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..

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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…

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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..

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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

 

Salvador Dali’s night before Christmas (xmas flash fiction)

Twas the night before Christmas and 7-year-old little Salvador Dali was in his favourite place: deep in the psychic vastness of his unconscious mind. He swam through dreams with prodigious ease, and his dreams were nothing like that of his friends, whose tended to revolve around petty matters like toys and sibling squabbles and candy canes. Oh no – to compare little Salvador’s dreams with those of others his age was like comparing the collision of two ancient neutron stars with that of two glass marbles. His dreams were fuelled by such a combustion of imagination that he frequently woke up to find himself in a monochromatic, ashen world, a world through which he would stumble dazedly, searching for some portal which would take him back to the cornucopia of his dreams, in which he could again soar..

In the dead of this night, little Salvador woke suddenly upon hearing a loud noise. he sat upright, eyes taking a moment to adjust to the pitch dark. There seemed nothing out of place, everything was as expected. His school uniform still hung on the cupboard door, his father’s silver pocketwatch still lay on his bedside cabinet, his books on the artwork of DaVinci still splayed haphazardly across his desk. Dangling above his desk was a cardboard solar system which spun gently, the lunar rays cast planetary shadows onto the wall, they thrummed with a silent, cosmic intensity. He put his head back on his pillow and willed himself hungrily back to his other world, his surreality, and consciousness again dissolved like melting butter. then, mere milliseconds before he tipped back into the land of Freud, there came a clear but gentle tap… tap… tap… at the window.

Salva slowly turned over to face the window, eyes still feigned shut. he could see the faint swaying outlines of the vines which clambered over the house… perhaps one of the tendrils was tapping the window as it wafted in the wind. He frowned, closed his eyes, and once again began to drift away. seconds later… tap… tap… tap… only this time it was different. quicker, more urgent, and somehow, less natural. His heart fluttered now, but little Salva was not easily spooked, for the vibrant ferocity of his dreams was matched  by the horror of his nightmares. He untucked himself and crawled over to the window on all fours. The tapping had stopped, but he could still see the blurred shape of a thick vine, which moved with oddly jerky movements. He got hold of the corner of the curtain and pulled it open just a sliver…

“OH DIOS MIO!!!” he cried,

stumbling backwards and pulling the curtains off the rail. There, almost filling the entire frame of his window, was the face of a gigantic swan. Salva crawled backwards over his bed frantically, falling forcefully onto the floor on the other side, the moon’s dazzling light tracking him like a prison spotlight. The great swan peered down at him curiously, as though observing a misshapen cygnet in a fit of frenzy.

After a long minute, still rasping, he peeked over his bed. The swan was no longer there. He stared at the window wide-eyed. and long moments passed. soon, when he had convinced himself the swan must have been but the shadow of a dream seeping into reality, a slender hand appeared, reaching slowly from beneath the window ledge. It was normal-sized – which brought some strange relief – and it was clearly a woman’s hand, but it seemed somwhat ghostly, unearthly. it radiated a faint glow, seemed almost translucent.  Then, with no effort at all, the hand pushed on little Salvador’s locked window, and it swung open wide. He started, and before he even had a chance to react a flurry of snow swept into his room, coating his bed and his face. Squinting into the blizzard, little Salvador saw the woman was beckoning him, then she vanished from view into the white night.

Out of sheer wonder, or perhaps sheer madness, he instinctively ran towards the open window to follow the woman. He looked out the window frantically, searching the shadows of his snow-covered garden below. but no-one was there. He leaned out  further, trying to look beneath the jutting roof edge. then suddenly he felt something grip the back of his pajamas and in one quick motion he was hauled up and out of his window like a lost pup and dropped onto the back of the great swan who perched on his roof. Before he could utter a yelp, the swan began hopping across the rooftops with its giant webbed feet, before spreading its wings like the almighty sails of the Argo and soaring off into the night sky. Soon the snow-caked rooftops of the sleeping city of Figueres were barely visible, so small they seemed almost Lilliputian, the street lamps nothing more than a swarm of distant fireflies.

