‘First Days of Spring’ one of Dali’s Great Early Surrealist Gems!
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Salvador Dali’s “First Days of Spring,” painted when he was 25, seems to be “seasonally correct” (as opposed to politically correct) as we enjoy spring while on the cusp of the first days of of summer. It’s one of the rare Dali paintings that does NOT feature the mountains, cypress trees and rock formations from his beloved Spanish countryside, which populated so many of Dali’s works.
Instead, “First Days of Spring” (collection Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA) is more of a dreamscape than a landscape or seascape, where objects, events, and space and time are distorted, if not completely upended.
I saw this important, early example of Dalinian surrealism many times when I was publicity director of the Salvador Dali Museum, back in the day when the renowned Morse Collection was displayed (in part) in a one-room provisional museum in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. What always struck me about the work were two key things, and we’ll take a brief look at both here.
One is the vast empty space of this curious composition, whose title defies explanation, at least for me. As I noted earlier, the picture is devoid of the Spanish countryside that more typically appeared in so many Dali paintings from this period and especially the decade of the 1930s. Instead, we’re presented with a kind of vast open stage, with the illusion of a deep distance, thanks to the steps that extend to the horizon line and two far-off figures.
My other key observation is Dali’s clever and confounding use of collage in this work – namely the ship’s deck behind the two strange figures at lower left, and the black & white photo of Dali as a baby, positioned on the steps just below center.
What’s a bit confounding about this approach is that, because of Dali’s sharp and exacting technique, it’s difficult to be sure which aspects of the painting are collage and which are painted. Sometimes the collage looks painted, sometimes the painted looks like collage! Because Salvador Dali was capable of painting a portrait of himself as a baby with exceptional realism, it all gets us to wondering what is “real” and what is not.
Of course, the bigger picture here is what Dali might have been trying to convey in this important surrealist canvas, which appeared in his first one-man European show. Clearly the work is punctuated with Freudian symbols and psychoanalytic themes.
I noted the collage photo of a young Dali, and that autobiographical nature of the painting continues with the well-known Great Masturbator head (a different kind of Dalinian self-portrait), on whose face a dreaded grasshopper (a genuine fear of Dali’s) clings.
A read of Sigmund Freud’s seminal book, “Interpretation of Dreams,” reveals that stairs are a symbolic representation of sexual intercourse (stairs take you higher…higher…closer…), while a fish has been seen in several Dali paintings and drawings to be a phallic symbol.
Throughout “The First Days of Spring” we find other sexual references – vaginal orifices, suggestions of homosexuality, as well as themes of aggression, isolation and other disquieting associations that make this painting one of the quintessential examples of surrealism – Salvador Dali style.