THE SUPREME WORK OF A GENIUS
By José Manuel Serrano Esparza
A complex picture, full of enigmas, which implies an incredible
attempt of artistic creation of an eternal instant, with metaphysical-mystic purpose.
Painted in 1951 and currently at the St Mungo´s Museum of Religious Art of Glasgow (Scotland), the Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Dalí, widely known as ´ The Christ by Dalí ´, a 205x116 cm oil canvas, is one of the peak works in the history of art.
Salvador Dalí, an eccentrical peerless genius of painting, stated in multitudinous press conference: ´ I WANT TO PAINT A Christ more beautiful than any other of the previously made ´.
The first-class dare has no parallels, since it is perhaps the most formidable challenge for any painter, because the figure of Christ has been the most represented in the History of Art for 2,000 years. And to add a bigger glory, Dalí chooses the Crucifixion, common denominator motif of the most illustrious painters of all time, with which the greatest peaks of quality in the most diverse styles have been achieved.
For centuries, the painters conceived Jesus Christ´s portraits, trying to represent somebody that in accordance with his beliefs is both God and man, human and divine, immortal but with a mortal body. It all, mainly as it appears in the Western artistic tradition and the aesthetic canons of the Christianism.
In its genesis, maybe the subject takes aside from reality, for neither the gospels nor the first Christian texts contribute truthful proofs to the artists creators of images on the good sense and correspondence of their artistic representations and conceptions with the figure of Christ.
In fact, in the light of dawn of Christianism, Christ was shown through symbols and metaphors as the Good Shepherd, the Cross of the Fish (whose letters in Greek were the initials of the words Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Saviour).
Besides, the Gospel Texts place Christ in a cultural milieu in which there was a tacit prohibition of images, frequently regarded as the ante-chamber to the creation of sacrilegious idols.
Only later on, artists dared to try to represent the physical aspect of Jesus Christ and to show him as the main character of the Gospel stories or as the Doomsday Judge, and since then there have been a lot of ways and intentions with which painters from different epochs have tackled the challenge of shaping Christ artistically.
The certainty that God had taken the human form in the Incarnation of his Son, brought about the production of works, that were a result of human imagination and tried to impart in some way the meaning of Christ´s life, death and resurrection.
Probably, this creation of images, from a bit inexact concepts on his physical appearance, could serve to fix the figure of Christ in the mind of believers and had a great significance in the transmission of the Christian faith in the religious ambit and way of expression of deep convictions and hopes of many an artist and historical periods.
But from a creative historical perspective, the secular keen desire of artists ( and the subsequent competition among them in search of the greatest possible quality) to create pictorial images with Christ as a protagonist, so as to manifest universal topics of life and death, suffering and redemption, has proved to be a spur in the evolution of western art.
Actually, putting aside atavic aspects of reality manipulations and tergiversations because of power, religion, politics and economical reasons, it is evident that the artistic tradition linked to Chrsitianism and specially the representation of the figure of Christ, has contributed the Universal Art some of the most beautiful referential works of quality, sublime beauty and originality, It isn´t necessary to be a Christian to admire the wondrous Virgins by Murillo, or a Muslim to remove one´s hat before the impressive Alhambra of Granada and its Generalife Gardens, or agnostic to be fascinated by the superb murals by the Mexican painter Diego Rivera.
Therefore, the diachronic pictorial exploration of the figure of Christ, has very frequently attempted to study and guess different sides of his visual identity.
And here lies to a great extent the colossal dare self-imposed by Dalí, since there have been a great number of remarkable universal painting artists (whom he is going to do his best to beat) that painted crucified Christ before him.
The Genius from Figueras accepts the supreme challenge and besides, he raises it from some premises of maximum difficulties, trying to overcome other geniuses of the universal painting in their own domain. He´s the surrealist par excellence, with works as The Enigma of the Desire(1929), The Persistence of the Memory (1931), Morphological Echo (1936), Apotheosis of Homer (1944-45), etc, and has decided to try to create the most beautiful Christ that has ever been made, in accordance with his fairly particular style, outstanding for a wide range of enormous innate pictorial abilities, the superlative detail and the brilliant colours enhanced by transparent layers applied one on each other; what Dalí himself called photographies of dreams made by hand, it all within the boundaries of the naturalist surrealism.
