Is this Dali Painting the Most Unusually Titled of His Prodigious Output?
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
I don’t mean to dwell on so-called “war pictures”; I’ve written about several of them in recent blog posts. But today’s entry confronts a 1938 Dali painting that puts an exceptionally unusual twist on one’s anxiety over impending war – in this case the Spanish Civil War – and lays claim to one of the strangest titles of any Salvador Dali painting.
I’m talking about “Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone.” When the late, popular TV talk show host Merv Griffin had Dali as a guest on his show one time, Griffin read this painting’s title to the audience to illustrate the bizarre nature of Dali’s work in general.
While Dali mined the endless imagination with which the genius was blessed, he also seized opportunities to make social commentary through is art. This was especially evident when it came to his apprehensions over war and, specifically, to the civil war that was so devastating to his native Espana.
In “Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone,” Dali employed a dark, somber palette in which perhaps a Model-T car is suggested – we see a wheel and fender – as it morphs into, or, rather, “gives birth” to a horse. The anguished animal’s eye socket is horribly carved out to reveal a deep, dark, empty space.
The telephone has widely been regarded in Dali’s various World War II-related paintings as symbolic of the pivotal telephonic conversations between Britain (primarily Chamberlain) and Hitler. Although the year this canvas was painted (1938) puts the historical locus on Spain and its bloody civil war, Dali author Robert Descharnes noted in his book, Dali – The Paintings, co-authored by Gilles Neret, that, while the telephone may have represented such momentous conversations, “the telephone must have seemed an emblem of menace.”
It’s simply one of several elements in “Debris of an Automobile…” that contribute to the forlorn impression Dali set out to evoke in this remarkable painting. Without question an important inspiration for Dali in creating this work was the famous large-scale black & white painting, “Guernica,” by Pablo Picasso, a fellow Spaniard whom Dali greatly admired. Both a horse whose head and neck are similarly posed, and a naked light fixture hanging from the ceiling, are found in the large Picasso picture.
It might also be noted that Dali had a distaste for what we might call mechanical things, such as the symbolic nature of watches and clocks (perhaps they reminded him too frequently of the inexorable passage of time and thus his own mortality?), and the ubiquitous automobile. In the present painting, then, might the dilapidated vehicle becoming a horse signal Dali’s wish that we might return to a simpler time, when on-horseback was the standard mode of transportation?
It’s fun to speculate and interpret – that’s part of what great art is all about – but one thing’s for certain: “Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone” will forever been held as one of Salvador Dali’s most important, intriguing, and curiously titled masterpieces.