Dali and his autopoietic )mirror( worlds

I wrote, somewhat hastily, about my plans to very quickly reveal ‘everything’ about the mirrors in surrealist art. However silly it may look, but I thought that I could indeed cover an entire movement with a couple of brushstrokes, and be done with one large posting. And then I saw the Dali mustache : (

It wasn’t an easy job at all, to sort out with all the mirrors Dali! But a vey interesting one, too, and I am happy that I delved into it, not only because I revisited a lot of familiar famous works, but also discovered new and unusual dimensions in this art, and got an insights or two about the role of mirrors in his art.

I have to warn that this is will be very higgledy-piggledy a post (as if others are not!); I need to sift a lot of interesting works, and interesting facts, and factors, so the results may be bit rough at the end. Let me try to lay down what I’ve learned so far, and try to polish it further later.

There are plenty of ‘interesting things’ in the art by Salvador Dalí, and in this life too (I think he considered his own biography as yet another art project, and treated as as passionately (or as madly) as his own art, to the extent that one can get confused defining where is the ‘media’ there, what is the ‘message’.    

For example, in case of other artist one can start from the date of birth (1904 in case of Dali), but he himself thought that his life started three yeas earlier, in 1901, when his older brother, also called Salvador, was born.  He died in August 1903, and nice months later, in May 1904, was born ‘our’ Salvador (his full name was Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech).  The parents told him about his older brother only when Dali was five years old, and since this moment on he was sure that he is just a reincarnation of his brother on the Earth, and that they are not only ‘two drops of water’, but merely ‘two reflections of the same drop’. 

In 1963 Dali will paint the work which he will call ‘The Portrait of my Dead Brother‘ (above) which can be seen as a constellation of drops, magically assembling into a face from a certain distance. 

Besides this d/traumatic story, yearly childhood of Salvador was pretty happy, he grew up in a fairly wealthy family, lived in a big house in the south of Spain, in Catalonia ( in the town of Figueras, where there is his museum now, so called Dalí Theatre-Museum, “the largest surrealistic object in the world”).

The picture above shows, from left to right, his aunt Marie-Therese (his father’s sister), his mother, Felipa Domenech Ferrés, his father, Salvador Dalí i Cusí, Salvador himself, another aunt, Catherine (the younger sister of his mother), his own younger sister Ana Maria Dali, and their grandmother.

When his interest to, and his abilities for drawing became evident (which happened fairly early), he began attending an art school and also took private lessons with a painter. His first ‘exhibition’ took place in 1917, when he was only 13 years old – despite it was only in his own house, it was organized by his father very seriously.

Dali painted a few portraits of his father; I like this one, from 1921: 

Two years later he held his first ‘real’ exhibition, in a local theater.

And two other years later, in 1921, his mother suddenly died, the event that Dali will be always considering the biggest loss of his life. He will be repeatedly write about his almost idolized admiration of his mother, who, he believed, made him who he was. (If to take some recent examples, it would probably resemble Lady Gaga, with her Born This Way song: “My mama told when I was young / We are all born superstars”; the official clip, by the way, contain so many references to mirrors that I should write a special posing about it, perhaps).

I found only one portrait of his mother made by Dali:

There is another work by Dali, a small drawing where we his family together; it’s a seemingly a sketch, for a group portrait that was never finished. It is also a self-portrait, we see Dali with his brushes, and also smiling, a rare expression in his later works.

Speaking about reincarnations – after the death of his wife the father (who, co-incidentally, was also named Salvador) married his wife’s sister, Catharina. Dali did not object this marriage, assuming that of all other possible candidates his mother’s sister would be the best anyway.

Now, if to leave this homegrown psychoanalysis (which, unfortunately, will keep emerging in the future in case of Dali, from all sort of holes) and move to the pictures, it is really difficult to say something meaningful about his earlier works. In his early works we see the influence of all modern movements of that time, first impressionism and pointillism, and later cubism and fauvism, which he all diligently reproduced.

Here is one of the earliest surviving works of his, the Landscape, of 1916. He’s only 12 years old, but the signature is BIG, and bright; big ship already senses deep waters.