The new Dalinian conception of the Christ image, specially regarding the revolutionary perspective, shows his wish to strengthen both the symbols and the spatial conception, but with the same semantic epicentre, to underlie the extraordinary personality of the figure of Christ, contributing his inspired standpoint.
It´s a complex picture, full of riddles and mysteries, which implies an incredible attempt of artistic representation of an everlasting instant, with metaphysic-mystic intention.
From an utterly innovative zenithal perspective, we can see Jesus Christ, with his hidden face and floating in the air, dominating Port Lligart Bay. We perceive a very immediate human body, aesthetically beautiful and realistically presented. And yet, He is on us and the clouds, which constitutes a wholly new approach to the motif, for previously, and only in very specific cases as Velázquez or Zurbarán, one of the two sides of the face was concealed, in shade, to add mystery and awe.
His anatomy doesn´t appear tortured and convulsed, but perfect and with a majestic mien.
There are no nails on his hands or feet, while the space for the habitual inscription INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum) is a rectangular blank piece of paper, divided into four spaces, projecting an enigmatic diagonal shadow which points us that it isn´t stuck to the crossed, but floating in the air against the tenets of gravity law, a spectacular artistic resource mainly emphasized by Dalí in two other of his works: Atomic Leda (1949) and Living Still Life (1956), furtherly achieving in the latter a resolution comparable to a 6 x 9 medium format camera.
And this challenge to the Newtonian mechanics also happens with Chrsit´s body, whose shadows clearly reveal that it isn´t fastened to the cross with nails, or fixed to it in any other means. Salvador Dalí wants to hint the spectator that this is something missed by the limits of human reason.
The figure of Christ is brilliantly lit and shines in the darkness, at a great height, which bestows even more mysticism if possible upon the thematic study of his dual nature.
It's a bold vertical perspective, of quick impact, stressed by lights and shadows (mainly the diagonal one projected by the head and the transversal one of arms and hands), together with the uncommon knowledge of the human anatomy by Dalí, a topmost world class master and investigator of the shape and volume. Just watch the minute detail and tremendous realism in the deltoids muscles by the left arm, the trapezius triangular muscles below the back of the neck, the instep, veins, outer malleolus, tarsi and metatarsi bones of the left foot, the texture of the left leg, the radius and humerus in both arms, the great esternocleidomastoideum muscle, etc.
The persons placed in the lower part of the picture (which highlights because of the remarkable chromatic range of blues, yellows and greys), near the boat, are inspired by a Le Nain painting and a Velázquez sketch, previous to the Rendition of Breda. Dalí achieves that everyday entities as the fishing boat acquire eminent protagonism and artistic dimension (always loyal to his axiom of extracting the extraordinary out of the customary experience), with an incredible detail, in this case thanks to the sensational lateral reflected light, the mooring ropes, the vessel keel, etc, much more if we take into account the minute size (compared to the grandiose main theme) of everything that appears in the lower half of the picture (just also observe the realism of the little stone pier on the right, with superb approach of high keys and low keys), but strongly contributing to preserve the photographic rule of the thirds, with the line of the horizon in the summit of the mountains.
It isn´t an apology of any specific creed, buit a symbolic work being a very brilliant interpretation by Dalí of a vision experienced by the chaplain Fray Juan de la Cruz in the Ávila Monastery of the Encarnation in the decade of 1570.
It´s an almost tactile Christ, having a soft skin, and at the same time an extraordinarily powerful image showing the Crucified Christ, from above, according to Dalí exactly the same as He would be seen by God, His father.
Dalí brings forth a fairly impressive cosmic vision of the Crucifixion, with Christ floating in the space, simultaneously near and far from the world (symbolized by the earthen landscape of the lower canvas).
The picture is technically outstanding, with mastery of lights and shadows, perspectives, colours and combinations of them, coexistence of very vivid realism with surrealism, etc, and it is a patent demonstration of the huge power of art to generate uneasiness and all sorts of reactions.
