Dali on Hitler
January 24, 2010
Salvador Dali had a curious preoccupation with Adolf Hitler. While his famous work, The Enigma of Hitler, was painted before Hitler’s ultimate rise to power, Dali completed two lesser known works on the subject long after the war ended: Metamorphosis of Hitler’s Face into a Moonlit Landscape with Accompaniment (1958) and Hitler Masturbating (1973).
Like many surrealists, Dali arguably reached his artistic apex prior to the end of World War Two. The end of the war signaled inevitable, major changes for the movement; the surrealists’ official position of exile during the war garnered much critical flack, as did their apparent lack of artistic response to the changing times.
In the period immediately following World War Two, individual isolation became pervasive motif in existential writing and literature, in part because it echoed the isolation that people on the whole felt during the war.[i] Dali, ironically, rendered himself such an outsider by officially cutting his ties with the surrealists by the War’s end. His admiration of Raphael, a return to the study of Renaissance techniques, coupled with shameless commercialism and the flamboyant persona that he cultivated for himself are generally cited as the primary reasons for Dali’s eviction from the movement. Yet his obsession with Adolf Hitler was doubtlessly a contributing factor as well, in that it perpetuated a connection to a war that the surrealists had collectively decided to wash their hands of entirely.
Dali championed the early surrealist ideal of automatism, purposing that photography was the most perfect mode of automatic expression. His paintings thus aspired to create the illusion of a photograph.[ii] Dali’s first painting concerning Hitler, The Enigma of Hitler (1939) is rendered in such a style. A large telephone hangs from a dying tree branch, possibly an olive branch representing the death of peace. A black umbrella also hangs from the branch, likely a reference to the oft-caricatured accessory of Neville Chamberlain, who famously met with Hitler one year prior, proudly (and erroneously) announcing “peace for our time”. Two ominous bats perch randomly. The structure of a bat’s wing mirrors that of an umbrella, creating a visual pun with the implication that Chamberlain was “blind as a bat”. The landscape of the painting resembles the shore of a beach with distant people enjoying recreational activities by the water’s edge. The idyllic scene evokes the serene coastline of an anonymous country, unaware of imminent invasion. Breton, along with the majority of the surrealist movement, publicly challenged The Enigma of Hitler, accusing Dali of glorifying the dictator. Dali argued that Hitler was merely a manifestation of his own “decadence and aestheticism, and even of his unhealthy eroticism.”[iii] The grim tenor of the painting, evident in color palette and composition, seems to support Dali’s argument. The miniscule size of Hitler’s face hardly appears to glorify the man.
There is little scholarship on Dali’s fascination with Hitler. It is generally glossed over, probably because it manifested itself most strongly in the post-war years after Dali’s “golden age” of painting was over. Still, Dali’s obsession perfectly ties into the distinctly Freudian themes that run across the spectrum of Dali’s work. His anxiety over impotence is manifested in the flaccid blob-like shapes featured in paintings spanning virtually his entire career, from Surrealist Composition (1928) to Rhinocerontic Figure of Phidias’s “Ilyssos” (1954). The teardrop that hangs precariously from the end of the telephone receiver in The Enigma of Hitler is a typical example of his recurring drooping, impotent shapes. Adolf Hitler had no children. He was, however, a huge promoter of breeding, and his warped master-race concept was founded on virility.
Dali has a fear of strong father figures as well, evident from the time of his earliest works, such as his 1925 painting entitled Portrait of my Father, in which the somber patriarch appears as if formed from the very shadows that surround him.[iv] Hitler, as a dictator, was the ultimate “father-figure” of Germany, and his pure, unadulterated power was likely a simultaneously terrifying and alluring concept from Dali’s point of view.
Dali once described his obsession with Hitler to André Parinaud as a strange homoerotic fantasy:
I often dreamed of Hitler as a woman. His flesh, which I had imagined whiter than white, ravished me… 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.[v]
Dali’s fascination with the “paranoiac-critical method” of seeing and rendering yielded paintings like The Slave Market with the Disappearing Head of Voltaire (1940) in which, as the title suggests, two images appear simultaneously via optical-illusion. Critical of such optical ‘hocus-pocus’, the surrealists began to look upon Dali’s works as nothing more than mere puzzles. Viewers had become preoccupied with looking for double images rather than observing the paintings for their own merit[vi].
Dali’s Metamorphosis of Hitler’s Face into a Moonlit Landscape with Accompaniment (1958) purports to be an image of this type. The painting is arguably a belated, two-fold jab at the surrealists who disowned Dali. One; it is a portrait of Hitler and two; it is supposedly a double image. The painting has the signature marks of Dali’s optical illusions—strangely shaped extensions, odd forms, and areas of high contrast. A mustache comes into focus here, an eyeball there, but no clear face ever presents itself. Dali has created another “enigma” of Hitler, and this time it’s visually literal. The desaturated blue tone of the landscape lends a feeling of gloom, and a lone figure with the long shadow, perhaps Dali himself, evokes an intense feeling of isolation.
Dali’s final painting featuring Hitler, entitled Hitler Masturbating, is a watercolor from 1973. The title and the content of the work suggest a sort of self-parody, which makes sense considering the late period in Dali’s life during which the painting created. Though Dali generally worked in oil, Hitler Masturbating is a watercolor. Given the looser nature of the medium, it was likely executed more quickly than the majority of Dali’s canon. It also represents a departure from the fabricated automatism of Dali’s meticulous photorealism. The brushstrokes are looser and the landscape more impressionistic. The painting depicts exactly what the title suggests; the dictator, in full Nazi uniform, sits in an armchair, his back to the viewer amidst a barren snowscape. His chair appears to morph into a group of horses, the hooves of which still bear resemblance to the chair. The image evokes Dali’s 1942 watercolor Sheep, in which a herd of sheep have their hooves inexplicably replaced by gilded furniture legs. The transformation from chair to horse evokes the journey of the retired soldier, once on horseback, now on plaid. It could be argued that the painting is an attempt on Dali’s part to humanize Hitler. By depicting him from behind, Dali renders him anonymous, simply a figure engaged in an intensely private yet ubiquitous act. Given Dali’s sense of humor, however, the painting is more likely a dirty joke on Dali’s part. As Hitler masturbates, he looks upon a barren wasteland, an emptiness that resembles the destruction of Europe by his own hand.
[i] Dada & Surrealism, Matthew Gale, (London, Phaidon Press ltd., 1997) p. 403
[ii] Dada & Surrealism, Matthew Gale, (London, Phaidon Press ltd., 1997) p. 289
[iii] Dali, Marco Di Capua, (New York, Crescent Books, 1994) p. 26
[iv] Dali, Marco Di Capua, (New York, Crescent Books, 1994) p. 66
[v] John Maylon, http://www.artcyclopedia.com/featuredarticle-2000-10-port6.html
[vi] Dada & Surrealism, Matthew Gale, (London, Phaidon Press ltd., 1997) pp. 291-293