This is a slightly later work, of 1919, of the port in Portdogue:

And this one of the earliest self-portraits of Dali, also painted in 1919, in his ‘studio’ arranged for him in their house;  in principle, there is a chance that we see here his very first “mirror”, in the upper left corner of the painting, hanging at the ceiling.

In 1922 Dali went to Madrid, where he entered the so-called La Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, one of the oldest art academies in Spain. His brushwork becomes more diverse, the works of these few years rarely resemble each another, Dali tried to try every thing, every style possible.

Here, for example, is the painting of Dali that shows the influence of early Picasso, and specifically his series of works about circus actors.

Salvador Dalí – Saltimbanques (1921)

This is the Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso (1905):

But I can also refer to another, even earlier painting by Picasso, his Woman in a Dressing Room (1900):

The Saltimbanques is perhaps indeed the work where we see the first ‘mirror’ by Dali – and not one, but two!

NB: I’d like to make a small serif here: in both cases cases we see only the ‘backs‘ of the women; this will be a very prominent, front topic for Dali later.

During a few years Dali is under a strong influence of Cubism, and Picasso personally (whom he calls “the most original masters of modern time. Many of the Dali’s works are vey imitative (and we know whom he is trying to imitative – his Venus and Sailor (1925), for instance, is strongly influenced by the Big Woman of Picasso of the mid-1920s).

It is also the next case of the Dali’s mirror. However, here it’s hardly a tool, even an object of some sort, it acts merely as a ‘sign’ of Venus, herself very metaphorical. Mirror-wise this is not a novel approach at all, the Venuses with there Mirrors had been painted in that way already 400 years ago (though they’ve been less ‘cubic’ back then.)

A few years later Dali’s lost his interest to cubism, or more precisely, he found the ‘new love’, emerging dada movement (its showing character was one of the main appealing reasons for Dali, himself a provocateur and L’enfant terrible all his life). In 1926 Dali was kicked out of the Academy, for his ‘scandalous behavior’, but by this time he already had some clients, and in addition to paintings begun to work as book illustrator, stage decorator and even script writer (for example, it is believed that he wrote a  script to one of the films by Luis Buñuel).

But painting is still his key obsession, and Dali continues to learn and reenact the technique of the old masters – both Spaniards (Velázquez and Zurbarán) and Dutch (Dali was always fascinated with Jan Vermeer). However phantasmagoric his works will be, many of them are very expertly drawn; Dali is deservedly considered one of the best “draughtmen” among the artists of the time, and many of this painting not just realistic but hyper-realistic).

Honey is Sweeter than Blood (1927)

The problem, of course, is that if one simply produces realistic pictures, even with stunning accuracy and life-resemblance, he would still be hidden in the shadow of the Great Masters. And besides that, the modern audience and your peers may perceive it as ‘old junk.’ Yet if you continue the experiments with novel and fashionable -isms (e.g., Cubism, Fauvism and the like) you risk to be seen only as a follower of someone else’s ideas. That’s not the way of Dali; We are born superstars.

It is about that time, from the mid 1920-s, Dali starts using the style (or a technique? a trick?) that over time will make hims the ‘real Dali’, the one we now know and easily recognize in amy of his later work, a combination of very realistic, hyper-realistic even, depiction with a very characteristic distortions, as if the scene is melted, bended, liquified. There is a feeling that his scenes are drawn from their reflection in a puddle, or in the wind:Female Bather (1928)

Where his works the product of ‘pure imagination’? Or was he did inspired by (or simply copied) similar effects, such as reflections in water surfaces, or various glass filters? Did he use them as the tools when creating these works?

I have shown this picture already, when I was writing the story about Narcissus and his complicated relationships with water surfaces (although it is made a bit later, around mid-1930s):

Here’s another picture, much more known (and made even later, already after the war), and commonly referred as Dali Atomicus. It was taken by Philippe Halsman (an American photographer of the Latvian origin), but ​​the composition was the the result of collaborative work with Dali himself.

As often happens, it is now difficult to say exactly what they tried to illustrate by the picture – the actual use of water streams by Dali when painting his works, or later comparisons of his works with liquid surfaces by the critics and his admirers, whose ideas about this methods Dali humorously affirmed in that way.

