Salvador Dalí and science

Carme Ruiz
Centre of Dalinian Studies. Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation

El Punt, 2000

Following the recent talk on "The Origins of Life" by Doctor Joan Oró at the Alt Empordà District Council, wewould like to remind you all - as that eminent scientist did - of Salvador Dalí's relationship with science.

In a conversation with Philippe Bern and Daniel Abadie, Salvador Dalí, in reply to the question "Do the scientists you meet always treat you as if you were mad?", said: "Quite the opposite, they all find me pleasant and say: 'Well, he doen't talk as much rubbish as it seemed'. My main advantage is that I don't know anything about anything, so I can give rein to my most capricious and irrational little whims on the basis of my light reading. And as I am blessed with a certain amount of genius, from time to time I say something that doesn't strike them as that improbable". Salvador Dalí was a man of many interests and one of them was the world of science. His oeuvre reveals that, as also does the legacy of his life. We find in his library hundreds of books about various aspects of science (physics, quantum mechanics, the origins of life, evolution, mathematics,etc), with notes and observations on the margins. We know that towards the end of his life he was highly interested in the work developed by Stephen Hawking, A History of Time, andinthe catastrophe theory of the mathematician René Thom, with whom he was great friends. Not only we can find such books but: there are also many scientific journals, which he would read to stau updated of developments in science and to which he was subscribed until his death. Within his work, then, we can take a historical tour of the scientific events of this century, or at least of those that struck him most. This article aims to provide a timeline of the scientific subjects which interested Salvador Dalí the most. The 1930s were marked by an interest in dual images and optical illusions, interests that Dalí never left aside in his works. The first dual image he painted was The Invisible Man, 1929. Other examples are: Invisible Sleeper, Horse, Lion, 1930; Paranoic Face, 1935; Spain, 1937 and Endless Enigma, 1938.

In 1940 he began depeen his interest in Planck's quantum theory. It was in that year that he painted the work Slave Market with Voltaire's Face Appearing. In 1945 the Hiroshima atomic bomb struck Salvador Dalí so much  that the nuclear or atomic period of his work began with Melancholic Atomic and Uraniumist Idyll, 1945. Other works from this period are: Feather Equilibrium, 1947; Dematerialisation of Nero's Nose, 1947 and The Three Sphinxes of Bikini, 1947.

In 1949 he avidly studied the treatise Divina proportione by Luca Pacioli. That was the year he painted Leda atomica, a work calling for great mathematical elaboration and one to which he devoted many hours of analysis and study.

In the 1950s, he began "corpuscular" painting, influenced by atomic theories, and then movedon to nuclear mysticism. Dalí explained his elements on a tour around the United States. In 1954 he painted the work Rhinocerotic Figure of Ilissos of Phidias, in which his obsession with the rhinoceros's horn (constructed according to a perfect logarithmic spiral) was already manifest. In 1958, in the catalogue for the exhibition at the Carstairs Gallery in New York, Salvador Dalí wrote the article "Anti-material Manifesto" in which he declared: "I am studying; I want to find the way to transport my works into anti-matter. That would involve application of a new equation formulated by Doctor Werner Heisenberg (...) That is whyme, who previously only admired Dalí, will now start to admire  Heisenberg who resembles me". Works from this period include: The Madonna of Portlligat, 1950; Lapis Lazuline Corpuscular Assumpta, 1952; Galatea of the Spheres, 1952; Corpus Hypercubus, 1954; Portrait of Gala with Rhinocerotic Symptoms, 1954; Saint Surrounded by Three Pi-Mesons, 1956; Living Still Life, 1956, etc.

But it was during the period 1962-1978 that we can state with assurance that his work was truly influenced by the impact of science. The first part focused above all on genetics, and more specifically on DNA and its structure. We have an example in the work Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid dating from 1963. In 1965 his interest in holography and three-dimensional art began toawaken Over the course of the decade he continued to study this latter aspect and the work of Gerard Dou, in whose canvases he discovered dual images, that is, stereoscopic images. From that timehe began to work with a Fresnel lens in order to put together these images. In 1971, when Denis Gabor was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on lasers, Salvador Dalí was interested in holography and in 1972 hosted his first hologram exhibition at the prestigious Knoedler Gallery in New York, where the hologram Holos! Holos! Velázquez! Gabor! was presented (this hologram was also presented at the Dalí-Theatre-Museum).

From the 1970s we can highlight the following works, all of them stereoscopic: Dalí from the Back Painting Gala from the Back Eternalised by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected in Six Real Mirrors, 1972-73; Dalí Lifting the Skin of the Mediterranean to show Gala the Birth of Venus, 1977; Dali's Hand Drawing Back a Golden Fleece to Show Gala the Naked Dawn Very, Very Far Away Behind the Sun, 1977. Other important works are The Harmony of the Spheres, a stereoscopic work in a single element, and In Search of the Fourth Dimension, 1979. 

From the 1980s and up untilthe end of his life, Salvador Dalí focused his attention on the catastrophe theory of the mathematician René Thom, as exemplified in works from that period such as: Treaty on Catastropheiform Writing, 1982, consisting of 29 handwritten pages; The Topological Seizing of Europe. Homage to René Thom, 1983.

To conclude, we should mention the symposium that under the title "Culture and Science: determinism and freedom" was held at the Dalí Theatre-Museum in 1985, organised by the Faculty of Physics of the University of Barcelona. This symposium was organized around six main lectures on the role of chance in science, given by specialists on the fields of physics, mathematics, astrophysics and chemistry. The discussion sessions, preceded by the lectures, were chaired by Jordi Wagensberg, director of the Science Museum in Barcelona. Dalí followed the seminars with interest using video equipment set up in his room at Torre Galatea, as Lluís Racionero noted at the time in the Avui daily newspaper: "Dalí recommended that Thom and Prigogine made peace with each other, thereby showing that he had been following the debates in detail..." At a time wheere the most important thing in the world of science was specialisation, Dalí was already advocating for a standpoint which is today an important topic of debate: unity. We find this in his declarations upon being named foreign associate member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France. He gave an acceptance speech called "Gala, Velásquez and the Fleece of Gold", in which he spoke of DNA, Heisenberg, Descartes and René Thom. When asked by a journalist from "Le Figaro" newspaper, "Why such a great interest in science?", Dalí replied: "Because artists scarcely interest me at all. I believe that artists should have some notions of science in order to tread a different terrain, which is that of unity".