‘Sleep’ Among Salvador Dali’s Best-Known Works
By Paul Chimera
Dali Writer & Historian
“Sleep” is one of the best-known surrealist paintings by Salvador Dali; practically every book featuring representative examples of Dali’s art includes this painting from 1937.
People seem to love it – perhaps because of its relative simplicity, while at the same time due to its bizarre expression of the phenomenon of sleep.
The huge balloon-like head stretched across the width of the canvas – the heavy form held up by a handful of fragile crutches – recalls the famous “great masturbator” head form seen in countless Dali paintings of this period. That strange head originated out of a now-famous rock at Cape Creus in Spain, which Dali had long imagined to be an anguished human head with its long nose pressed to the ground.
In “Sleep,” however, Dali includes lips (not seen in the other “great masturbator” images) as well as a strangely placed cloth where we might expect an ear to be.
Crutches were a ubiquitous symbolic element in Dali’s surrealism, and their meaning has been variously explained. In the present Dali painting, we might infer that sleep itself is a fragile state, easily disturbed (on undone altogether) sometimes by the slightest action – in this case by even one of those precarious crutches falling away.
Crutches have also been explained – by Dali himself in his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali – as fixtures that are needed to prop up a decadent society. And yet, there seems little doubt that they also came to connote Dali’s oft-referred to and alleged impotence – often seen holding upright otherwise phallic, floppy forms.
Could “Sleep” – painted during the Spanish Civil War – also be a statement about the precariousness of his native Spain, whose future was held in the balance?
Sleep, of course, was a kind of gateway to the subconscious, whose mysteries and discoveries really underpinned the whole notion of Surrealism as an art movement. Dali spoke frequently about how that period just before one falls asleep was fertile territory for him, from which he mined many of his remarkably imaginative ideas and images.
Dali once said somewhat flippantly to an American television host that he spent most of his time in Spain painting, after spending most of his time in New York sleeping! There was some truth to his humorous comment, because many of Dali’s ideas were nurtured in the States and then brought to life on canvas only after he and Gala returned to Port Lligat after wintering in the United States.
“Sleep” is bathed in a kind of gauzy blue and white, creating a misty, dream-like background, barren save for a small hillside city, a boat, and a dog who itself is supported by a crutch. A small human figure also appears near the animal.
But of course the focus in on the head, a rather monstrous, anguished one – and some might conclude that the monster-like look suggests that our dreams are often not very tidy or pleasant experiences. As the BBC’s Russel Hardy remarked in the narration of the 1975 film documentary, “Hello, Dali”: “God alone knows what this man dreams about!”