How Salvador Dali Worked

Salvador Dali: Paintings

Salvador Dalí in his studio
Salvador Dalí in his studio
Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Salvador Dalí's preferred painting process was the paranoiac-critical method. The artist would simulate a paranoid state, then meticulously develop and paint the hallucinatory images he had seen. It was all about creating pieces that were startling, yet authentic, with different interpretations and associations abounding.

The artist's Surrealistic imagery was loaded with symbolism, some of it straight from Freud, and some of it from Dalí's own imagination. The symbolism was often sexually significant. For example, he believed rhinoceros horns were a symbol of chastity and the Virgin Mary, and that eggs represented purity, perfection, intrauterine life and rebirth. Bread often appeared phallic and hard in Dalí depictions, while ants represented rot, decomposition and the transitory nature of life. To Dalí, crutches displayed solemnity and authority and conveyed a certain sense of assurance bordering on arrogance, while the melting pocket watches symbolized the fluidity and relativity of time.

Other aspects of his life can be examined to expose relations to his artwork. For example, Dalí's sex life (or near celibacy, according to some reports) was apparently quite complicated. The artist was rumored to have practiced voyeurism and autoeroticism; he also admitted to strong feelings of sexual inadequacy, which perhaps influenced some of the erotic aspects of his artwork. Dalí's complicated psychological relationship with his deceased mother and brother also likely played a role. Some have suggested the appearance of lions with manes represents the universal symbol known as the vagina dentata (toothed vagina) and could relate to Dalí's sexual phobias and fetishes. Praying mantises are another symbol often linked with issues concerning sexuality interwoven with morbidity.

Although he's most famously associated with Surrealism, Dalí's style would gradually evolve into different genres later in life. World War II prompted such a style shift, as he turned his attention to matters of physics and the nuclear age by starting a new style he named Nuclear Mysticism. He also dabbled with religious motifs later in life.

On the next page, we'll find out where Dalí aficionados can see the master's skills firsthand.