Dali’s ‘Napoleon’s Nose’ on Edge of Surreal and Classical
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Sometimes the myriad ideas that must have been colliding constantly in Salvador Dali’s mind at any given time found an echo in certain of his paintings that featured a disparate and dizzying array of thoughts, reflections, obsessions, and fetishes.
And while the titles of many Dali paintings were almost annoyingly inscrutable, others pointed unambiguously to what was in store for us. This latter case is well exemplified in an extraordinary oil on canvas of 1945 called “Napoleon’s Nose, Transformed into a Pregnant Woman, Strolling his Shadow with Melancholia Among Original Ruins” (Teatro-Museo Dali, Figueres, Spain).
This strange work, which the Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali describes as “meticulously painted,” was created at a pivotal time in Dali’s career: he was just about to abandon his purely surrealistic style while on the cusp of his classical period, the latter portending a very different way of interpreting his thoughts and observations.
Most typical and traditional in “Napoleon’s Nose” – traditional from surrealist Dali’s point of view, that is – was the double-image, a device to which Dali was devoted from his surrealist period through his post-surrealist, Nuclear-Mystical phase and beyond.
Here we see, as the title tells us, a woman seen through an archway, ambling along a barren stretch of land, behind which mountains appear that transform themselves into the eyes of Napoleon Bonaparte, while the woman’s form outlines his nose, and broken tree branches become his lips. This negative-space image of the French emperor, military and political leader is repeated in a more positively formed bust in the middle foreground.
This double-image is surrounded by an undulating art nouveau structure sprouting elongated appendages supported by crutches – one such structure decidedly phallic in nature. These phallic like protuberances find an echo in the seductively writhing female figure at right, whose bright red glove (she’s wearing only one) matches her red footwear.
In a 1945 Bignou Gallery (New York) catalog of a Dali exhibition in which this painting was featured, it was noted in Dali’s words that the work was completed after three weeks’ time, working on it two hours a day. He pointed out that the title fully explained the painting, and it’s hard to argue with that statement – and surprising that Dali was so accommodating.
The Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali in Figueres, Spain, notes in a book about the Dali Theatre-Museum, that “Napoleon’s Nose” is “…absolutely structured, with perfect geometries. The painting is exuberant, full of nuances and iconographic references: Napoleon, architecture, the double image, crutches, the Emporda region…and totally theatrical. It is a surrealist work in the Dalinian way, with wide and desolate spaces and almost academic Freudian symbols.”
Why Napoleon? Perhaps a clue is found in the opening line of Dali’s autobiography: “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.”