‘Imperial Monument to the Child-Woman’ is Quintessential Surrealism!
By Paul Chimera
It may be hard to find a more quintessentially Surrealist Dali painting than the important and beautifully painted picture, “Imperial Monument to the Child-Woman” of 1930.
The 27-year-old Dali had only recently met Gala, fast becoming the love (and obsession) of his life and, for all intents and purposes, his primary reason for living! That’s how taken he was by the Russian woman, 10 years his senior, who would become his wife, muse and leading model, as well as his life-long business partner.
“Imperial Monument to the Child-Woman” is something of an altar in tribute to this woman, redolent of not only her impact on his young and impressionable life, but also of the amalgam of feelings, obsessions, preoccupations and fantasies running through that creative mind of his – a mind none other than Picasso once described as “an outboard motor continuously running.”
The large canvas features a host of images symbolic of experiences and feelings that informed Dali’s real and imagined life. His seething sexuality, aided and abetted by his burgeoning love for Gala, is represented by the phallic cypress trees – common fixtures in his Spanish countryside – and the structure in the lower right distance, whose vaginal-like orifices yield keys and ants and other details Freud proclaimed symbolically sexual in his seminal book, “Interpretation of Dreams,” which Dali read passionately.
Gala’s image appears in the work, along with a centrally positioned nude woman with a shapely behind and, below that, a woman with her left breast bared and a look on her face that suggests sexual ecstasy.
Classical images – those of Napoleon, a childhood hero of Dali’s; and Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” – appear in this elongated, phallic rock-like formation that surely derives, as did so much of Dali’s work, from the landscape of his native Spanish countryside.
Meanwhile, the angst that Dali was experiencing at this time – a stew whose ingredients included his newfound love and his unfolding family estrangement – is symbolized by the monster-like lion figures in the upper right, and the anguished human figures at the pinnacle of the structure, suggesting shame, confusion and anxiety.
Other familiar Dalinian elements populate this remarkable masterwork of Surrealism and a kind of stream of consciousness dreamscape: the popular rock of Cape Creus in Cadaques, whose human head-like form inspired Dali’s “The Great Masturbator” and other key surrealist works; the peasant male and female figures from the iconic painting, “The Angelus” by the French painter, Millet – a work with which Dali would be obsessed all his life; architectural ruins; and an art nouveau styling on the lower right of the main structure, which would make sense given that 1930 was when Dali began traveling to Paris as he gained greater affinity with the epicenter of the surrealist movement. (I don’t usually write such long sentences!).
Phallic and phenomenal, “Imperial Monument to the Child-Woman” is arguably among the most important of Salvador Dali’s surrealist paintings of the 1930s. I saw it for the first time in the Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 2005 and couldn’t take my eyes off of it!