This is another, unabridged version of the same photo, where we can see the strings had been used to hung the objects, and also an assistant’s hand holding the chair. Reportedly, they made 28 attempts before Dali was satisfied with the result; no information about animal abuse is available:

Apart from the ‘liquid surfaces’ the paintings by Dali resemble something else, namely, the curved fun mirrors, todays installed in various amusement parks. Here is an example of that sort of a mirror, I managed to bump into near a toy shop in our town, just yesterday:

“Come to laugh with us”, says this fatty penguin, who in reality was a very slim girl.

Whether Dali indeed used any of the curved, distorted mirrors to create his works, I don’t know, and I am not David Hockney to launch a full-scale detective investigation, to prove that everybody can take an ordinary magnifying glass and start painting like Dali.

I personally think he could have been using the mirrors, or lenses of some sort, to get inspirations for some of his famous curved, bloated shapes, and why not? Perhaps it is an open secret, and everybody knows that but I can’t remember reading about it (which is, of course, the whole point of ‘open secrets’).

Indirectly it has been confirmed by picture I started this posting with; it is also made much later, in the 1950s, at the time when Dali was already seen as an “unquestionable genius” and could admit whatever he likes about his own art. Of course, it could again be a mockery, just to tease those who suspected his use of lenses when painting his works.

Later I found a rather strange portrait of Marilyn Monroe, made very later in his life, in the 1970s, where the real lenses openly present in the picture:

Marilyn Monroe (1972)

I wrote about the lenses, but it could be ‘lenses’, that is, mere depictions of them in this painting; I do not know now what technique is used here, and whether it is a painting or a collage that uses the real lenses.  In any case, this still could be seen as an allusion to the use of lenses when creating his earlier works.

There’s another interesting project by Dali, also related to an actress, this time Mae West. In 1934 Dali made a surrealistic drawing showing the actress face composed of some weird furniture and interior details:

Face of Mae West Which May Be Used as an Apartment (1934)

Interestingly, but what was born as a surrealistic joke, later became the full-blown reality; in 1938 this sofa was actually made, commissioned by Edward James, a patron of many surrealistic projects, and eventually became one of the most famous ‘tokens’ of surrealistic movement.

Later even the full furniture set from this painting was made​​, for the Dali Museum in Figueres; it is also a part of a traveling exhibition of his works, that tours around the world. I am not sure how this installation has been presented elsewhere, but we’ve seen it the museum itself, where it is to be seen through the lens!

I couldn’t take the picture myself, it was prohibited by then, but I found an example of such a view online:

When searching for this picture I found another interesting artifact from the museum, so called ‘anamorphic mirror’ (here a bottle used instead of such mirror): 

I don’t recall seeing this object when we’ve been there – but it was many years ago, and I wasn’t all that much into the mirrors yet.

I was going to write a separate posting about these mirrors, but didn’t manage to do it yet. In a nutshell, anamorphic mirrors allow to see images that are otherwise incomprehensible, because of their distortion. For example, in this case we can see the skull in the bottle, but  can barely distinguish it in the drawing.  The very same bottle can also be used to produce this weird image, using ‘normal’ object as the starting pattern.

I also don’t remember another anamorphic mirror, this time a giant sculpture erected on the streets of the town (perhaps it wasn’t even there back then).

In any case, however indicative all these examples might be, they can’t explain the madly sheer spectrum of Dali’s fantasy, nor they diminish his stunning craft, even it was aided by a mirror or a lens.

Here is just example of his visually puzzling paintings, the so called Invisibles; you need to find the Horse, the Lion, and the Woman (or -en).Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion (1930)

But perhaps you can also see the Mirror, too? 

Having mastered this truly explosive mixture of realism and optic carrousel, this coup de réalité, Dali soon became the Master we all know (and many love):

The Persistence of Memory (1931)

The works like this have became the cultural icons of the XX century, and transformed not only the space on their canvases, but an entire visual language of our time.

