Dali’s Unusual, Ingenious ‘Atomic Still Life’
By Paul Chimera
Dali Writer & Historian
I have a feeling Dali art aficionados are not ambivalent about his 1947 oil on canvas, “Intra-atomic Equilibrium of a Swan’s Father” (often shortened to simply “Feather Equilibrium”). They either really admire the work, or find it flat and somehow lacking in emotional impact.
Your humble blogger has always been intrigued by this unique Dali painting and I definitely fall on the side of those who admire it. Let me examine it some, in the hopes you’ll gain a bit more insight into this admittedly different Dali.
I often talk in this space about the “Dali difference.” How the master of surrealism always managed to put a special twist on whatever project he took on. That certainly applies in “Feather Equilibrium,” as we find a mélange of objects floating in space, against a first-draft background with construction lines still visible.
Once again, Dali has linked a classical aura with a then-contemporary vibe in this most unusual “atomic still life.” The painstaking precision with which he painted the watermelon, sculpture-like hand, swan’s head and feather, ink well, bird leg with string around it, partly peeled potato, and several other elements exude an almost Renaissance-like sensibility. Especially given the mathematical underpinnings Dali employed to ensure that the disparate objects nevertheless “hang together” in a harmonious way.
At the same time, Dali was expressing the scene through the lens of modern science – specifically his fascination with current discoveries in nuclear physics, which found that there’s actually space between the atoms of which matter is made. Dali conveys the phenomenon by depicting everything floating and touching nothing, albeit the white cloth does seem to rest upon the sand-colored shelf, into which “Feather Equilibrium” is partially chiseled in ancient Roman style.
Interestingly, some of the floating objects relate to others, such as the swan’s head, the feather, and the bird leg. Two potatoes are seen (the smaller one unpeeled), and the hand appears to be that of a statue’s rather than a human’s. In Dali’s surrealist iconography, the ink well and pen were well-known symbols of the female and male sex, respectively, while one critic noted that the empty snail shell suggests the impermanence of life.
I imagine Salvador Dali had three key things in mind when he painted this unusual and magnificent painting. He wanted to continue his near-obsession with current discoveries in particle theory. He wanted to demonstrate his exceptional technical skill as a realist painter whose capabilities rivaled the Old Masters.
And, finally, he wanted to be….different! Although devoid of melting watches, burning giraffes, crawling ants and flitting flies, “Intra-atomic Equilibrium of a Swan’s Father” is unmistakably Dalinian. I think it is a stunning work.