Dali ‘Remembers’ Africa, Though He was Never There!
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
“Impressions of Africa,” which Salvador Dali painted when he was 34 years of age, is one of the most widely reproduced of Dali’s surrealist canvases. Surely you’ve seen it in books or posters. It’s another example of how Dali’s voracious appetite for reading and synthesizing the world around him informed his art.
It’s known that Dali never visited Africa. But that fact really had no bearing on his “impressions” of the country. Why? Because Surrealism shunned rules, borders, parameters, or logic. Perhaps Dali dreamed of what Africa was like. Or he just imagined the impressions that swirled around in his brain and which he transferred to canvas.
Alas, in the case of this remarkable picture, its inspiration – and title – actually sprang from the 1910 novel, “Impressions of Africa,” by Raymond Roussel, the French poet, novelist, and playwright whose work was known for its gender confusion; the double meaning of certain words; and a central character who invents a contraption that automatically produces paintings.
In a review of Roussel’s book, writer Stephanie Sobelle captured the likely reason Dali was drawn to his work: “A devotee of both Jules Verne and Victor Hugo, Roussel rather used the idea of Africa – a place to him as fanciful and unimaginable as possible – as a setting and an organizing device for his most imaginative of tales.”
The “carnivalesque travelogue” of Roussel’s literary work, as one writer put it, finds an echo in Dali’s pictorial work. The barren, earthen, untamed African look to the painting is populated by a mélange of double-images: robed figures and baskets morphing into the heads of mules; an arcaded building with dark cave-like arches becoming the face of Gala Dali; mountains along the desert plain doubling as details of human figures; and other hidden images.
Of course, the predominant image is that of Dali himself, mysteriously and dramatically posed at his easel, peering out at the viewer with a trenchant eye and an outstretched hand that, in its foreshortened form, creates a distinct sense of three-dimensionality.
The palette here is quite appropriately dark and earthen, yet – as I recall when I first saw this work in the “Dali’s Optical Illusions” exhibition in Hartford, Connecticut in 2000 – it was framed with a green felt matt. I personally thought that color didn’t accord well with the color scheme of this important surrealist masterpiece.
Some people have claimed – incorrectly – that Dali included his own image in every painting he did, similar to the frequency with which Norman Rockwell painted his own image into many of his compositions. Nevertheless, here is yet another Dali work in which, yes, Dali’s self-portrait appears, as well as a rather ghostly depiction of his wife Gala.
“Impressions of Africa” was painted while Dali was traveling in Italy, safe from the civil war in Spain and inspired by the great Italian Renaissance masters.