‘Maximum Speed of Raphael’s Madonna’ is Maximum Dali!
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
One of the loveliest paintings from Salvador Dali’s vast catalog – combining Surrealism, Nuclear-Mysticism, Renaissance influences, and sheer beauty – is his “The Maximum Speed of Raphael’s Madonna” of 1954.
It strikes me that anyone who sort of wants it all in art is always well-served to enter the house of Dali, where virtually any style awaits you. In “Maximum Speed,” Dali has taken a classic portrait of the Madonna, inspired by the Italian Renaissance master, Raphael – whom Dali deeply admired – and reimagined her gracious figure through the lens of the new atomic age.
Dali’s fascination with revelations in nuclear physics and discoveries about intra-atomic matter moved him from pure surrealism to a new way of viewing and portraying the world around him. The Madonna figure is thus masterfully composed of atoms zipping about, with her main facial features formed by rhinoceros horns. The latter symbolized Dali’s reverence for traditional mathematical principles to which his art held rigorously, including the Golden Section that informed spatial proportion.
In the case of the rhino horn shape, Dali was intrigued – make that obsessed – by how the animal’s appendage is one of the few instances in nature where the perfect logarithmic curve or spiral can be found.
The haloed figure appears to be wearing a turban. Astute Dali aficionados might discern in this atomic portrait a resemblance to another female who played a pretty darn important role in Dali’s life: his Russian wife and muse, Gala. Compare the image in “Maximum Speed” to the turbaned image of Gala on the right side of two great paintings from the 1930s: “The Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image” and “The Endless Enigma.”
While we’re doing some comparison, note how the collar area of the Madonna’s garment echoes (though not exactly) the patterns seen in both “Portrait of Gala with Rhinocerotic Symptoms” and “Galatee.” This is another example of what we know as Dalinian Continuity, where the artist intentionally linked his oeuvre by repeating certain elements in his pictures.
Dali did a host of paintings that incorporated atomic-like spheres, often serving to achieve the illusion of great depth. A similar treatment of a woman’s face composed of both rhino horns and colorful spheres is found in “Dali Nude in Contemplation before the Five Regular Bodies Metamorphized into Corpuscles, in which Suddenly Appear the Leda of Leonardo Chromosomatized by the Visage of Gala,” painted the same year as the present work.
Dali’s color palette in “The Maximum Speech of Raphael’s Madonna” is truly stunning, and, like any work by this great colorist, it’s far more breathtaking when viewed in person – an opportunity I got when this mesmerizing canvas was shown in the “Dali: The Late Work” exhibition in 2010-’11 at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, curated by my friend and fellow Dali specialist, Dr. Elliott King.