Dali’s ‘Telephone’ Paintings Expressed his Fear of War

1939 04 Telephone in a Dish With Three Grilled Sardines at the End of September, 1939

By Paul Chimera

Salvador Dali Historian


A European friend of mine who’s almost obsessive about posting photographs on Facebook that pertain to Cadaques, Spain, recently posted this photo of a plate of grilled sardines.



While anything served to me with a face turns my stomach, the fish in a dish immediately called to mind a Salvador Dali painting: “Telephone in a Dish with Three Grilled Sardines at the End of September” (1939, The Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida).

1939 04 Telephone in a Dish With Three Grilled Sardines at the End of September, 1939


It reminded me that, while much of Dali’s work was inspired by his imaginary visions – usually the result of mining his lively dream world – a great deal of his work was also pinned to what he actually saw. Everyday stuff. Whether it be some grandiose architectural marvel by Gaudi, or something as trivial and common as a plate of sardines.


In “Telephone in a Dish with Three Grilled Sardines…,” Dali again turns our expectation of reality on its ear. The juxtaposition of grilled sardines with, in effect, a “grilled telephone,” is virtually the very pictorial definition of surrealism. The initial visual impact is – you’ll pardon the expression – one of shock and awe. We simply don’t expect to be served up such a strange and unlikely pairing of objects.


But, contrary to what some believe – that Dali’s works were largely random, inscrutable dream images that had no particular meaning – the fact is that Dali was making statements through most of his surrealist pictures.


He did a series of canvases around this time in which a telephone receiver appeared – a symbol of the attempted but ill-fated telephone conversations between Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain and Adolf Hitler.


I like the way author Robert S. Lubar put it: “Chamberlain’s phone calls to the German leader resulted in the ill-fated Munich Agreement of September 1938, which was annulled when Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on September 1, 1939. The signs of decay and failed hopes are patently visible in the form of the sardines and the pathetic receiver, which has been ‘cut off’ from the body of the telephone box.”


Lubar happens to contend that the black “boulder” appearing in the background of “Telephone in a Dish…” – first seen in “Enchanted Beach with Three Fluid Graces” (also in the Florida Dali Museum) – reappears as a black silhouette in the “Telephone…” painting.


But to my eye, this black space seems more like a cave than a boulder.

Enchanted-Beach-with-Three-Fluid-Graces 0476

No matter.


The real point is the overall mood the picture evokes. It’s unquestionably one of melancholy and dread – an expression of Salvador Dali’s preoccupation with the threat of world war.


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