There is likely no greater example in art of a single work having such a profound and lasting influence on an artist than Dali’s influence by Jean Francois Millet’s Angelus. Dali had been familiar with the work since childhood; a reproduction of the painting hung on a secluded wall of his grammar school. But the obsessional, paranoiac aspect to the image would not come until a striking vision in 1932 at which point ‘it suddenly appeared in my mind without any recent recollection or conscious association… It left with me a profound impression, I was most upset by it… the Angelus of Millet suddenly became for me the most troubling of pictorial works, the most enigmatic, the most dense, the richest in unconscious thoughts that had ever existed’ (Dali, Tragic Myth). From that point on the work brought about frequent delirious episodes in Dali, during which the symbols and figures of the Angelus would appear in his daily life to plague and haunt his consciousness.
It was from such paranoiac visions however that the systematic approach to Dali’s work would emanate, and would come to formulate the paranoiac-critical method, a means by which the artist ‘organizes and objectivizes in an exclusivist manner the limitless and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective and objective ‘significance’ in the irrational… it makes the world of delirium pass onto the plane of reality’ (from Dali’s 1935 essay ‘The Conquest of the Irrational’). The Angelus thus served as the genesis of Dali’s latency-driven works which would later represent a crucial component of the surrealist movement at large. The analytical frame to Dali’s technique is expounded in his 1938 work, The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus, a work which was believed lost for many decades following the outbreak of the second work war.
Dali’s persistent visions, which are reflected in the innumerable allusions and appearances of the Angelus in his artworks, led to an astounding discovery, which was only verified over a century after the work’s creation by modern x-raying technology. Dali had been particularly haunted by the lurking sense of death evoked by the image, in particular the sense of the loss of a child (perhaps a conviction which colluded with the burdensome death of Dali’s brother in childhood), though in the image there is nothing which explicitly suggests such, other than the grim aspect of the standing figures. But Dali had little doubt that there this was a depiction of the death of a child, and he continued to write his entire Tragic Myth, his entire paranoiac activity manifesto based on this unproven belief: ‘The great mythical theme of the death of the son, an essential sentimaent that became apparent in my Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus, was confirmed once my thesis had been completed, without my having yet been able, until recently, to verify it’ (from the later commentary added to his Tragic Myth text). Then, after many years of doubt by almost all those other than Dali himself, the painting was analysed, and there, beneath the many layers of soil and oil paint, there lay the unquestionable outline of a small coffin, the size of which would suit only a child. Dali was right all along.
To finish, here’s a sublimely surrealist description of the Angelus written by Dali:
“In the picture this lonely, crepuscular, mortal place plays the role of the dissection table in the poetic text, because, not only is life fading out on the horizon, but also the pitchfork is plunged into the real substantial meat which the ploughed land has been to man throughout all time. It is plunged into the earth, I said, with that greedy intentionality of fecundity appropriate to the delectable incisions of the surgical knife during the dissection of any corpse which, as everyone knows, is, under diverse analytical pretexts, secretly only looking for the synthetic, fertile and nourishing potato of death. Constant dualism stems from this, felt throughout all ages, a sort of ploughed-earth nutrition, a table for eating – the ploughed earth nourishing itself from that manure as sweet as honey which is nothing but that of the authentic, amoniacal, necrophilic desires – a dualism that finally brings us to consider the ploughed earth, especially when worsened by the twilight, like the best-laden dissection table, which among all others offers us the most appetizing and prime cadaver. This corpse is seasoned with that fine and imponderable truffle that is only found in nutritive dreams consisting of the flesh from the rounded shoulders of hitlerian atavistic nurses, and with an incorruptible, exciting salt made by the frenetic, voracious squirming of ants… ”
– Salvador Dali, in ‘Explanation of an illustration from the Chants de Maldoror’ (found in the appendix of Tragic Myth)
NB: Just as a short additional piece of Dalinian trivia, another fascinating story/conspiracy theory involving the Angelus has to do with the legendary Van Gogh and his cutting off his ear. Another of Dali’s recurrent delusions of the Angelus was the association of the woman figure with the praying mantis; seen as evoking Freudian notions of the atavistic, primal instincts of the mother figure, and her aspect, in conjunction with the bowed head of the father figure, which Dali saw as being reminiscent of cannibalistic urges following the death of the child (note that in all the works by Dali containing both figures, the female towers above the male to represent this mantid analogy). Dali goes as far as to say that ‘it is indeed this insect that we are going to see illustrate in a dazzling fashion the tragic myth contained in Millet’s Angelus’ (Tragic Myth, 81), thus situating the mantis at the very centre of his own decipherment! What’s interesting though, and what links Van Gogh here, is that Van Gogh showed a similar obsession with the Angelus image, but only whilst in his most delirious state of madness. Now get this, in the late-80s, whilst Dali was very ill and not wholly in his right mind, a scientific discovery was made involving mantids: the mantid is the only known living creature on earth to have what is known as a ‘cyclopean ear’, that is a ‘single, midline ear’ (discovered by Yager and Hoy). This discovery was found a great many years after Dali’s conception of the mantis being so central in the Angelus, and even further after Van Gogh’s psychotic episode during which he cut of his ear, and yet it gives some clarity to the reasoning behind Van Gogh’s cutting off his ear and not any other part of his body, a mystery which baffled historians for many years. Could this indeed be the answer, lying deep in the unconscious workings of this enigmatic painting?! Could it be that the unconscious presence of the mantis also infected Van Gogh in his delirious state and led him to the act of severing his ear?! We will never know for sure, but it is certainly a theory which champions the authority of the unconscious mind, and which undoubtedly makes Dali all the more endearing.