Salvador Dali: Adapter Extraordinaire!


By Paul Chimera

Salvador Dali Historian


To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To Salvador Dali, everything was a potential canvas. He was known to even paint pictures on paper coffee cup covers!


Some of Dali’s best work was when he adopted the role of adaptor or modifier, taking existing images and executing changes to them that were imaginatively transformative. There are practically countless examples of this creative approach. Let’s look at a few of them.


One of the most delightful works in this genre is The Sheep. Dali ingeniously transformed Karl Schenk’s wintry outdoor scene into a cozy yet stylish parlor. The work is in the Dali Museum in St. Pete, Florida.




In 1941, Dali – who disdained mechanical things – refurbished two cars – in Clothed Automobile (Two Cadillacs) – by dressing them up – literally!




Two years earlier, he took a print of a sweet-looking child and modified it for shock value in a most undignified manner by putting a bloody rat in the child’s mouth, and naming it Freud’s Perverse Polymorph (Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat).




No less twisted a stroke of surrealism was Dali’s 1977 adaptation of a nude by Bouguereau, giving her cherry-tipped male genitalia and converting her breasts and abdomen into open drawers.




Three-dimensional media were not to be left out of Dali’s modifying mode. In 1974, he executed a paranoiac-critical metamorphosis of Charles Schreyvogel’s 1899 bust of White Eagle, chief of the Pawnee Indians. The eyes were thus transformed into Renaissance-like figures, while the lips doubled as a basket of fruit.


Dali’s Debris Christ has become iconic. It is an assemblage of old boat, stones, roof tiles, branches and other found materials – stretched out in an olive grove at Port Lligat in 1969.


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Of course, no discussion of Dali’s adaptive technique would be complete without looking at his famous African hut conversion, Paranoiac Visage – Postcard Transformed, in which he took a postcard, gave it a quarter turn, and discerned the face we see here. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Ship – Costume for Tristan Insane of 1943-’43 – a marvelous example of Dali at his retouching best.


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Two lesser known examples of Dali the modifier are found in a series of cats that Dali cleverly turned into the standing figure of a woman; and in a body of water that the artist used to create the illusion of a woman’s flowing gown. Likewise, ladies’ stockings were turned into a Pegasus-like horse in one of the series of brilliant ads Dali created for Bryan Hosiery.

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And there are so many additional examples of Dali the modifier: Baby Map of the World, a host of magazine cover conversions (such as the Antigues issue seen here) – the list is at least as long as Dali’s mustache!


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With America’s Independence Day not far off, perhaps it’s fitting to close with Dali’s simple yet truly victorious modification of the iconic State of Liberty – now standing in Cadaques, Spain, with both arms proudly held high in victory.



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