Think Sex: Dali’s ‘Morning Ossification of the Cypress’
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
There’s something quintessentially surrealist – and perhaps quintessentially Dalinian – about “Morning Ossification of the Cypress,” which a 30-year-old Salvador Dali painted in 1934. Ironically, the work is at once both strange and a bit eerie, yet also rather peaceful, devoid of a lot of elemental details that sometimes crowd confined spaces in Dali’s pictures.
At first blush, the painting certainly has a dream-like quality to it. An uneventful view of a cloud-suffused sky as backdrop to a pair of cypress trees is brazenly interrupted by a bizarre-looking horse which, though wingless (unlike Pegasus) seems to be flying through the air – apparently out of the dark recesses of a large cypress tree.
As the title of the 32 in. x 26 in. canvas (private collection) reveals, the horse is in the process of being hardened like bone (ossifying); cracks can be seen at various points on its stone-like form.
It occurs to me that, with surrealism, efforts at interpretation and analysis must almost necessarily be bifurcated: we can ascribe Freudian and personal Dalinian symbolism to much of what we see in Dali’s work, but we can also allow for another possibility: perhaps there is simply no explanation at all!
Author Eric Shanes, who’s written several books on Salvador Dali, commented in one of them that we shouldn’t necessarily expect any specific – or at least no “rational, symbolic or mythical meaning” – to certain of Dali’s images. Wrote Shanes: “…Dali could clearly string things together as in a dream, just as we all occasionally do when either asleep or awake.”
He’s right. If surrealism as a pictorial expression of the subconscious was just that – a reflection of the human subconscious and, in particular, the dream world – it makes sense that in many cases nothing seems to make sense!
Dali, of course – ever determined to further confound us – was eager to declare that he himself didn’t understand the images he created.
But I have the belief that “Morning Ossification of the Cypress” heavily revolves around a subject that both fascinated and gave Dali reason for a lot of personal neurosis: S-E-X! Here’s what I mean…
First, consider the cypress tree. A common fixture in the Spanish countryside with which Dali lived all his life. While symbolists note quite plausibly that cypress trees are often associated with graveyards, they are also inexorably seen as phallic symbols. That point seems hard to deny – pun intended.
Now let’s look at two other elements in the painting that support where I’m going with this. The two poles or rods of shafts or whatever they are, jutting out from the hole in the tree: clearly phallic (while, correspondingly, the hole might be seen as vaginal).
And, finally, the horse itself – hardening. “Morning” ossification. A time of day when testosterone levels tend to surge (in both genders, actually).
Alas, “Morning Ossification of the Cypress” may be Dali’s way of expressing something that can be unabashedly stated in far simpler terms: a morning erection.