Painting with words – J. G. Ballard and Salvador Dali inspired text/art/poetry

Some time late last year I designed what you might categorise as a kind of text-art / concrete poem which emulates a painting by Salvador Dali (I thought I had already posted it here on my blog but was shocked to find it sat in a forgotten folder in my google drive gathering dust…). I designed this piece using a similar style to that used by the dystopian author J. G. Ballard, who created a series of unusual billboards in the 50s which were made up of only text. He aimed to have these giant, text-only billboards put up all around London, in amongst the many other billboard ads by the consumer giants. But his would be in stark contrast to the others with their highly visual, eye-catching ads bearing sleek new cars and big breasted women, and would instead turn the well-known methods of advertising on their head… his were more like a strange encrypted message for the masses, which would make people stop and think.. each person who viewed them would draw their own unique logic in deciphering these works, much in the same vein as the surrealists. In short, Ballard’s ads were working at empowering the consumer, which is very different to most every other ad, which has one overriding goal… MAKE. THEM. BUY. So in the first year of my literature PhD I came accross these billboards and wanted to try and work out what they were… I couldn’t simply go along with the vast majority of critics who, because they could not understand them, concluded that they must be meaningless. But the odd thing is, the words and terms that these billboards were made up of are clearly not meaningless, in fact they are very meticulously placed, planned and designed. They were characters and scenes and objects and memories and other fragments which could be found in a great many of his other works… it was almost as if he was providing us with clues… So one day, whilst researching Ballard’s influence by Dali, I started to think on what a Dali painting might look like if it were made purely of words… these fragmentary characters and scenes and dream-like dialogues… and so then what if.. what if Ballard was doing exactly that with his billboards? I did some more research and found that this was a method also used by Magritte in a small few of his paintings, Magritte being another key influence on Ballard, and so this did not seem too far a stretch.. in fact it made much sense. So I began scouring Dali’s work to see if there was any works which might fit the bill. I focused on the central ‘image’ in Ballard’s billboard, ‘mr f is mr f’ (below), and, as I knew ‘mr f is mr f’ is a surrealist story about a man who slowly devolves, and is absorbed back into his mother’s womb (weird: I know), I started to look for something similar in Dali’s images… and lo and behold, I found ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of New Man’ (1943), which similarly has this huge centralised image of Dali being absorbed into a globe-womb form.. it was just like Ballard’s image. When I placed the billboard and the painting next to each other, I saw that there was far more coinciding elements at play (see my previous blog post here and Guardian article here for more background / examples of crossovers). So, I thought, could this really be what the billboards were? Encoded Salvador Dali paintings? Well of course they are! What better way to undermine the consumer spectacle than to inundate it with surrealist paintings, paintings which work at reinvigorating the imagination! ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION! As the famed May’ 68 slogan went..

one of J. G. Ballard’s billboards from the 1958 ‘Project for a New Novel’ series

Ballard hailed Dali as the greatest painter of the twentieth century and often expressed how his own literary work was heavily influenced by both the surrealist movement and especially Dali’s work and methods. He constantly repeated in interviews how he had always dreamed of being a painter rather than a writer, but never had the artistic skill to do so, which is probably why he decided to create a new method which would enable him to create art using the medium he knew best… the medium of words! So last year I decided that the best way to try to demonstrate Ballard’s process in creating these billboards was to do it for myself, to create my own billboard/artwork/poem using a Dali painting as the framework. So I of course decided to use my all time favourite Salvador Dali painting, ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937), as the underlying artwork. I was going to enjoy this…

Dali narcissus
Dali – ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937)

The truly amazing thing about this painting is how it manages to contain the entire Narcissus myth as told by Ovid in a singular image… this by way of a mergence of mythic imagery and his own personal symbology which recurs throughout his work (Dali’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, is a kind of codex for all of these symbols and images which appear and reappear in his paintings). The two central images of the figure and the hand clasping an egg essentially denote Narcissus’s changing psychology as he gazes into the water. The left figure image is Narcissus as he famously gazes on himself in the lake’s reflection, and on the right is a metaphorical rendition of what he finds lurking there… he finds self-love, and so the egg, which represents blossoming love and fertility in Dali’s work, symbolises how, as he gazes into the watery depths, he falls in love with his own image.. How he drowns in his own image. The mirror image being a gigantic hand is particularly pertinent in that it represents at once this idea of an aggrandisement of the self (i.e. narcissism) but at the same time this idea of how love denotes, in psychoanalytic terms, the ego-ideal; the perfect and grossly augmented rendition of self (see Lacan’s – the best known and most influential follower of Freud – definition of love here for more clarity). So through these 2 central mirrored image we have a depiction of both outer world and inner psychology. In the distance to the left of the image are the cliffs, the cliffs into which famously the nymph Echo would be transformed, cursed for all time to only mimic the voices of others… but now onto my own Ballard influenced billboard..