Curiously, at present, both Catholics and Protestants from Glasgow exceedingly admire to the same extent the Christ by Dalí, a painting which has become to them all into the actual artistic flagship and pride of the Scottish capital. His presence is so awesome that since the very day of its installation in 1951, more often than not a lot of visitos take their hats off as a token of respect and the groups of schoolboys, usually noisy, keep up a sepulchral silence on watching it.
As a model for the making of this picture, Dalí used Russ Saunders, an old diving champion from Canada and a Hollywood specialist for more than 40 years.
Asked about the origin of his impressive painting, Dalí declared: ´In 1950, I'd a cosmic dream in which I saw the drawing by Saint John of the Cross, but in colour. It dawned on me that my dream represented the atom nucleus. The, this nucleus took a metaphysical meaning: I considered it the very unity of Universe, represented in Christ! Later on, when thanks to the instructions of father Bruno, a Carmelite, I saw the Christ drawn by Saint John of the Cross, I developed geometrically a triangle and a circle, that aesthetically summed up all my previous experiments and I inscribed my Christ within this triangle´.
Dalí deemed that it was of paramount importance to try to represent his concept of universal energy or cosmic order, both with the figure of Christ and with the theoretically most insignificant objects. This inner desire of Dalí grew in a geometric progression since the explosion of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs in 1945, and it remained reflected on some of his works in:
a) The attempts to represent the quantic mechanics of the canvas.
b) The works related to logarithmical issues, since for Dalí, logarithms reflect the mathematical nature of the physics world and they´re not only present in the mechanisms of disintegration but also in structures encompassing from a snowflake to the spiral of specific galaxies.
Notwithstanding, maybe has been Dalí (a deep connoisseur of the Relativist Mechanics by Albert Einstein and the Theory of the Quants by Max Planck) the universal painter that more has sometimes approached to attain the virtually impossible pictorial representation of the fourth dimension.
The world of Dalí´s creative art is a steady and unforeseeable flowing of mental and spiritual exploration, and why not to tell it, of continuously sublime madness.
With his famous crytical-paranoid method, Dalí perseveringly tried the artistic conquest of the irrational, through the thorough reproduction of subconsciousness images, either from oneiric experiences of spontaneous or autoinduced delirium.
His picture The Persistence of the Memory, painted in 1931, showing some soft watches hanging up soft, symbolized for Dalí the flexibility of space and time. Dalí assured frequently that this work was the harbinger of the discoveries on nuclear physics regarding the discontinuity of the matter and the non linear time. Really, it was this understanding of the nature of matter what made Dalí get into the most productive and spiritual stage of his life.
In 1976, Dalí said: The progress of the sciencies has been colossal, but from the spiritual standpoint, we´re immersed in the lowest period of the civilization.
There has been a divorce between Physics and Metaphysics. We live in a monstruous progress of specialization, without any synthesis.
Incredibly, after his Christ of Saint John of the Cross, in 1954 Dalí made another of his most ´ambitious projects´: to paint again the Crucifixion of Christ, but this time relying on the premises of Quantic Physics. That way his Corpus Hipercubicus was born. In it, Dalí strove to full extent after translating both the Quantic Mechanics and the Logarithms. Christ is hung from a hypercubus, that´s to say, a four dimensions cube unfolded in a tridimensional space.
We can see a brilliant and pristine Christ, floating beyond the gravity against a hypercubus, which is essentially an ´atomic cross´. The figure of Gala, his muse, in the foreground, is the root of the picture, a reflection of the Logos and a manifestation of the divine energies expressed through atom, it all shaping an oil painting inviting the observer to meditate on Christ as a physical reality.
By all means, the topic of nuclear mysticism was present in almost the whole Dalinian production since 1950. Atoms explode into cubes and spheres, the material world breaks loose into unlinked particles and the ´rhynoceros horns´ represent manifestation, appearance and purity.
Afterwards, Dalí´s art would also investigate the subjects of the Quantic Physics and the Genetics with a metaphysical vision.´Based on my reason and what has been shown by the most recent scientific breakthroughs, I´m persuaded that God exists. Yet, I don´t believe in Him as a matter of faith, because I lack it. On the other hand, God hasn´t got to know about the existence of Coca-Cola or Salvador Dalí ´.
