Dali’s Parental Disenchantment Clear in ‘Enigma of William Tell’


By Paul Chimera

Dali Society Historian/Writer

Who among us hasn’t had some conflict with our parents at some point in our lives? Especially when we were younger? Being, on occasion — sometimes extended occasions — disenchanted with parental authority is almost a rite of passage, yes?

Twenty-nine-year-old Salvador Dali was no different. In 1929, he found himself at a critical time in his personal and artistic life. He was on the cusp of courting the strange ethos of Surrealism. And of courting a Russian woman 10 years his senior. And, oh yeah, she was married.

It all left Dali’s father profoundly angry. Angry enough, in fact, to disown his son. So Dali took to his own unique brand of revenge: he represented his thoughts about the situation in one of the strangest Dali paintings ever — “The Enigma of William Tell” (Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden).

First — not unlike Dali’s “Celestial Ride” canvas, which I recently blogged about — you can’t help but react instantaneously to the absurdity of the image. A kneeling male figure with one cheek of his buttocks elongated to a preposterous length!  To think it was not intended to be hyper-phallic is to be hopelessly naive.

The disfigured derriere is so unwieldy that it requires propping up by a crutch, echoing the same requirement for the man’s hat brim, stretched beyond all reason like salt water taffy on steroids.

“Take that, dad!”

In effect, that’s what Dali was doing here, since — if you haven’t guessed by now — the man represents Dali’s father, depicted as Lenin to add to the menacing nature of his perverted form. Menacing and predatory — because the draconian father figure holds in his arms a young boy with a piece of meat on his head.

Any guess who that young, vulnerable young boy might symbolize?

The allegory here of William Tell — where a man’s son is put in the life and death position of having an apple on his head pierced by an arrow shot by his father — adds to the sinister nature of the scene.


I don’t know of any artist who has ever intentionally mocked (excoriated?) a parent in a painting to a more dramatic extent than what this Dali work does. Dali’s “father” is now reduced to a pathetic, exploited figure — naked from the waist down…piercing himself with a knife…his butt transformed into a phallic appendage that couldn’t be more demeaning — even draped with what appears to be red-hued excrement!

“Don’t mess with Dali!,” the artistic statement here seems, or you might have to deal with his surrealism! “A hero,” Dali once wrote, “is the man who revolts against paternal authority and conquers it!”

As a Dali expert, I’m often asked what my favorite Dali print, drawing, painting or other Dali work is. And people ask with the same eagerness which work I consider his most bizarre or peculiar. They even wonder which Dali picture, if any, I actually don’t especially like.

For now, I’ll answer one of those questions: “The Enigma of William Tell” is, in my view, the most outrageous Dali painting of them all. At the same time, it serves as a kind of open book to what the young artist was thinking and feeling at a most challenging time in his legendary life.


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