When Freud Met Dalí

BY Jared Phanco (from the 2019 archive)

The impact of the Godfather of Psychoanalysis on the Young Surrealist. 

Though initially Salvador Dalí & Sigmund Freud may appear rather strange bedfellows, Freud’s contributions to the field of oneirology – the study of dreams – would shape Dalí’s life and work in an incomparable manner. The year 2018 marked the 80th anniversary of the meeting of two of the most influential figures of the 20th Century which, in turn, signified a monumental convergence of the realms of art and psychoanalysis.  

For the Surrealist artists, psychoanalysis’ exploration of the previously untraveled frontier of the unconscious mind provided invaluable framework for their artistic endeavours. One of the primary techniques required of the Surrealist artist was to engage in ‘Automatism’, detailed by André Breton in the Manifeste du surréalisme (1924) as; 

‘The dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns’. 

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dalí (1937); from Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS.

Put simply, this meant allowing the unconscious mind to ‘take control’ of the artist and work freely without interference or repression from their conscious thoughts. One of the techniques employed by Dalí to access his unconscious mind, through dreaming, was to sit in a chair whilst holding a teaspoon over a saucer. The idea behind this was that as he began to drift into a slumber and his body began to relax, the spoon would hit the saucer causing him to wake up. Upon his waking he would set about painting the images that presented themselves during his dreaming. 

‘Give me two hours a day of activity, and I’ll take the other twenty-two in dreams.’ 

His obsession with the worlds represented in dreams meant Freud’s seminal 1899 work, The Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdetung), had an immense impact of the young Catalonian painter, with Dalí first introduced to The Interpretation of Dreams whilst studying at Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. Freud’s work resonated deeply with the young Surrealist who would describe the book as; 

‘One of the capital discoveries of my life, and I was seized with a real vice of self-interpretation, not only of my dreams but of everything that happened to me’. 

The book sparked a new fanatic obsession for Dalí who spoke of Freud and his work with the highest reverence, once claiming; 

‘The only difference between immortal Greece and the present time, is Sigmund Freud, who discovered that the human body is full of secret drawers that only psychoanalysis is capable of opening’. 

This notion of the unconscious mind being made accessible through the metaphorical opening of the ‘drawers of psyche’ became a common motif within Dalinian symbolism. The most notable examples of drawers within Dalí’s oeuvre appear in his paintings The Anthropomorphic Cabinet (1936) & The Burning Giraffe (1937). The Anthropomorphic Cabinet presents a harrowing image of a womanly figure whose body is made of opened drawers. The Burning Giraffe – which was painted shortly before Dalí’s exile to the United States – has in the foreground a towering human-like figure standing with opened drawers protruding from its legs, as well as a large drawer extending out from its chest.  

As Dalí’s infatuation with Freud blossomed, he reached the realisation it was of the utmost importance that the two should discuss their work in person. He would travel to Vienna numerous times in attempt to meet Freud, but ultimately failed to do so. On his frustration at this, Dali writes in his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), 

The Burning Giraffe by Salvador Dali (1937)

“I remember with a gentle melancholy spending those afternoons walking haphazardly along the streets of Austria’s ancient capital … In the evening I held long and exhaustive imaginary conversations with Freud; he came home with me once and stayed all night clinging to the curtains of my room in the Hotel Sacher.” 

Despite his best efforts to meet his hero, It would not be until 1938 that the two would finally come face to face, at Freud’s London home in Hampstead. Freud had remained in Vienna even during the Nazi book burnings carried out by the German Student Union (DSt) in 1933, referred to as the ‘Säuberung’ or ‘cleansing’.  

‘Against the soul-destroying overestimation of the sex life ─ and on behalf of the nobility of the human soul, we offer the flames the writings of Sigmund Freud’. 

The Anthropomorphic Cabinet by Salvador Dali (1936)

His decision to abscond to England came earlier in 1938 when the Nazis seized his publishing house, his money & his property after the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany known as the ‘Anschluss’. Though his residency in Hampstead was only brief, Freud would be visited by a number of iconic figures of the 20th Century including H.G. Wells and Leonard & Virginia Woolf. He died the following year at the age of 83.  

At their meeting Dalí brought along what was one of his recent works, which has now become one of his most iconic paintings, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937). The painting was inspired by the Greek myth of Narcissus, a young Laconian hunter who fell in love with a reflection of himself in a pool of water and was cursed to remain transfixed there until he eventually turned into a flower. By exhibiting the painting to Freud he aimed to instigate a dialog with the psychoanalyst about his theories on Narcissism, a neurosis popularised in his 1914 essay, On Narcissism (Zur Einführung des Narzißmus). No stranger to the concept of Narcissism, Dalí regularly made claims of his own genius and claimed things such as,  

“Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy —the joy of being Salvador Dalí— and I ask myself in rapture: What wonderful things is this Salvador Dalí going to accomplish today?” 

His narcissism was both a great instrument in his success and to his own detriment. It would constitute part of the reasoning behind his expulsion from the esteemed group of Surrealists in Paris after a trial led by Breton.  

During their meeting he also hoped to discuss his own theory on ‘the paranoiac-critical method’, which he described incredibly verbosely as,  

‘A spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena’. 

In essence, the method involved the artist invoking a paranoid state allowing the brain to perceive links between images and objects that would not usually be rationally linked.  

Though the adoration Dalí displayed towards Freud was not reciprocated with quite the same level of vigour, after their meeting, Freud would write to one of his contemporaries – and fellow Austrian – Stefan Zweig, 

‘I was inclined to look upon the surrealists, who have apparently chosen me as their patron saint, as absolute cranks. The young Spaniard, however, with his candid fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery, has made me reconsider my opinion’. 

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