Dali’s Triple Double-Image; Did it Symbolize His Fear of Death?
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Here’s another attempt to infiltrate the unparalleled mind of Salvador Dali – a task that’s both daunting and delicious! In the smorgasbord of Dali’s prolific career, there’s something for everyone’s tastes.
Enough of the food metaphor – let’s eat!
Today I’m going to riff about a dandy little oil on canvas of 1940: “Old Age, Adolescence, and Infancy,” which is one of the great canvases in the permanent collection of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.
This beautifully painted picture is a kind of triple-double image, showcasing Dali’s career-long fascination with optical illusion, hidden imagery and double-imagery. Moving from left to right, we see “old age” expressed by a woman with her head bowed, while her head doubles as the eye of an old man whose head is the space cut through the curved brick wall. Features of the woman’s garments form the man’s lips, mustache and chin.
To the right of the old man is “adolescence,” the more youthful face formed by Dali’s seated nurse – her head and back forming the face’s nose and lips, respectively. Distant houses amidst the grassy background hills become the eyes. Dali once again depicts himself as a youth in his popular sailor suit, just as he was dressed in images of himself in “Specter of Sex Appeal” and “The Hallucinogenic Toreador.”
Finally, at right, “infancy,” formed by negative space and a seated woman whose head and waist serve simultaneously as the baby’s nose and mouth, respectively.
But there’s more to “Old Age, Adolescence, and Infancy” than impressive double-imagery. The work was painted at a time when Dali was essentially departing the surrealism of which he was the kingpin to embrace a more classical orientation in his art. Vestiges of surrealist/Freudian sensibility remain in the present work, including a key in the “old age” part of the painting; a man holding his head in either anguish or deep thought; and a piece of bread in the foreground. At the same time, the overall tableau seems to foretell a more classical style that was soon to be emblematic of a new period in Dali’s art.
However, it’s my theory that what Salvador Dali was perhaps representing in this painting was his denial of his own mortality. How so? Well, the logical sequence would be to show the stages of life left to right: infancy, adolescence, and eventual old age.
Instead – in typical Dali fashion – he does a 180, as if to say that he would prefer to move toward increasing youth instead of increasing age! We know Dali felt that death was one of life’s “tragedies,” as he put it, with which mankind had to deal. And I know from personal experience that Dali liked to surround himself with younger people because it made him feel younger.
In the catalog of the many Dali paintings that feature his penchant for and prowess in double-imagery, “Old Age, Adolescence, and Infancy” is among the very best – and a very popular work among Dali Museum visitors.