‘Swans Reflecting Elephants’ Exudes Dali’s ‘Soft, Sinewy’ Technique
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Many of Salvador Dali’s painting titles are convoluted, confusing and seemingly designed for consternation. But not “Swans Reflecting Elephants.” This one tells us exactly what we’re seeing.
Salvador Dali simply loved double-imagery, hidden imagery, and other forms of optical illusion. That was probably because he had a special affinity for the phenomenon of paranoia, in which those afflicted with the disorder often times believe they see things that aren’t there. Indeed, Dali invented and applied his famous “Paranoiac-Critical Method,” a method of interpreting delirium and harnessing it in order to take paranoid-like images and present them (“critically”) to the rest of the world via his paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, etc.
In the 1937 “Swans Reflecting Elephants,” Dali depicts swans on a tranquil, iridescent lake, whose reflections look simultaneously like their form and that of elephants. And elephants as we’ve come to know them in the real world, as opposed to the ones we’ve come to expect – usually – in Dali’s world: on impossibly tall stork-like legs.
While there seems to be relative calm and simplicity in this double-image canvas, there nevertheless are several elements that remind us we’re dealing with the kingpin of surrealism.
Perhaps most notable is the man standing casually in the left background, oblivious to anything else in the scene. Some say it’s meant to be Edward F.W. James, the English writer and a key Dali patron. Some say it’s Marcel Duchamp. One British friend of mine, who’s an ardent Dali aficionado and collector, claims that, whomever the man is, he’s “taking a pee!” (I don’t see it that way, but then I’m not British.)
To his right, merged with the first sinewy tree trunk we come to, appears to be a female figure, while to the extreme right, there are fires burning in the hills. Why? What was Dali thinking and conveying? Perhaps it’s no coincidence that “Dali” rhymes with “mystery.”
Speaking of which, what is that curious figure in the left foreground? Is it a squid? Octopus? Some other tentacled sea creature?
One thing we can say with certainty about “Swans Reflecting Elephants” is that its painting style is quintessential Dali: precise and exacting, with a kind of soft feeling to it, as if he were using butter instead of paint. The smooth, silky texture and overall soft sense of the work reminds us of how masterful a painter Salvador Dali was.
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I’ve spoken many times in my blogging about the notion of “Dalinian Continuity,” where Dali carries over certain elements from one painting to the next, in an effort to sort of link them within a common thread. One could certainly make that case here, since elephants have appeared in numerous Dali paintings and works in other mediums, as well as the swan – appearing most notably in Dali’s “Leda and the Swan” and “Bacchanal.”