Though to many he is offensive and blasphemous Margaret Laird finds much that is stimulating and devotional in the paintings of Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali was never wholly accepted by the Surrealists, although his painting, like their work, was full of strange imagery which is sometimes grotesque and often disturbing.
Dali had an unusual appetite for new ideas and painted in a number of different styles from Cubism to Pop Art. Towards the end of his career, although not ‘religious’ in the way that most people would understand it, he made frequent use of Christian devotional subjects. Much of his later work was strongly influenced by Catholic Spain and far from Surrealism in spirit.
Although not the most well known of his Crucifixion paintings, the one which he called ‘The Hypercubic Body’ is particularly interesting because it reflects aspects of the theology of the Crucifixion and points to the Resurrection.
Very solid cross
In this painting, the cross is depicted as a very solid and powerful object formed from large black and gold cubes. The contrasting colours remind the spectator that for Christ, the crucifixion was the moment of both his humiliation and his triumph.
The cubic cross is suspended above an empty chessboard. It is as I if the game had just finished and, in a sense, you could say that it had, because the disciples ‘had forsaken Jesus and fled’ – and to those who watched from afar, it must have seemed as if this were the case. Those who had put their trust in his message did not at this stage see any hope for the future of his mission. Yet in the painting, because the chessboard was still open, it indicated that it stood ready for another game to begin, which of course it did – for after the Resurrection, those who had joined in the game’ or mission of Christ regained their faith and continued his work.
Source of the light
A black sky forms the background to the Cross and the light of the sun can only just be seen behind the distant landscape, a visible reminder of ‘the darkness over
all the land from the sixth to the ninth hour’. Yet in Dali’s painting, a light shines on the cross not from the sun but from the opposite direction and highlights the figure of Christ. It is as if God’s power, like the light of the sun, had been tem
porarily withdrawn from the world in order to concentrate on the action which was taking place on the cross – an action which would eventually give new life to the world.
Jesus’ body is held to the cross not by nails but by three small cubes, which appear almost magnetic, suggesting that had he chosen to do so, by the movement of an arm or a leg, he could have released himself. It recalls the taunts of the passers-by: ‘If you are the son of God come down from the Cross.’ This was a temptation similar to that already resisted by Jesus in the wilderness, early in his ministry, when he refused to perform some spectacular feat in order to prove that he was the Son of God.
In the left-hand corner of the painting on a platform stands a dignified woman dressed in white brocade, rather like a coronation robe, thus symbolically depicting the future role of Mary whom the Church describes as the ‘Queen of Heaven. Flung over her shoulder is a length of golden cloth, fit for a king, presumably to wrap around the body of her son in preparation for the burial, a burial which would end in his triumph.
The mother watching
The model Dali uses to represent Mary was said to be Gala, his wife. In the painting, Mary’s eyes are riveted on her son and the light from the cross reflects upon her face. Yet although she is majestic, dignified, standing upon a raised platform and beautifully painted, the spectator, in following her gaze, is forced to look once more at the cubic cross and to ponder upon its meaning – its glory and the way in which it points towards the resurrection.
Although Dali painted religious subjects, he once admitted that with regard to God, his attitude was the same as Voltaire’s. Then he recited this anecdote:
‘The philosopher was walking along a street with a friend one day when they saw a priest on his way to someone’s sick bed with the Blessed Sacrament. Voltaire took off his hat, at which his friend asked why he showed such respect, given his standpoint regarding the Church and religion. Voltaire replied, ‘God and I always greet each other even though we never speak” On another occasion when asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’, Dali replied, ‘Based on my reason and on what the latest scientific discoveries of our times have shown me, I am convinced that God exists.’
This reflects a much more open attitude to the existence of God than that of Richard Dawkins and some other contemporary scientists who engage in the ‘God debate’ today. Dali may not have been convinced about the Christian faith but a study of ‘The Hypercubic Body’ has shown that much can still be gained from his interpretation of the traditions and symbolism of Catholicism, which is prevalent in so much of his work.