Dali’s ‘Marsupial Centaurs’ is Both Surrealistic and Classical
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Salvador Dali’s “Family of Marsupial Centaurs” has always been oddly provocative and even a bit confounding to me. In one respect, it fits the description of pure surrealism. In another, it exudes a classical sense, as if it might have been painted decades or even centuries before the 36-year-old Dali painted it in 1940.
The year of the picture’s creation is important to consider, because this was a turning point for Dali. He was on the cusp of shedding the cloak of surrealism in order to try on an entirely new outfit: his Nuclear-Mysticism that would soon develop as a result of the impending atomic era.
Dali loved Greek mythology and studied it like a scholar. So the appearance of centaurs here – creatures whose head and torso were human while their lower body was that of a horse – makes perfect sense.
The marsupial motif plays directly into Dali’s long-standing fascination with intrauterine wombs with a view (sorry, couldn’t resist!). He claimed he had vivid memories of this prenatal existence, and some of the images in his surrealist paintings derive from these memories.
In “Family of Marsupial Centaurs,” then, we see robust babies emerging from these gaping holes or marsupial-like pouches, cavorting playfully with the two female images as well as the male in the upper left of this rigorously composed canvas. Indeed, Dali quite purposely divided the canvas into four distinct triangles. Picture an “X” running from all four corners of the painting and you’ll clearly see the disciplined planning of this work, giving the composition a very formal and precise structure, a kind of neo-classicism, if you will. This, in my view, adds to the sense of this painting being more dated than its actual year of execution. (You can literally see an “X” running through the painting, can’t you!).
Two elements in the upper left of this Dali painting bear some discussion. First, one female creature holds a bunch of grapes, known to symbolize revelry if not a full-on bacchanal.
Perhaps more significant, and I’m the only Dali historian I know to have made this observation, the male in this work – head hairless and with no other discernible facial features – is, along with his body, decidedly consistent with the figure in another oddly perplexing and little known Dali painting: “Book Transforming Itself into a Nude Woman” of the exact same year “Marsupial Centaurs” was painted. You read it here first.
Of course, the rocky cliffs at right and below the centaurs’ frolicking, as well as the horizon and sky, surely owe to the constant inspiration Salvador Dali derived from his beautiful native countryside and coastline of Port Lligat and Cadaques on Spain’s Costa Brava.
Of the many and widely diverse Dali paintings, Dali drawings, watercolors, sculptures and other works by the master of surrealism, “Family of Marsupial Centaurs” is both typical of his unique way of seeing the world – real and imagined – and a notable departure that makes it distinctively different and inescapably Dalinian.