Dali’s ‘Slave Market…’ the Epitome of Double-Imagery
By Paul Chimera
“Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire” defines Salvador Dali for me: an imaginative artist with exceptional technical gifts and an extraordinary capacity for seeing what mere mortals could not!
As a Dali expert and great admirer of the artist, I’ve long considered “Slave Market” emblematic of everything that was Dali – most especially when we consider that he was one of history’s best at achieving the visual illusion of “double-imagery.”
Dali used a popular bust of the French writer, Voltaire, sculpted by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1778. As a skeptical 18th century French philosopher, Voltaire’s writing were read with interest by Dali when he was a young man, and the historical figure’s thoughts appealed to Salvador.
But in some sense Voltaire, at least in art circles, may be best remembered for being an integral part of what was one of the most successful and remarkable examples of double-imagery – so much so that it was used by the prestigious Scientific American magazine to illustrate the perceptual switching effect, where either one image can be seen, or another, but not both simultaneously.
Focus on the central image, on which the bare-breasted turbaned woman at left is gazing: do you see two Dutch women in black and white robes, standing shoulder to shoulder? Or do you see the face of an old man — Voltaire? The space under the stone arch is Voltaire’s head/forehead; the women’s faces serve as his eyes; the white collar area of the woman on the left becomes Voltaire’s nose; and the lower portion of their attire become his chin and neck.
Do you see?
I’ve watched Dali Museum visitors literally exclaim with delight when – “Yes!” – they discovered the hidden women from the bust of Voltaire they first saw; or discovered Voltaire suddenly morphing out of the two women they’d noticed first! You cannot see both at the same time – and this visual phenomenon formed the basis of the Scientific American article of which Dali’s masterful work became an illustration.
Dali compared the perception of these double images with camouflage. In his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, published a year after this painting was finished, he wrote, “The invisible image of Voltaire may be compared in every respect to the mimesis of the leaf-insect rendered invisible by the resemblance and the confusion established between the Figure and the Background.”
A Second Double-Image . . .
There’s a second double-image in this 1940 canvas, albeit less important and less dramatic. But it serves to carry on Dali’s intentional “Dalinian Continuity,” where he linked in some way many of his paintings to some of his other works. At right is a pedestal-style dish in which we see two pieces of fruit. But the round fruit is also the ample backside of the woman in the background! The pear, meanwhile, becomes part of the mountain range. This same construction was found two years earlier in Dali’s “Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image” (see my earlier post about this work). And Dali’s famous double-image Voltaire appeared in the middle distance in Dali’s “Resurrection of the Flesh” (1945; see below) and as a detail on the red skirt of one of the Venus de Milo’s in “The Hallucinogenic Toreador” of 1970.
“Resurrection of the Flesh”