Dali marries Myth and Science Masterfully in ‘Leda Atomica’
By Paul Chimera
Dali Writer & Historian
A small Dali painting with a huge impact and following, “Leda Atomica” (1949) is one of Salvador Dali’s best works – masterfully painted and among the true treasures in the permanent collection of the Teatru-Museu Dali in Figueres, Spain.
Certain paintings by Dali seem to have a jewel-like quality about them, a kind of precise perfection. I’m thinking of similarly small works such as “Ghost of Vermeer of Delft, Which Can be Used as Table”; “The Weaning of Furniture Nutrition”; and “Specter of Sex Appeal,” among others. “Leda Atomica” – a bit larger than the aforementioned pictures – comfortably joins this list.
Conceptually, Dali was driven by two primary influences in this painting, one being his long-standing love and knowledge of Roman and Greek mythology. In this case, the classic myth of Leda and the swan. Leda was the wife of the king of Sparta, and in the Leda and the swan scenario Leda is ravaged by Zeus, disguised as a swan. It seems intimations of sex never veered far from Salvador’s mind!
The second major influence that informed “Leda Atomica” was Salvador Dali’s keen interest in science and, in this case, atomic theory, revealing that solid matter is actually comprised of particles – atoms – that never touch one another.
This, then, accounts for why everything in “Leda Atomica” is floating in space – parts of the pedestal, water droplets, a metal angle, what appears to be a small red prayer book, an egg shell. Even the sea backdrop is suspended above the beach below. Whether or not Leda’s (Gala’s) left hand is actually touching the head of the swan (Zeus, supreme ruler of the gods) is unclear, though I would argue that, consistent with everything else in the composition, her hand does not actually make contact with the formidable bird.
Authors Elizabeth Keevill and Kevin Eyres wrote that Dali compared his relationship with Gala “with the complex, amoral and often incestuous relationships between the gods and mortals.”
It should also be noted that the construction of “Leda Atomica” was done along rigorously exact mathematic lines, ensuring a compositional harmony that contributes to the sense of eye-pleasing perfection in such a masterful oil painting.
Also in 1949 (which happens to be this blogger’s birth year), Dali painted his first, smaller version of “The Madonna of Port Lligat,” once again putting Gala on a pedestal (figuratively speaking), this time as the Virgin Mary. (In 1950 he painted a wall-size version of the same theme.)
“Leda Atomica” is another of those examples of Dalinian surrealism that counters the belief that all Dali painted were melting clocks and crawling ants! It is a supreme example of his turn from pure surrealist visions of the 1930s to his Nuclear-Mystical vision, melding science, math, religion/mysticism to create some of history’s most compelling works of art.