Dali’s ‘Skull of Zurbaran’ Just Might be Perfect!


By Paul Chimera

Dali Writer & Historian


Ever notice how certain Salvador Dali works just give you a good feeling? I suppose it’s usually when the work is “pretty,” like “Meditative Rose.” Or amusing, like “Celestial Ride” – both discussed in earlier posts here.


For reasons largely unexplainable, I’m compulsively drawn to Dali’s 1956 “Skull of Zurbaran,” in the collection of the Hirschhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. I’ve seen it at the Hirschhorn several times. The work somehow gives me that good feeling! Why is that?


I believe a leading reason is that it’s perfect. It’s one of the few perfectly square canvases by Dali, 39 ½ inches. The execution of the wonderful detail in this painting is, well, perfect. It combines pleasing shapes of arches and cubes. And its colorization and luminosity remind us that Salvador Dali was a true master, possessed of technical skill on par with the masters of the Renaissance. Maybe better. Maybe perfect.


Indeed, Dali was influenced by the masters in two key ways: he learned from and emulated their traditional painting techniques; and he often paid direct homage to certain of his favorite precursors. Such is the case in the present masterpiece, as Dali nods to the 17th century Spanish master Francisco de Zurbaran, who frequently depicted hooded figures holding human skulls.

Painting by Zurbaran

Painting by Zurbaran

Isn’t it interesting that Dali made a consistent effort to keep the great traditions of painting alive by paying tribute to those who came before him and helped make possible his own greatness at the easel. All while still making everything he did very much his own – often melding these classical traditions with contemporary thought and discovery.


There can be little doubt that the Zurbaran room in the museum of Cadiz, Spain, inspired Dali’s basic composition in “Skull of Zurbaran” – specifically the arched-shaped painting and the checkered floor seen in the picture below:

Zurbaran room in museum in Cadiz, Spain, which inspired Dali's modern masterpiece

Zurbaran room in museum in Cadiz, Spain, which inspired Dali’s modern masterpiece

In “Skull of Zurbaran,” Dali demonstrated his never-ending passion for optical illusion, as witnessed by the cubes that form both the image of a skull and the floor on which six monks stand bowed in prayer. Depending on how your eyes see them at any given moment in time, they appear either convex or concave. Study them long enough and they’ll toggle back and forth (focus on the dark surface of each) between those two illusions.


The monks are painted with stunning precision, doubling as the teeth of the skull, whose naval cavity is created by the ribbed archway in the very center of the picture.


Two “reminders” seem to be woven into the fabric of this great painting, as well. One is that the cubes are reminiscent of one of the greatest paintings ever by Salvador Dali, executed two years earlier: “Corpus Hypercubus.” The other is the bowed figures again, who – for me, anyway – remind me of Dali’s monumental and much larger masterpiece, “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.”


How fortunate for our nation’s capital that both great canvases are located there – “The Sacrament of the Last Supper” hanging in the nearby National Gallery of Art.


In contemplating “Skull of Zurbaran,” we’re also reminded that Dali had a kind of obsession with how people’s craniums reminded him of other objects. In this case, the skull of Zurbaran. In Dali’s sketches of Sigmund Freud, he likened its shape to that of a snail’s shell! And when he observed the head of Sir James Dunn of Canada, and later painted a glorious portrait of him, he had proclaimed that he must surely have descended from Augustus Caesar, due to the morphology of his cranium!


Was there ever a more colorful artist-genius than Salvador Dali? I don’t think so.



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