« back to blog home

Ever notice how, with some Salvador Dali works, you just love them – even if you can’t quite explain why? That’s the case for me with “Skull of Zurbaran” (1956, Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.). With this being President’ Day in America, I thought it would be fitting to select a Dali painting from our nation’s capital (eventually we’ll be looking at Dali’s “Sacrament of the Last Supper,” in the National Gallery of Art, also in Washington.).

There’s something simultaneously haunting yet strangely beautiful about this painting – one of the few perfectly square (39.5 in. x 39.5 in.) canvases by Dali. He has made no secret of his veneration of certain of the great master painters who came before him, and among those from Spain was Francisco Zurbaran, widely revered as one of the great 17th century still-life artists, with an extraordinary ability to achieve dramatic light effects in his works.

Dali was quoted in a book on his major paintings that it was while reading his own treatise, “Fifty Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship” – which became an important published volume – that “I really learned how to paint almost as well as Zurbaran.” For the unabashedly egocentric Dali, it was nevertheless his style to put himself on a secondary artistic plain when comparing his talents to those of the artists he admired most: Velasquez, Raphael, Vermeer, and, indeed, Zurbaran.

In “Skull of Zurbaran,” Dali achieves an engaging optical illusion, where the dark surface of the ascending cubes is at once both their top and their bottom, depending on how our visualization of it shifts back and forth. Try it. Stare at the dark surfaces long enough, and if you see them as the top of a given cube, soon that same surface will morph into the bottom of the same cube, and vice-versa!

The meticulously-painted bowed monk-like figures form the teeth of the skull, while a kind of art-nouveau arch becomes the face’s nasal socket. Obvious cubes above become the eyes. Skulls were a frequent motif in Zurbaran’s paintings, while the cubes seem to recall the cubic approach Dali took about a year earlier in his monumental religious work, “Corpus Hypercubus” (“Crucifixion”), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

I’ve seen “Skull of Zurban” in at least one traveling exhibition and several times at the Hirsshorn. If you get to D.C., you’ll not only want to take in the hugely popular “Last Supper” by Dali at the National Gallery, but also visit the Hirshhorn, to which New York art collector Joseph Hirshhorn donated this lesser-known but remarkable painting in 1966. It’s a dazzling work, exquisitely painted, and a must-see. Its shimmering colors, painstaking, jewel-like craftsmanship, and interesting double-image make me love it…even if I’m not entirely sure why!


on Sunday, February 20th, 2011 at 11:12 pm and is filed under Dalinian. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.