Representation and Reality in Salvador Dalí’s Dreamscapes

Salvador Dalí is synonymous with dripping clocks, barren deserts, and a penchant for unsettling distortion. A member of the Surrealist movement, the painter chose subjects that continue to provoke interpretations ranging from the overtly sexual to the more intimate and incomprehensible.

That is to say, Dalí painted dreams.

The Surrealists were enraptured with Freud, famous for his dream analyses, and the unconscious. What better way, then, to reach into the depths of their minds to extract unknown feelings than to export their dreams and nightmares to the canvas.

This, I’m sure, is news to no one. Dalí and his process garnered a level of fame similar to that of Picasso decades ago.

Instead of trying to figure out what Dalí’s timepieces and otherworldly beasts mean, I wonder about the conversation on reality presented by the paintings:

Dreams are, by definition, not “real.” They exist solely in the mind. They’re stories, or concepts. The “dream” itself is real—you can have a dream, remember a dream, etc., but the content within it is nonexistent.

Paintings, by definition, are “real.” You can touch them, hold them, buy them, deface them.

Painting a dream, then, is a conundrum. The painting is “real,” but the subject matter is not. The dream is made real by the physical painting, the process, as well as by the process of painting itself. And if that’s the case, dreams could be argued to have been made “real” by the process of dreaming, which is pretty much regarded as a real thing.

And Dalí’s subjects, his dreams, are reproductions of the original content: paintings are reproductions of their subjects. The realness of Dalí’s art, then, is less than the realness of the original. Which itself is problematic due to the lack of realness offered by the dream. If it wasn’t real to begin with, is the reproduction more or less real? Or, does the reproduction make what was not real into something that is real?

Or maybe our dreams, as representations (are representations ever real? a simulation is, by definition, not real) of our unknown thoughts and emotions, were always real, and in painting them, Dalí found a way to unleash this hyperreality into the world of the “real,” the alive, the tangible.

Published at See Gauge Blog on February 19, 2013.


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