By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian/Writer
The question of whether size matters can apply to Surrealism as well as sex! And to a host of other things as well. When it comes to the art of Salvador Dali, the issue of size has rather famously applied to his best-known work of art: his iconic 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory.
This work is so emblematic of Salvador Dali specifically, and Surrealism in general, that unless you know otherwise, you imagine it to be immense, or at least large. Those are relative terms, of course, but no matter how you slice it, most people expect the original to have the same impact in its dimensions that it has in its unforgettably strange imagery and wonderfully detailed technique.
It’s therefore kind of fun to see the reaction of folks when it’s revealed that Persistence of Memory is, as I like to compare it, about the size of your average laptop computer screen. But it would be cool to imagine this tiny jewel in monumental size, don’t you think?
Another work whose dimensions surprised me when it recently came to auction is Portrait of Gala with Two Lamb Chops Balanced on Her Shoulder. While I knew it was a comparatively small canvas, it just never occurred to me just how diminutive it is.
One relatively small Dali painting I believe would have been far more powerful had it been maybe five times as large is the 1945 work, Uranium and Atomica Melancholica Idyll. Can you imagine the impact of the war imagery here, magnified to such a lifelike scale! I feel similarly about The Metamorphosis of Narcissus – a most exceptional masterpiece, but which might have been even more sensational were it created in far larger dimensions.
Then there are works like The Enigma of William Tell, virtually necessitating its large size – horizontal in this case – to accommodate that most inelegant and outrageous elongated buttock!
It would likewise be unimaginable if Dali’s great Sacrament of the Last Supper were even a medium-size work. So much of the awesome spirit of this masterwork owes to its size; when you stand before it at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., you almost feel a part of the sacred feast.
Even more difficult to picture in dimensions other than the immense ones Dali chose are my favorite Dali painting and my favorite double-image Dali painting, respectively: Santiago El Grande, and The Hallucinogenic Toreador. These great pictures are exquisitely rich in detail and symbolism. But the sheer size of the canvases themselves most certainly adds to their enormous impact.
And there’s no question that the impact of the tremendous masterpiece, Tuna Fishing, is greatly enhanced by the enormity of the work — an impact that just wouldn’t work in small dimensions.
Dali gave us the best of both worlds when it came to his Madonna of Port Lligat – the first one very small and perfectly executed, the second one of monumental proportions and considered Dali’s first major Nuclear-Mystical painting.
The size of Ascension of Christ is interesting to me, because it falls into the category of large – but can you picture the enhanced impact of this stunning work if it were the size of, say, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus! Columbus, as one of Dali’s most intricate and detailed canvases, simply could never have been done effectively, were it the size of, for instance, The Apotheosis of Homer.
This latter title would be absolutely breathtaking, were it the size of The Battle of Tetuan; can you even begin to imagine that!
Let me mention two other works, both small, which I think could have been even more remarkable if they were far bigger, even though they’re certainly wonderful as they are. One is The Phantom Cart. It’s a small painting, but the vastness of the landscape could have been greatly underscored, had it been seven feet long.
Meanwhile, can you picture the dynamic impact that would have been created, had Dali chosen to go very big on the small but powerful work, One Second Before Awakening from a Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate? That leaping tiger would be fearsome!
Size may not necessarily matter, but it’s fun to imagine. That’s what Surrealism was all about. And, for this blog post, that’s the long and the short of it.