamy landscape. The painting exhibits classic signs of Dali’s use of optical illusions, including peculiar anomalous forms, odd shapes and areas of high contrast. When commenting on this painting, he stated that he “often dreamed of Hitler as other men dreamed of women.”
But Dali’s most prominent Hitler-related work is arguably The Enigma of Hitler (1938), a somber painting infused with a spirit of isolation. A photograph of the Fuhrer sits in a bowl; a large telephone hangs from a dying tree branch, which some commentators suggest is an olive branch representing the death of peace; a black umbrella hangs from the branch, which art historians suggest is an often-parodied accessory that Neville Chamberlain – who foolishly announced after a meeting with Hitler a year earlier that he had established “peace for our time” – carried with him everywhere. Finally, the landscape of the painting resembles the shore of a tranquil beach with people in the distance, oblivious to the coming world war, engaging in happy recreational activities at the water’s edge. When asked about the meaning of the painting, Dali seemed to defend Hitler and fascism.
In 1934, French poet André Breton put Dali on “trial” for “the glorification of Hitlerian fascism.” Dali reportedly said to André Parinaud, a French journalist and art critic, that “there was no reason for me to stop telling one and all that to me Hitler embodied the perfect image of the great masochist who would unleash a world war solely for the pleasure of losing and burying himself beneath the rubble of an empire; the gratuitous action par excellence that should indeed have warranted the admiration of the Surrealists,” and he defended himself by denying that he was a Hitler supporter and by arguing that the Nazis would likely burn his work (which they did). Nonetheless, the Surrealists, led by Breton, formally expelled him from the movement, after which he left Europe and settled in California.
Moreover, it is well known that Dali had a close relationship with Francisco Franco and that, from the beginning of the dictator’s rise to power, Dali was one of the few leading intellectuals to support his fascist regime. When Franco won the Spanish Civil War in 1939, Dali sent him a telegram praising him for “freeing Spain from destructive forces,” and he frequently admired the Spanish dictator, whom he characterized as “the only intelligent man in politics.”
In 1948, Dali returned to Spain, where he became a vociferous public supporter of Franco – he visited Franco three times (1956, 1968, and 1974) and painted a portrait of his daughter – who in turn afforded Dali safety and riches, sponsored some of his most famous paintings (Dali would later donate all his paintings to the Spanish government), and made him a member of the Order of Isabella the Catholic. In 1975, when Franco executed many people and hundreds of thousands of fascists gathered in support, most of the civilized world condemned this appalling act, but Dali praised him as the “greatest hero of Spain” for his military and political “achievements.”
Dali said that he supported Franco’s execution of three Basque national terrorists because he was “against democracy and in favor of the Holy Inquisition,” infamous for the brutal persecution, torture, and forced conversion of the Jews, and his views again forced him to flee back to the United States. He comfortably used fascist terminology and proudly characterized himself as a fervent servant of the Spanish Church and its teachings – which at that time was celebrating Queen Isabella for having the sagacity to expel the Jews from Spain and which unambiguously referred to Hitler’s “Final Solution” as the best resolution of the “Jewish Question.”
Dali’s views on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not well-documented, and he did not appear to take any public stance on the issue. He was, however, interested in exploring the symbolism and mythology of many different cultures and faiths, including Judaism and Christianity, which often manifests itself in his artwork that frequently included images of biblical figures, Jewish symbols, and references to Jewish history and culture. One reason for his interest in these themes may be his exposure to religious iconography and symbolism at a young age, and he incorporated these themes into his art to explore his own spirituality and to connect with the broader cultural heritage of the Western world.
Dali was also influenced by his experiences in Spain, where Jewish culture has a long and complex history, and he may have been drawn to Jewish themes as a way to explore the intersection of different cultural traditions. Moreover, Dali was a highly skilled and innovative artist who was always seeking new ways to push artistic boundaries, and he may have been trying to create a sense of mystery and intrigue and to provoke deeper thought and reflection among his viewers.
JEWISH LAW AND TRADITION
Given Dali’s views on Hitler and Franco, it may be surprising to learn that he produced a series called Aliyah, the Rebirth of Israel, a set of twenty-five mixed-media paintings commissioned in 1967 by Shorewood Publishers to be issued in honor of Israel’s 20th anniversary. Displaying remarkable sensitivity and understanding and a keen grasp of the immutable connection between Jews, the Torah, and Eretz Yisrael, the series highlights biblical verses and important moments in Jewish history. Consistent with his preference for this type of commission, Dalí executed his mixed-media paintings in gouache, watercolor, and Indian ink on paper, which he then reproduced as lithographs and published in a limited edition of 250 sets, which included a letter of introduction by Ben Gurion.
The April 1968 issue of Hadassah Magazine marking Israel’s 20th anniversary described Dali’s Aliyah series as:
An epic history of the return of the Jewish people to their homeland – expressed in 25 bold, dramatic, yet sensitive drawings, sketches and watercolor paintings by the surrealist master, Salvador Dali – will shortly be added to the art treasure of Israel and museums and collectors throughout the world. Appropriately titled “Aliyah, The Rebirth of Israel,” the series of paintings captures the spirit of the Jews from the first days of the exile and for nearly 2,000 years in the diaspora until their final return to their cherished soil of Israel.
Embracing a wide spectrum of moods, from gaiety to deep drama to stark tragedy, it culminates in the ultimate triumph of justice and the joyous restoration of the nation. The world premiere exhibit of the series is scheduled for April 1 at the Gallery of Modern Art (Huntington Hartford Museum) in New York, for the benefit of Bonds for Israel. Following 20 days of public showing, lithographs of the set will go on view in Israel and in leading cities of the United States and Europe. Commissioned by Shorewood Publishers, a New York firm noted for publications of art, Dali devoted two years to the completion of this monumental task.
His chronicles of the people are clearly stamped with his own unique poetic expression. Some are extremely lyrical, others sweeping and epic . . . According to Shorewood, following sale of the original paintings, 250 sets of lithographs will be made available to leading museums and individual collectors. Portfolio No. 1 will be presented as a gift to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where an exhibit of all the originals is slated to coincide with the celebration of the 20th anniversary of Israel’s independence.
According to the Salvador Dalí Foundation website, his motive was “to illustrate the various meanings of the Hebrew word ‘Aliyah,’ which means literally ‘migration to the land of Israel,’ [and] the artist took inspiration from the Old Testament as well as contemporary history.” But had he really developed over time a sincere connection to Judaism and empathy for Zionism, or was the Aliyah series merely the artist’s attempt to build a Jewish market and exploit Jews for commercial benefit? Some art historians suggest that he may have had a change of heart when he saw biblical prophecies coming to life with the rebirth of Israel and thereafter, and others argue that he may have been adding to his mystique, generating attention, and reaping financial gain. At the end of the day, it is impossible to ascertain the truth of what motivated him.