Screenshot 2018-11-28 at 15.31.33
a Ballard style version of Dali’s ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’

So what was my method here and what do these words mean in relation to the Dali image? As Ballard does in his own billboards, I first limited myself to using only text, and then attempted to recreate Dali’s painting using allusive fragmentary headlines (many based on Ballard’s stories and characters) and scientific journal excerpts (in this case from a marine biology journal – i.e. ‘drowned world’ – as does Ballard), using the spacing and squared blocks of text to shape out the image. Let me begin to describe the various fragments of text and what they denote. In the top left appears ‘ravenous’ which is partially severed. There are multiple reasons for this and other truncated portions of text. Firstly, so as to urge the viewer to fill the linguistic or narrative void: the fact that the ‘R’ is partially cut-off suggests that there is part of the word missing, the full word being ‘intravenous’. The word itself contains, in homophonic terms, the word ‘ravine’, which is why it is situated in the same location as the ravine or gorge in Dali’s painting (the letter ‘V’ is dead centre within the word thus mirroring the shape of the ravine itself). It could also be seen to emulate the word ‘ravenous’ as in extreme huger, denoting the idea of either Narcissus’s hunger for himself of Echo’s hunger for Narcissus (as in Ovid’s classic myth). The use of truncated text in Ballard’s billboards often serves to emphasise the limitation in the viewer’s visual field and so is emulated here. The purpose of this is to imitate the effect when one views a painting, whereby the viewer, though limited to the framed image before them, nevertheless assumes the depicted image to go beyond this frame of reference (e.g. when a distant mountain range continues off the edge of a landscape painting). The jarring severance of text here also serves to emulate the overarching theme of mirrors, reflection and self-absorption.

So here like Ballard I’m able to generate a multitude of overlapping concepts through a single word, when I acknowledge it as one which stands in the void between language and image. A little down and to the right of where ‘RAVENOUS’, appears ‘The Drowned’ which could refer to The Drowned World or Ballard’s short story ‘The Drowned Giant’ (note the serif text – Ballard uses serif text when he’s alluding to specific short stories). I liked the idea of leaving the final word empty so that the specification of the story is ‘drowned’ in a sense. You’ll notice further down I use the word ‘giant’, this clearly referencing the story, which has been flipped upside down so as to emulate the reflection of the surface of the water. What this achieves is to recreate the duality rendered in Dali’s painting, in which we at once see a giant humanoid (Narcissus) hunched over the water and the hand of a giant figure underwater (i.e. why i use ‘the drowned giant’). The sense of scale in the painting is constantly shifting, in flux, much in the same way that I use text (‘THE DROWNED giant’), using capitalisation and rescaling. You might expect ‘THE DROWNED’ to be situated beneath the water, and ‘giant’ to be located above, but as we know from Dali’s work, the true ‘giant’ is located exactly where expected; beneath the water, exposing, in Freudian logic, the grossly aggrandised ego, or as Lacan would have it, the ego-ideal, the self-obsession which goes far beyond the scale of the painting itself.

To the left of ‘giant’ appears the words ‘SALINE: UTERINE’ which at once represents the location of the pool of water, but also tackles the Freudian implications of Dali’s painting: a narcissist gazes into the uterine depths longingly, this representing the dislocation of the self-obsessive’s ‘lack’. The ‘uterine’ thus designates the mother, the womb, which has been replaced with the self, this leading to a narcissistic self-love. But it also reinforces this presiding duality within Dali’s painting, especially between the inner and outer world, and the distortion between the gaze of the self and other. Above water, externality, otherness – below water, the self, the uterine truths. On the opposite side of the billboard, mirroring saline/uterine, is ‘canine’, situated in the same location as the dog in Dali’s painting, emulating Ballard’s method of locating certain objects and structures to create an overarching sense of the image. To the right of the centre, rotated 90 degrees clockwise, are the words ‘metacarpal antimatter’ denoting the fragmentation of the pieces of the hand in Dali’s image, in a similar vein to the many atomic themed images by Dali, created at a time when particle physics was a hot topic in scientific circles. The ‘0’ in ‘0.314…’ represents the egg, whilst the incorporation of pi is meant to represent the sense of inconsistent repetition which we see in Dali’s painting; note that in the distance of Dali’s painting, between the snow-capped mountains can be seen the image of another hand clasping an egg in an ‘echo’ of the central hand. The incorporation of pi here was also because I not only got a strong sense of the mathematical from the image, particular by way of the repetitions and the chess-board, but also the Greek statue on the right in front of the mountains, which I saw as harking back to Pythagorean devotion in some sense. As I explored with this method of creating art using using words, exploring this point of intersection between words and images, it became apparent just how many endless possibilities there were… It’s a method I’ll come back to some day, perhaps one day there might be a novel length series of them.. all based on paintings.. stories/poetry fashioned from great artworks, every one of them hidden and waiting to be deciphered by those who are the most inquisitive……….. thanks for reading x


J. G. Ballard’s ‘Court Circular’ (1968)

In 1968 J. G. Ballard published an unusual advertisement in Ambit magazine #37 which he entitled ‘Court Circular’. This unusual piece veered away from traditional subversive advertising formats and instead moved towards, in a surrealist vein, empowering the mass psyche through art (which was of course all the rage in 1968). Court Circular includes a work of concrete poetry headed ‘print-out for Claire Churchill’, Ballard’s long-term girlfriend after the untimely and sudden death of his wife whilst on a getaway. The poem depicts a columnal series of repeated words on one page, and a series of small fauvist-like images drawn by Bruce Mclean, as well as a photograph taken from Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘Moonstrips – General Dynamic F.U.N.’ (Ambit #33, 1967) on the other.

