Photo Realism Informs Dali’s Portrait of His Wife
By Paul Chimera
Dali Writer & Historian
Salvador Dali described his technique as “hand-painted color photography.” It may be difficult to find a Dali painting that fits that description better than “Portrait of Gala With Rhinocerotic Attributes” of 1954.
The work, in the Teatru-Museu Dali in Figueres, Spain, depicts a 60-year-old Gala in such a photographic fashion that we can be certain he worked from a photograph of his wife, muse and leading model. This portrayal has always confounded me some, because it is in fact so precise and realistic that I once wondered whether it was a painting of her – or an actual photo collaged with the surrounding oil paint!
Of course, the entire work is in oil, and if nothing else it demonstrates how Dali had the technical skill to paint like a classical Velasquez – or a modern-day Norman Rockwell.
The fifty-year-old Dali was very much steeped in his keen interest in science – nuclear physics in particular – and his output included a host of pictures that employed rhinoceros horns. The idea was to illustrate how, in particle physics, individual atoms do not touch; there is space among these sub-atomic particles – leading to Dali’s amusingly colorful description of things “rumping and jumping about!”
This recently discovered phenomenon, at the time, positively fascinated Dali, who was always interested in science and endeavored to assimilate new discoveries with classical proclivities. Thus, in “Portrait of Gala With Rhinocerotic Attributes,” he gives us a very classical-looking portrait while transforming her neck and upper chest area into a riot of intra-atomic, rhino horn-shaped matter. Some of the coastal terrain is similarly treated in this Nuclear-Mystical approach.
Of course, the choice of a rhino horn was hardly arbitrary. The horn of a rhinoceros is one of the few occurrences in nature of a natural logarithmic spiral – a mathematical principle Dali found to be essential in developing his compositions along rigorous mathematical lines.
Speaking of lines, the gold-colored lines and shapes on the red collar of Gala’s attire adds a bold and curious element to this Dali canvas. It lends a kind of clerical vestment tone to the image, in my view, and recalls – at least to my eye – the mathematical pattern seen on the table cloth in Dali’s “Nature Morte Vivante,” painted two years after this portrait
What I personally have always especially enjoyed in Dali’s art is when he melded his famously sharp, exacting realism with a looser, more abstract technique. In the present work, clearly the painting below Gala’s face is a more free-form presentation – open, spatial, ethereal – while her portrait itself is painted to an almost extreme level of tight realism.
Consequently, this work should, in theory, please both those who appreciate razor-sharp realism as well as those who lean toward works of a more painterly nature.