I personally like more the later, and lesser known version of this painting, where his famous Melting is combined with his another branded visual trick, a very characteristic fragmentation and dismembering of the objects:

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1952)

Soon Dali is a true master of this new art sport, of spoon reality bending, and like Neo is capable to bend not only spoons, and the space and time around them, but also our own perception of what is god and bad, ugly and beautiful, art and kitsch:

Agnostic Symbol (1932)

Surrealism wasn’t, of course, a mere ‘picture drawing’ technique, both for Dali himself and his compatriots; they regarded these works as manifestations of the new and important art movement, aimed at transforming the entire culture and civilization in general. The movement had its own theoreticians and ideologists, including André Breton and Paul Éluard, both French poets and writers and co-creators of the Manifeste du surréalisme.

Dali met Éluard in Paris in the early 1929th . Both Éluard’s own ideas, and the surrealist movement in general provided Dali with a wonderful ‘framework’ for his creativity, as we would say it today; in turn, the movement found in the works of Dali its nearly perfect ‘case’ aka ‘proof of the concept’. The friendship was mutual, and collaboration, mutually beneficial.  

Dali will soon paint one of the most beautiful portraits of Éluard, and at the same time a classical example of surrealist art:Portrait de Paul Éluard (1929)

Éluard, in addition to many other things, was also a patron of arts, and a buyer of the artworks. He bought a few paintings by Dali, and introduced him to few other clients. In the Summer of 1929 Dali decided to invite him to Spain for the holidays. Éluard agreed, and also took his wife, some Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, which was better known as Gala. Their story of her relationships with Éluard, and her role in the surrealist movement is a very  interesting one it itself, but I need to stop myself here, or else it will be too large a detour.

If to be short, after these Spanish holidays Gala became Gala Dalí, for the rest of her life (and Paul Éluard went to Paris alone). Gala was ten years older than Dali, and according to many observers look very similar to his mother, both in appearance and habits (but I promised not to indulge in cheap psychoanalysis).

But yes, many, including Dali himself, called his attitude to Gala idolatrous:

Gala will play huge role in the life of Dali, she is The Muse of the artist and of course the subject of many of his works. The first ‘art mirror’ related to Gala was painted in 1936:Suburbs of a Paranoiac Critical Town, Afternoon on the Outskirts of European History (1936)

As often the case with Dali, it is a very complex, multi-part composition, allowing multiple narrative to emerge (Dali is not Magritte, and rarely goes for the works making just one point).

The mirror depicted here could well be the real mirror used by Gala (but I can’t bet on that):

But at least it’s a ‘real’ mirror, not a hollow signifier as in some of his previous works (of Venus, for instance); it doesn’t reflect anything yet, thought (unless we consider it reflecting the blue sky). 

Mirror-wise, there is a much more interesting work, although technically speaking it doesn’t contain any mirrors:The Angelus of Gala (1935)

It is indeed a very strange portrait, a double portrait even, because we see Gala two times, once facing toward us Gala, and then Gala showing us her back. And yes, despite the lack of the mirror it is, of course, a typical mirror composition.

The Gala’s back will be an important subject for Dali throughout their whole life, and they lived together for more than fifty years. Dali will be portraying the Back of Gala many times:

My Wife Nude Contemplating her own Flesh Becoming Stairs (1945)

This particular composition could be an allusion to Magritte’s La reproduction interdite (1937)

Dali himself will be often saying that his wife’s back is almost a sacred object (even the subject) for him. Salvador Dalí & Gala on January 8, 1955

This Back has also inspired one of the most sensual works of Dali:

The mirror here exists only in the title – Gala nude from behind looking in an invisible mirror (1960) – and therefore and then, in the imagination of the viewer.

The following is perhaps the most complex mirror-in-art work by Dali, the quintessence of the classical depiction of mirror in art, in a sense:

Self-portrait with Gala in front of a mirror (1972)

Of course, at first we see a desire to surpass the compositional complexity of all other masters before Dali (=because We are born the superstars). “Self-Portrait with a Gala in the mirror” is a highly simplified version of the painting’s title, its full version is “Dali from the Back Painting Gala from the Back Eternalized by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected in Six Real Mirrors”.

