Dali Let it All Hang Out in His ‘Lugubrious Game’ of ’29
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Salvador Dali poured his deepest thoughts, obsessions, fantasies and fears out in what is widely considered his first surrealist painting, “The Lugubrious Game” of 1929. At age 25, Dali already proved he wasn’t afraid to let it all hang out. And then some.
It would be hard to find a painting more emblematic of the spirit of surrealism than “The Lugubrious Game,” sometimes known as “The Dismal Sport.”
This 18 inch by 12 inch oil, which incorporates some collage, is chockablock with the artist’s sexual obsessions, neuroses, and disquieting memories. For Dali, painting wasn’t so much about what he “saw” (for the most part), but what he felt, what consumed his thoughts. In “Lugubrious Game,” it was as if he were conquering his demons by painting them.
This quintessentially surrealist picture was a mirror to Dali’s soul and mind.
Let’s take a closer look…
In the middle of the painting is that sleeping head we would begin to see in many Dali paintings, inspired by a large rock formation at Cap de Creus in Spain, which Dali saw and contemplated for much of his career. The rock looks like a person’s head, with its long nose pressed to the ground. Dali imagined it obsessively as his own face, invariably shown in an anguished state – most notably in “The Great Masturbator.”
Out of the back of this closed-eye head arises a swirl of erotic and symbolic images, as if plucked from a chapter of Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams.” The fedoras are absolutely Freudian, their concave creases symbolizing female genitalia. Look closely and a buttocks-like form and female sexual parts are being approached by a finger. A bearded man’s mouth seems to have been supplanted by a vagina. Blood splatter invites castration fears.
Another vaginal-like form appears near where his ear would be on the man with closed eye, where we also see a sort of double-image of a bird-and-rabbit head. A mysterious hand reaches out onto the man’s neck, while a grasshopper – which Dali literally feared – clings menacingly to the man’s mouth.
To the left of the central male figure is a statue of a man covering his face in shame, while his right arm presents a grossly enlarged hand that clearly implies male masturbation. The lion at the base of the statue has long been a symbol of power as well as the terror that Dali associated with paternal authority.
Finally, we come to the two anguished – some might say disgusting – figures in the lower right. One features a head that opens like a vulva, as his finger is inserted into that space; we do not see his (or her) face. The bearded man – said by some to be Dali’s father – holds a piece of raw meat in his hand, while he appears in boxer shorts covered in feces!
This last detail – the feces-stained pants – was too much for the Surrealist brass and contributed to Dali’s ultimate expulsion from the group. But to many others, especially today, it proves the authenticity of Dali’s mission: to paint his dreams, his nightmares and his everyday thoughts without constraints or censorship or really any filter at all. It was this truth and spontaneity, this honesty and candor, that helped make Salvador Dali the greatest of all the surrealists.