The concrete poem is an exploration of literary minimalism: comprised of less than a dozen different words, it attempts to depict the narrative of a girl’s journey into adulthood: her first kiss, her first love, first experience of oral sex, losing her virginity, first rift in a relationship, before eventual marriage and pregnancy, and seemingly settling into an affectionate relationship.

But how does this experimental poem coincide with the strange Mattisse-style figures below?

If you attach the poem to these figures, overlap them almost, some cohesion appears. If you ‘flesh out’ these various clusters of successive words, then a figure emerges from the poem: visualise hair where it reads ‘HAIR’ (‘HAIR’ is the only word to flow from column to column, perhaps showing how Ballard was trying here to use text to imitate flowing hair?); lips where it says ‘KISS’; breasts where it reads ‘SUCK’ (naughty naughty Ballard); vagina where it reads ‘FUCK’; anus where it reads ‘ANUS’; and then use the subjective terms ‘GIRL’ and ‘WIFE’ for the overarching image of the figure, then you can see how the text represents a larger abstract image of a figure, much like the ones below.

Ballard is thus expressing how this rigid, columnal series of words, when placed within a some codified, phonetic system, can take on artistic significance, and can be elevated to a work of art.


Also be sure to read Mike Holliday’s fascinating piece on for even more about Ballard’s forays into advertising.

J. G. Ballard and the Salvador Dali Ad Campaign

At his literary genesis J. G. Ballard’s created a somewhat unusual series of billboards entitled Project for a New Novel (1958), and for many years Ballardian critics, scholars and fans alike have been puzzling over their meaning. It is only when you view Ballard’s literary work as a whole that many of these bizarre terms and phrases and names which are spread across the boards begin to take on some meaning. They originate from Ballard’s many short stories and even some of his novels, and many are terms which wouldn’t even be seen within his fictional work for years to come! This was a very subjective iconography of the psyche, an experimentation which attempts to move surrealist ideology into the realm of the literary. But upon further scrutiny, these billboards appear to represent encrypted Salvador Dali paintings. How so? Ballard uses the headlines, their size and situation, as well as the shaped blocks of text (which are taken from scientific journal articles) and even the whitespace in order to create an imaginary artwork which the viewer must visualize using the words as ‘imagination prompts’. He does this by providing certain objective surroundings such as mountains (‘volcano jungles’) or beaches or statues or monoliths etc., and then interweaving these with ‘narrative imagery’. So these narrative elements are much more abstract and harder to visualize as they require a knowledge of the stories themselves. For example with ‘Mr F is Mr F’ this term represents a short story about a man who degenerates into a foetal state, and so the central image requires us to imagine such a foetal regression in order to see the Dali image he’s mirroring.

The surrealists were hugely influential on Ballard, and especially Dali, and he was attempting to channel their doxa in his fiction, especially their want for reinvigorating the imagination, and unleashing the creative potential buried deep within the unconscious. What they were particularly set against, and attempting to destabalise at their peak, was the worrisome upsurgence of the consumer-capitalist spectacle, and rightly so too. And so Ballard’s Dali mimesis here is deeply ironic: he is placing surrealist images within the spectacle so as to expose the subconscious manipulation at play in the ad-culture world, in like with the many early English Pop Artists (Paolozzi and Hamilton) as well as prominent cultural commentators such as Vance Packard and Marshall McLuhan. We’re so used to subconscious bombardment by advertisements and mass media, which requires so little of the viewer, and only seeks to embed ‘hooks’ which make us want to purchase certain products, that we are made into something akin to automata. With Ballard’s boards however, we must conjure our own imaginary narrative, on the contrary to the archetypal ad, WE are in control, we choose the outcome and the arc of these seemingly unrelated excerpts of eclectic information. What’s more, he’s exploring the malleability of language here, and moreover the juxtaposition between image and language, in the vein of Magritte perhaps, another primary influence on Ballard’s artistic pathology. He’s asking, how can I create an image using the conventions and strictures of language? By using the layout, the size and situation of text, and even the individual meanings of the fragments of text. Here we’re seeing something remarkably experimental, it’s an exploration into the extraordinary potentiality opened when you combine language, and the symbolic, semiotic potentialities behind language with image.

Below are some examples of Ballard’s billboards and the Salvador Dali paintings which they appear to mirror. Also check out the Guardian article for more about Ballard’s designs.

  1. Ballard’s ‘mr f’ billboard and Dali’s ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of New Man’ (1943)

2. Ballard’s ‘T-12’ billboard and Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931)

3. Ballard’s ‘beach fatigue’ billboard and Dali’s ‘Mediumnistic Paranoiac Image’ (1935)