In painter Salvador Dalí’s world, the sacred and the erotic, the mystical and the gastronomic merged in an ecstatic flow of images and ideas. Foodstuffs took on esoteric meanings that were often comprehensible only to the Spanish surrealist himself. On the one hand, in his work there is the hard, spiny shell of the sea urchin shielding the succulent edible softness within, on the other, the split skin of the pomegranate spilling ruby-red seeds and bittersweet juices. You don’t have to be an expert in cultural, sexual or any other sort of symbolism to deduce that these richly suggestive substances would be of interest to an artist preoccupied with the meanings behind everyday reality. But Dalí brought to them abstruse and disturbing personal resonances that went far beyond the generally accepted significance of these edible items as symbol of fertility, birth and resurrection.
The troubled relationship between the preposterously moustachioed artist and his own body is well known. Dalí was obsessed with food, with placating and stimulating the “sacred tabernacle” of his palate, a preoccupation that runs through his work in often unlikely ways, from scantily-clad models wearing garments made of seafood at the 1939 World’s Fair, to designing the packaging for a Spanish lollipop brand in 1969. Writing in his autobiography about his WWII refuge in Arcachon, France, Dalí says he ended up in the Bordeaux region because it was “one of the last places the Germans would reach if they should win.” Moreover, he continues, “Bordeaux naturally meant Bordeaux wine, jugged hare, duck liver aux raisins, duck aux oranges, Arcachon Claire oysters…”
Dalí thought nothing of knocking back thirty sea urchins at one sitting – the typical restaurant serving is six. He liked to savour the rich, unctuous flesh and its saline tang of the sea with well-toasted bread and red wine, enjoying the sensation of pulling the “palpitating coral” from the brittle shell. Occasionally he would eat the shellfish à la Catalane, with a dark chocolate sauce, which he claimed induced “interesting dreams”. The soft flesh sheltering in the hard shell evoked the “original, paradisal state” of the womb, which Dalí claimed to be able to remember. But rather than his adored mother, Dalí’s almost morbid preoccupation with the shellfish related to his life-long love/hate relationship with his strict, disciplinarian father.
On childhood trips to the family holiday home at Cadaqués on the Catalan coast, Dalí collected the spikey urchins on the beach with his father, a civil servant, who, he claimed, “loved this food in an even more exaggerated way than I do myself”. When young Salvador won an art prize aged 13, his proud father organised an exhibition of his work in their apartment and a splendid feast of seas urchins on the terrace outside. But his son’s unconventional work and lifestyle were to eventually bring them into violent conflict.
Sea urchins feature in numerous Dalí paintings and sculptures, and in a huge painting on a wall in his house at Cadaqués. A room there, which can be seen to this day, is domed in imitation of an urchin shell, and real shells encrust the garden walls. Dalí advised artists in search of inspiration to lunch on three-dozen sea urchins, gathered over the three days prior to the full moon, when they were at the peak of their “sedative and narcotic virtues”. They should take a nap before “sitting in front of a blank canvas until it’s too dark to see”.
On 28 December 1929, Dalí received a letter from his father disinheriting him and banishing him from the family home because of his relationship with the Russian bohemian Elena Ivanovna Diakonova – known as Gala, and ten years his senior – of whom his father strongly disapproved. Realising he would have to leave Cadaqués and its beloved landscape, Dalí shaved his head and buried the hair on the beach, along with the shells of the urchins he had consumed for lunch. The following morning, he had a solemn breakfast of “sea urchins, toast and a very little bitter red wine”, before his departure for France. While waiting for the taxi, he saw the shadow of his shaved head against a wall, and placed an urchin’s shell on his head, creating, so he claimed in his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, “the very image of William Tell”.
But of course he saw in his reflection not William Tell – the Swiss hero who freed his people by shooting an apple from the top of his son’s head – but the son he placed in jeopardy. His troubled relationship with his father was embodied in this surreal gesture. More than this, cannibalism is a recurring theme in Dalí’s work. It has even been suggested that he attempted to eat the body of Gala, by then his wife, after her death in 1982.
But what (or who) is he eating as represented by the pomegranate, another quintessential Dalí foodstuff, seen in Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate One Minute Before Awakening? In this 1944 painting he attempted to show not a single dream image, but a whole narrative experienced in the state between sleeping and waking. Gala’s dreaming form floats over the Catalan coast while a split pomegranate, hovering over the sea, disgorges first a red snapper, then two ferocious tigers, leaping from the fish’s mouth. Beside the tigers is a rifle, its bayonet about to pierce Gala’s arm, which represents the sting of the bee, seen buzzing around a second smaller pomegranate, a fruit which had inspired Dalí in his half-sleeping state.
The pomegranate, representing fertility and the resurrection in the Catholic tradition, may also stand in this painting for Venus, as suggested by a small heart-shaped shadow created by the second, smaller fruit, which contrasts with the vicious approach of the tigers (copied from a Barnum & Bailey circus poster) that bear down on his sleeping wife.
Dalí regarded such paintings not as fantasies but as “painted snapshots” from a dream reality that was as valid for him as the mundane waking world the rest of us inhabit: he had no intention of engaging his mouth with the goddess of love as represented by the pomegranate. Famously phobic of the female form, it’s unlikely Dalī’s relationship with Gala – whilst undoubtedly passionate – was ever physical. Instead, they operated within an open relationship; the roaring tigers an allusion to her other partners. Theirs was the sort of relationship that would only ever end in tears. They pretty nearly killed each other.