How the Tall Sunflower Influenced Two Giants of Dali’s Art
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Shades of summer are fast descending. Reminding us that fall is about to ascend, and many of the things we associate with summer will be absent from our view as the change of seasons inexorably unfolds. It reminds me of a glorious emblem of summer while a sliver of the season’s light and warmth still remains: the remarkable sunflower.
Of course, to the Dalinian mind, the mention of sunflowers recalls two magnificent Salvador Dali paintings in which the rivulets of the sunflower are prominently featured: “The Virgin of Guadalupe” and “Ascension of Christ” (alternatively known as simply “Ascension”).
A woman in Sanborn, N.Y., north of Buffalo, this summer opened up her private property for passers-by to stroll through her endless expanse of the tall, feel-good annuals. I of course immediately envisioned the aforementioned paintings by Salvador Dali. Like the sunflower itself, both paintings are stunning in their beauty and in their power to evoke feelings of joy.
In 1959, Dali completed “The Virgin of Guadalupe,” paying homage to the story of how a man encountered the Virgin Mary – Mexico’s patron saint – in Mexico City on December 9 and 12, 1531. The woman he encountered was said to be surrounded by a ball of light, whose brightness rivaled the sun itself.
In a stunning display of both beauty and brains, Dali chose to put the figures of the Madonna and Child behind a triumphant sun-like halo that is, in fact, the face of a sunflower. Dali was focused at this period in his career on classic principles of mathematics and science. He was enamored – more accurately, obsessed – with places in nature where one finds examples of the logarithmic curve or spiral. Most notably for Dali was the horn of the rhinoceros. But he also pointed out how the unique logarithmic curve occurs naturally in the morphology of the small rivulets of the sunflower.
Their precise, orderly arrangement accords with the exacting nature of “Virgin of Guadalupe.” It is about as perfect as a Dali masterpiece gets, from the glittering gemstone crucifix seen in a crown upon the Virgin’s head (who’s depicted with Gala’s face), to the so-real-looking-you-can-practically-smell-them roses encircling her dynamic presence.
And then we come to “Ascension of Christ” (1958), where the large glowing sphere may be seen in a multitude of ways: as a sea urchin shell; as a splitting human cell; as an atom’s nucleus; and of course as the rivulets of a sunflower.
Given the various symbolic interpretations ascribed to the remarkable sunflower – a symbol of energy, fertility, faith, longevity, nourishment, spiritual knowing and more – it seems fitting that Salvador Dali would incorporate this distinctive flower into some of the most important religious paintings of his career.