Salvador Dali’s ‘White Calm’ an Early Gem of Realism
By Paul Chimera
I’m not sure you can point to any other major artist whose catalog was as diverse and, at times, as unpredictable as that of Salvador Dali’s. The man famous – and infamous – for transcribing nightmarish images to canvas was the same man who captured some of the most placid, more conventional, and certainly astonishingly beautiful scenes with his eclectic imagination and steady hand.
One painting Dali created, at age 32, that illustrates this fact is his “White Calm” (1936). Could this be the single most realistic Dali painting ever? OK, if that’s too strong a proposition, how about the most realistic of the decade of the 1930s – the decade most art critics contend was Dali’s most fertile and imaginative? The decade that was the heyday of surrealism, Dali style?
The fact is that, while Dali’s creative juices at this time were spilling over into surrealist creations like his iconic “Lobster Telephone,” he was simultaneously moved to depict images like that of “White Calm.” The inspiration? One of the most important of all influences in Dali’s life: the landscape of his Spanish countryside in Cadaques and Port Lligat, which he saw every day (except when wintering in New York) and from which he drew endless inspiration.
“White Calm” is one of the few paintings by Salvador Dali that’s rigorously devoid of the surrealist props that so typically populated his paintings: no soft watches, rhino horns, or swarming ants in sight. Instead, he shows us wonderfully silhouetted figures as the calm of dusk settles upon the Bay of Port Lligat. The characters, including a tiny figure in the boat seen near the rocky terrain at right, seem strikingly lifelike, their bodies gently reflected in the tranquility, the calm of this restful scene. It has a kind of post-card look to it, but that is not meant as a negative observation; rather, it underscores the photographic realism Dali achieved here.
The man with hat and pitchfork is probably an allusion to Dali’s lifelong obsession with the two figures in Jean Francois Millet’s painting, “The Angelus.” The foreground of “White Calm” reveals the remains of a storage jar known as an amphora, which, according to authors Elizabeth Keevil and Kevin Eyres, “alludes to the many Greco-Roman remains discovered on the coastal plain of Catalunya, notably at Ampurias, just south of Cadaques.”
Is there nevertheless a surrealist irony here?
But what also strikes me about “White Calm” is that its apparent lack of a surrealistic style might actually make it surrealistic! What I’m saying is that there is undoubtedly something dreamlike about this picture. The sky and the sea seem almost one in the same. And Dali creates ambivalence with the two most prominent figures: the female bather, certainly expected in such a scene, but then the mysterious man, fully dressed, with pitchfork, posed on a rock that itself appears oddly close to shore. In a dream, he makes perfect sense!
One might almost think that the “calm” of this Dali painting is about to explode with something unexpected, perhaps a double-image to be found in the craggy terrain. It would not be out of character for someone as unpredictable as Dali!