Who’s looking at whom here, and who sees what becomes problematic very quickly here, and gets only more confusing with time. A simple quantitative conglomeration of the loops of reflection soon starts creating a new – panoptical – quality; vom Beobachten des Beobachters der Beobachter. The famous opening of Milles Plateaux seems to be appropriate here: “Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd“.

Another element worth mentioning here is the magnificent mirror frame; I think, it is the most complex mirror frame ever painted, the frame of the frame framed in the frame (and more):

Despite the complexity of this work, I have still called ‘classical’, and it shows my cognitive dissonance with the mirrors of Dali, so far.  It is known paradoxically and powerfully Dali is bending space/time in his works, creating fantastic, phantasmagoric worlds. And then oops, we have quite a ‘normal’ mirror (albeit a complex one). And when can her see the mirrors surreal? The mirrors that would exceed the (ab)normal way of mirroring reflections? 


At this place I need to make a small pause: I wrote ‘it is known’ but it’s an assumption. I don’t show here hundreds and hundreds of works by Dali, and indeed assume that they are familiar to the readers. What is your favorite painting by Dali, if at all, and why do you like it? Is there any of his work that you don’t like? Why?

I have several of those, in each of these two categories. In fact, for me these are both very dynamic clusters, I tend to dislike the work that became the famous ‘blockbusters’, and thus cultural cliches. Respectively, I like ‘fresh’ Dali, the new and often marginal works of him, which keep amusing me with how different and diverse he was. I also like the examples of multi-sensorial crossovers in his art (the ones we can also call synesthetic):La Musique or L’Orchestre rouge or Les Sept Arts (1957)


But back to the Dali mirrors. Here, however, I am hesitating a bit, because the next piece could well be a good separate posting. On one hand, it is about Dali, and the mirrors, yet on the other hand it is also about another artist, and his mirror, too – and in fact, with yet another artists and his mirrors!

In general, this is the case of what I usually tag as ‘re-appropriation’, examples of homages and art remakes of all sorts. I wrote earlier that Dali deeply admired some of the old masters (for instance, he kneeled in front of the paintings by Jan Vermeer in The Hague). Some of them he was excited with more than the other, and the most aflutter he was with Diego Velázquez, one of the paintings of whom he simply extolled.

This one:

Thomas Struth – Museo del Prado 7 (2005)

In 1960 the world commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of the artist, whom many in Spain regards almost like the Saint these days. Not surprisingly, many famous master created their own homages to the date, including, for example, Pablo Picasso, who made more than fifty paintings after Las Meninas (you can see some of his works, and also many others in this presentation). You can also find one of the Dali’s works on the same topic:

After Las Meninas (1960)

I remember that I was quick shocked with such a schizophrenic treatment of the subject when I first found this painting (but again, it was very new for me, and different from all other paintings by Dali, so it was a positive, pleasant shock).  Now, in the context of art-mirrors, I am slightly disappointed that the mirror here didn’t get its own number.

When gathering these interpretations of Las Meninas back then, I discovered on this work by Dali, and only now learned that Dalí, in fact, also created several works – not as many as Picasso, but still quite a few.

This one is a somewhat more conventional re-make:

After Las Meninas (1960)

All other remakes are far less conventional, but some of have mirrors, while others not.

Velázquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory (1958)

Portrait of Juan de Pareja Adjusting a String on His Mandolin (1962)

After Las Meninas (1976)

The pearl (1981)

Don Jose Nieto Velazquez from ‘Las Meninas’ by Velazquez (1982)

It is evident that Las Meninas were indeed a crucial work for Dali, he keeps returning, and re-interpreting it during many years (compared to Picasso, who produced a one-time splash but then never came back to this work). And yet, and however original are his remakes of the painting, the treatment of the famous Kings’ Mirror remains fairly traditional.