For Dalí, in essence, both Physics and Art offer a deeper understanding of reality. Both of them appeal to our desire for order and discernment and extract human experiences, in the hope of giving sense to reality.
Dalí was fully aware that Einstein´s Theories of Relativity and Quantic Mechanics essentially altered the scientific vision of reality. These revolutions affected deeply the understanding of reality by man.
Do we live in a lineal perspective world, watches making tic tac regularly and absolute shape or rather in a world in which perspective is transient, time changes and curves and inert objects change their shape? Salvador Dalí´s world was the latter and he fairly strove once and again to prove that the best way to explain the new concepts in painting, was by linking them with the theories of contemporary Physics. Both Physics and painting deal with the same problem, namely the nature of space. The deep change in modern Physics and with it in Philosophy, took place on being admitted that space and time couldn´t be conceived as absolute magnitudes, but they were integrally and functionally connected.
The explosion of the 1945 atomic bombs changed both the life and artistic evolution of Dalí. Impressed by the frightful and destructive power of science, Dalí wrote: ´The double atomic explosion convulsed me seismically. Since then, the atom was the main food of my thought´.
Whether painting landscapes of dreams or elementary particles, Dalí always worked inside an intellectual frame. In his 1958 Antimatter Manifest, he sketches the progression of these intellectual settings: ´During my surrealist period, I wanted to create the iconography of the inner world, the world of that being marvellous, of my father Freud. Nowadays, the outer world, the Physics one, has transcended that of Psychology. My father is currently Dr Heisenberg´.
Actually, the uncertainty principle by the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, established that it is impossible to observe the orbit of an electron inside the atom, because beyond a certain degree of inaccuracy, it´s impossible to know both the speed and the position of a quantic particle such as an electron. Therefore, it can be precisely fixed where a particle is, but the very fact of watching it avoids being able to know where it´ll be the following instant.
Dalí was beyond measure fascinated by this and it was a recurrent cause of nightmares, bothers, hours of insomnia and lengthy seclusions studying hours until as it couldn´t be in any other way, he took a decision: He, Salvador Dalí, would paint the atoms and electrons. Nevertheless, for this once, the man who amazed everybody during a conference pronounced at Sorbonne University, insisting that never has been more a perfect example of logarithmic spirals than the horn of a rhinoceros, failed in his effort, though he never shrank back and went on trying it until the end of his days, doing his best to maximize the enhancement of his critical paranoiac of irrational knowledge, based on the critical objectivation of associations and delirant interpretations so as to be able to show his obsessions and personal fantasies.
Dalí tried constantly to depict in his pictures, with the greatest possible objectivity and beauty, either with his mythical Christ of Saint John of the Cross or with inert objects and lacking personal experience (whom he was fascinated trying to give life, as in 1936 Lobster Telephone) the mysterious energy driving the universal order of nature and his involvement both in the physics science and the existence of the human being, having even managed to attempt to reflect the mystery of life in several of his works, as in ´Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleidacid´, 1963, where there are some molecular structures with pictorial representation focused on humanoid chains of AND, presided by the symbolic figure of God on the upper left part and his muse Gala, watching the scene from his central area.
© Copyright José Manuel Serrano Esparza
Art and Science.- Dalí tried to merge his ´intuitive genius´ with his knowledge on contemporary physics, in order to fill the gap between science and spirituality. He called his approach Nuclear Mysticism, with a strategy consisting in integrating the religious subject within a frame related to Physics, returning so to the also extraordinary character of the physical world. This indescribable great effort to pictorically represent the quantic mechanics and other very complex concepts of the most up-to-date modern Physics (which did transcend the traditional Newtonian mechanics) is nearly impossible and reveals in Dalí an impressive daring, egocentrism and extreme self-confidence, for the Quantic Mechanics isn´t susceptible to be vizualized and can be only expressed by means of complex equations and probability calculations. It´s something impossible, even from an aprioristic point of view and it´s always surprising that the genius from Figueras didn´t ever renounce to it.