‘Accidental’ Sighting Gives Birth to Dali’s ‘Paranoiac Face’


By Paul Chimera

Salvador Dali Historian


When we talk about an artist’s vision, we usually mean his or her sense of innovation or prescience. In the case of Salvador Dali, we also have to consider the concept of “vision” in a more literal sense – thanks to his unique Paranoiac-Critical creative method.


Put simply, the concept referred to Dali’s uncanny ability to see things that others did not – and successfully transcribe such visions to canvas, so others could share in Dali’s discernment.


Such is the case in the Dali painting I’m talking about today: “Paranoiac Face” of 1935. The story goes that Dali had spotted a postcard turned 90 degrees from the way it was meant to be viewed. Immediately he thought the image was some new painting by his esteemed countryman, Pablo Picasso. Because, to Dali’s special eye, the image conjured up a face that was at least partly Picasso-esque in form and style.


But that wasn’t it at all. It turned out the card was to be viewed horizontally, not vertically, and was simply a photo of African villagers seated in front of a hut and a thicket of trees.


Post card photo that inspired Dali's painting.

Post card photo that inspired Dali’s painting.

It was the perfect jumping off point for Dali’s Paranoiac-Critical Method to rear its head.


The seated figures – their heads, their abdomens, their backs, a nearby clay pot, and the background trees – all suddenly converged for Dali to form a human head, the trees serving as the hair, one man’s head as the left eye, and another man’s naval as the right eye.


See it?


In a sense, this was an “accidental” Dali, not initially planned, not something that preoccupied Dali’s calculating mind. Instead, it came instantly to him – a kind of paranoiac delusional image that suddenly emerged from an essentially random sighting.


It reminds us of something that occurred decades later, when in 1969 Dali gazed upon a simple box of Venus drawing pencils and, in the images of the Venus di Milo on the cover, saw a “hidden” face formed of the Greek statue’s breast and a crease along her abdomen. That simple glance gave rise to one of Salvador Dali’s most impressive, important and popular paintings: “The Hallucinogenic Toreador” (1970) – a show-stopper in the permanent collection of The Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, U.S.A.


To my knowledge, “Paranoiac Face” is the only Dali painting – or Dali watercolor, Dali drawing or Dali print – that requires a repositioning of the work in order to appreciate the double-imagery. And, unlike his other double-image works, “Paranoiac Face” is best appreciated when viewed alongside the original post card image.


Clearly one of the hallmarks of Dali’s genius was this inimitable ability to peer beyond the obvious, to discern what others would never see, to take the mundane and make it magnificent!


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