Here I have to make a time-leap, back to the 1930s, when Dali was honing his own paranoiac-critical method (the word ‘paranoiac’ is of course misused here, out of ignorance; with the same success he could talk of the schizoid-critical or psychotic-critical methods – or could skip this psychopathology altogether and simply speak about  any other type of ‘defamiliarization‘.An important part of the method consisted of the systematic re-thinking and re-working of the known classical myths and mems. It was of these exercises when Dali approached the old legend about Narcissus, and reinterpreted it in his painting:

Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937)

I wrote already that it isn’t a mirror-in-art work in the narrow sense, but in a wider context it deals with the very important themes, of optical reflection and its depiction in the painting, and of the mental state of (self)reflection, and its depiction, too.

I didm’t know, however, that Dali also worked with the visual mythologies as well – for instance, he made own remake of the famous mystical panels by Giovanni Bellini:

A pity, of course, that he didn’t make remakes of the other three, and specifically of the one with the convex mirror.

For quite a while the use of optical illusions was one of the most popular methods of such ‘paranormal critics’;  M.C. Escher could be mentioned in this context, for instance. It was believed that these optical tricks, including all sort of (pseudo) reflections and duplications could deceive our rational control of our mental production, and let the ‘truth of the unconscious’ to reveal itself.

Dali panted a large number of such ‘illusory worlds’, filled with the optical illusions of various complexity (kids like them very much, at a certain age.) 

Swans Reflecting Elephants (1937)

Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938)

Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940)

Not surprisingly, many of these works are widely used as book covers for the volumes on Psychology of (Visual) Perception and similar subjects. When I will ‘finish’ with the ‘mirrors’ in art, and decide to widen my theme a bit, Dali will be one of the first artists to re-visit, for sure.

Oasis (1946)


This is a strange work, and I would like to learn more about it. First, I only have this black & white reproduction, and not aware if the color one ever existed. It continues the same series that I mentioned already, of the Old Masters’ studies and remakes (of Lucas Cranach in this case – Dali has been always impressed with the (pretty surreally) long-legged divas of this German master). But it’s a relatively late work, it was painted in mid-1970-s, when Dali was busy with other projects.

Cranach Metamorphosis (Woman in a Mirror) (1974)

In a was, it is a very ironic homage, because Cranach himself never painted a mirror (at least, I didn’t find any, yet).  And yet this strange work was the very missing link I was talking about earlier, when describing my ‘cognitive dissonance with Dali’s mirrors.

It is perhaps the first time when we see not ‘just mirror’, but a strange, surreal one; it doesn’t (only) reflect the world, but also transforms it, by interacting with the viewer. A wildly interesting mirror.

Recently I found a drawing, of an illustration perhaps, which may be somehow related to this series.  It’s called Sybyle Agripa, and also portray a woman with an old convex mirror, but I can’t find much more about this work.

Here is its mirror – or may be not? May be it’s just her dress with a roundel shoulder, and she just hold a scepter of some sort?



Nearing the end of the posting, I’d like to show a couple of more late works.

This one again does not have any art-mirrors (though it has The Back – and also a very strange name: Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity:

Besides a very pronounced anal fixation (which could be spotted in many of the Dali’s works, of course), there is another interesting issue here.  The theme of self-referential loops, permanent recursion and (self)reflection is very common in Dali’s work (though here this autopoietic auto-sodomy is more explicit and quite brutal, more than in his other works.)

As I often say, the later reinterpretations could help help to sense the true meaning of the initial work: here is how the painting is reinterpreted by the contemporary masters of freakoanalysis:


I was fairly happy (e.g., my cognitive dissonance would calm down) even with the Metamorphosis Mirror a la Cranach, but shortly before his death in 1982, Dali painted his most enigmatic mirror work (which, in turn, convinced me that he was indeed a genius master of art-mirroring, too), so-called Mirror Women Heads:

To my knowledge, mirror neurons haven’t been discovered in the beginning of the 1980s (or if there were discovered by a few labs, the knowledge didn’t enter the public domain, and Dali would unlikely know it; all that makes this work by Dali fairly prophetic. He basically got it all right, and also managed to show in a incredibly powerful yet beautiful way that we are all ‘walking mirrors’, reflecting each other, and thus sensing our own reflections, ad infinity –  and autopoietic therefore (even Douglas Hofstadter didn’t make this final conclusion, in his Strange Loop, and that book was published in 2007!) 


As a way of conclusion…


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