As they flew higher and further away from all traces of humanity, the world he had known just moments before seemed a distant memory, and little Salvador realised that his initial state of panic had now completely subsided, lost in a crashing tide of wonder and awe. The real world with all its logical and coherent decrees, its linearities and geometries slowly began to melt away…

High above them, where the moon once lay, there was now a perfectly formed egg which floated horizontally. It had a slender crack running through its centre, from which there dribbled a thick molten yolk. Far below there was a great checkerboard lake, the surface covered in thick ice checkered black and white. Here and there he saw soldiers scampering across the ice, slipping and sliding, as well as armoured knights, and horses which galloped with a speed and grace that eclipsed all the others he had ever seen. A few miles on they came upon a vast plain littered with windmills, only in place of their rotor blades were gigantic spinning butterflies; the dust from their luminescent wings billowed as they spun wildly, sending a shimmering mist into the sky. There were groves of snow-capped trees shaped like craniums, and great crystallised monoliths alongside building-sized baguettes which were buried deep into the earth. There were mechanical statues with clockwork hearts; and strange giant rubber faces which hobbled around on wooden crutches; and ghostly nomads who were somehow only perceivable in his peripheral vision. Everywhere he looked there were new wonders to behold, but the swan flew on.

As they passed over the next alpine peak Salva was met with a sight which filled him with such wonder that tears streamed from his eyes. A formation of reindeer towered high above the snowy fields, lolloping on spindly, elongated legs. Their enormous antlers groped for the stars like fuzzy cacti, and seemed to converge above their collective heads into some chestnut-coloured coral reef. Occasionally elfin sprites danced in and out of the ossiferous weave of antlers like baby-faced soldiers of a celestial anthill. then At the rear of the reindeer squadron there came a gigantic moose of the purest white with great crimson antlers. and cradled above its enormous head, resting in the antlers which were like godly open hands, there rested a golden throne of such splendour and opulence that the night faltered in its aura… there, seated in his bejeweled throne, was Papa Noel. His colossal white beard swirled like a nimbus, his red cheeks bloomed like rose apples, his cloak seemed made of purest gold. but what stood out most of all was his incredible mustache – at odds with his white beard it was jet black, and it swept out and upwards like two royal scimitars, swishing loudly as he turned his great head. As Salva gazed on him time seemed to melt, and then he saw Papa Noel glance down at his watch.. as he did it started to drool from his arm like fresh oven-baked brie.. it seemed that time was running out… then, As little Salva still gazed upon this resplendent figure, he suddenly felt the world shift on its axis. and the great troupe of reindeer began to stumble on their frail legs, dragging the arctic moose and the great throne with them. As they plummeted towards the ground, so too did the great swan upon which Salvador sat. he fell through the sky faster and faster, the ground coming closer and close, and he raised his arms, bracing himself for the cold white impact of the snow below…

Then he was back in his bed.

holding his bedcovers out like great wings.

It was a dream. Nothing more.

with this realisation he put his face in his covers and began to sob. He felt the covers dampening as he clutched them to his face.

then after a few moments he heard it.

Tap… tap… tap…

He lifted up his head and through the glaze of his tear-filled eyes he saw a woman standing at the end of his bed. She was smiling gently, glowing softly, her aura serene.

The woman reached into her pocket, though the motion was unusual, more like opening a chest of drawers. And she took out what looked like a simple thin piece of wood, the end of which was covered in the finest hair. It was a paintbrush. She placed it into his hands and he looked down at it. When he looked back up she was gone. He walked to the window and looked down on his garden, the he looked up in the hope he might see the great swan. But there was nothing.

He looked around at his dreary room, and his grey walls, and then again out of the window over the bleached landscape, and then he did something quite unexpected; something completely unconscious. He lifted the paintbrush, and he began to paint over all that he saw. He used no oils, no watercolours, he used only his imagination…

‘Thank you, my muse’ murmured little Salva, and he painted and painted and painted until eventually he fell into a deep, dreamless and harmonious sleep.

leda-atomica

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NB: The final image is Dali’s ‘Leda Atomica’ (1949). Also… MERRY XMAS!!! xxx

Millet’s Angelus: The Enigmatic Source of Salvador Dali’s Paranoiac-critical Surrealism

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Jean Francois Millet’s Angelus (1859)

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.

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Dali’s The Angelus (1935)

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.

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The male figure from the Angelus appears in Dali’s ‘meditation on the harp’ (1932-33)

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.

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Dali’s ‘homage to Millet’ (1934)

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)

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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.

Salvador Dali’s Don Quixote

“Maybe the greatest madness of all is to see life as it is rather than what it could be” -Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

“There’s a method to my madness, and a madness to my method” – Salvador Dali

A small selection of Dali’s artworks based on Cervantes’s timeless classic Don Quixote:

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NB: images (mostly) sourced from The Salvador Dali Museum.