Mythological References in the work of Salvador Dalí: the myth of Leda

Rosa Maria Maurell
Centre of Dalinian Studies. Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation

Hora Nova, 2000

In both Salvador Dalí's written  and  pictorial work, there are many mythological references. Here we will look  more precisely into  the myth of Leda.

The oil painting entitled Leda atòmica (1949) is in the Treasure Room of the Dalí Theatre-Museum of  Figueres. When painting this work, Salvador Dalí took inspiration from the classical myth of Leda. The most popular version recounts that Leda was the daughter of the king of Aetolia, Thestius, and of Eurithemis. Leda married Tyndareus, who upon his expulsion from Lacedaemon was taken in at Thestius' palace. Zeus, father of the gods, fell in love with the beautiful Leda and, when rejected by her, turned himself into a swan. It is said that the same night that Tyndareus coupled with Leda, so too did Zeus, in the form of a swan. Two eggs resulted from the union of Leda with theswan, and each egg gave birth to twins: Castor and Pollux - called the Dioscuri - and Helen and Clytemnestra. One member of each set of twins was immortal and the other mortal.

Dalí began painting his Leda in  1945, in the United States. The painting depicts Leda face-on, sitting on a pedestal, and with her left hand caressing a swan approaching her as if to kiss her. Around the main figure are various objects such as a book, a set square, an egg which might represent the fruit of the union between Leda and the swan, from which the twins were born. In the background are the rocks of Cape Norfeu, situated between Roses and Cadaqués, that serves as a reference to the painter's  homeland.

Leda Atòmica was executed  following the divine proportions  conceived  by Luca Paccioli, a painter from  the Italian Renaissance period. Leda and the swan are set in a pentagon inside of which is a five-point star that  Dalí sketched  several times. The artist calculated the harmony of the references by  following the rules of the mathematician Matila Ghyka, who, at the time, was  teaching at the University of San Diego. His works showed that divine proportion lies at the foundation of any work. Dalí, unlike his contemporaries who thought that mathematics distracted from or interrupted artistic inspiration, considered that any work of art, to be such, had to be based on composition and  calculation.

His wife and muse sat as his model, and in Dalí's interpretation we see that love is treated in a more spiritual manner than it is in the work of other painters, who saw the more carnal side of the myth in the physical union of Zeus-swan and Leda, as did Michelangelo or Nicolas Poussin. Here, all is ethereal and there is no contact between the elements of the painting; not even the sea touches the land. Indeed, in his work Hidden Faces, Dalí already explains the idea of an intense love without physical contact, which he called "cledalism". In other works by Dalí such as the Madonna of Portlligat (1952) or Rhinocerotic Figure of Illissus of Phidias (1954) the central figures are also in a state of levitation.

It is also said that Dalí identified with Pollux and that his dead brother, Salvador, might represent the mortal twin, Castor. From the other couple, his sister Anna Maria would be the mortal Clytemnestra, and Gala the divine Helen, whose beauty was so great that it led to war between the Greek and Trojan people.

The painter might  have easily identified his wife with Helen, since she was for him a source of inspiration, and by contemplating her he was capable of creating sublime works.

Finally, in one of his written works Salvador Dalí tells us the purpose of this  painting: "I started to paint the Leda Atòmica to  exalt Gala, the goddess of my metaphysics, and I succeeded in creating the"suspended space."