‘Little Ashes’ a Quintessential Dali Dream Snapshot
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
“Little Ashes” of 1928 (also known as “Little Cinders”) is pure surrealism as Salvador Dali defined it best. The surrealists were determined to explore the subconscious world, the dream world – and here Dali has opened a window for us onto a moment in the endless film reel of his secret – yet public – life.
It has been suggested that the sleeping head at left represents Dali in a dream state. That may be. True or not, the work in its aggregate is a dream snapshot – or should we make that nightmare? The admixture of elements is dominated by disquieting images: several dismembered human torsos, including the predominant form that seems part-human and part, well, something else; its derivation is enigmatic, unclear, and a bit grotesque.
Hair-thin ashes (or cilia?) swarm around the edges of part of the strange form’s contours, as it seems to balance on a single undefined appendage. Several amorphous bird figures seem to be integrated into its fleshy form. This dominant presence may recall the large figures that dominate the space in such other, later iconic Dali pictures as “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans,” “Sleep,” and “The Great Masturbator.”
Meanwhile, a cavalcade of disparate objects swirl about the composition, bringing to mind certain of the works of Joan Miro and Yves Tanguy, and perhaps even quoting – consciously or otherwise – the great Spanish surrealist precursor, Hieronymus Bosch. Some might see a bit of Marc Chagall here, too.
Rotten donkeys, pools of blood, headless torsos, floating arms and breasts, geometrical assemblages, a thumb whizzing through space, a triangle with noted coordinates out of a mathematics book – it all swirls through a dream-like space that defies logic.
And that may be the very definition of surrealism: illogical juxtapositions of elements that go beyond the normal, real, conscious realm. That, indeed, probes that Freudian world of the subconscious, where delirious phenomena become the order of the day.
When people ask what surrealism “means” – especially what a surrealist painting by Dali means – the answer might best be addressed with another question: What do your dreams mean? The answer, usually, is “I don’t know.” Indeed, Salvador Dali often reminded us that he himself didn’t necessarily understand the images that sprang up in his paintings.
How many of our dreams are neat, orderly, sensible? Few, if any. Have you noticed how insanely crazy, incomprehensible, and seemingly senseless most of our dreams are – the ones we remember, that is? Imagine if you had the capability of transcribing those nocturnal visions to canvas – what would they reveal? Chances are they would be bizarre.
In some ways, “Little Ashes” is a quintessential example of Dalinian surrealism in its purest form: dreamlike, painstakingly executed, and irresistibly strange.
Footnote: It’s interesting that a feature film was made in 2008 of the same title, “Little Ashes,” a Spanish-British drama about Dali’s early life, starring Robert Pattinson.