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Dali, Salvador - by Philip Ryken

Dali’s Surreal Christ

by Philip Graham Ryken

Currently the Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting “Dali”—a major retrospective of the work of the twentieth-century artist Salvador Dali (1904–1989). I usually try to visit the major exhibitions that come to Philadelphia, but I must say that I wasn’t in any hurry to go to this one. I have never been very enthusiastic about Surrealism in general, or about Dali in particular. But for reasons I will explain shortly, I decided to go ahead and go.

Even if you haven’t been to the show, which has been extended through Memorial Day, I’m sure you’ve seen some of Dali’s work. The eccentric artist is particularly famous for his bizarre landscapes and strange objects, like melting watches or lobster telephones. He is also known for his disturbing and sometimes disgusting portrayal of the human body, including in ways that are sexually perverse. And Dali is known for combining his weird, hallucinatory images with a high-definition, photo-realistic style of painting—a seemingly contradictory method he called “paranoiac-critical.”

Dali pushed Surrealism to the limit. Surrealism was an avant-garde art movement that sought the overthrow of rationalism by the unconscious mind. It did not aim to portray things as they really are, but as they appear to be in the irrational world of dreams and fantasies. Surrealist art is often characterized by the distortion of line, form, color, and even reality itself. Inspired by the famous psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, Dali used Surrealism to explore the dream world of subconscious desire. In the artist’s own words, his goal was to “systematize confusion and thereby contribute to a total discrediting of reality.”

This artistic statement makes Dali’s worldview clearly at odds with the Christian faith. At some level I am able to appreciate Dali’s meticulous technical skill with a paintbrush and his brilliant use of color. In his work I can also recognize universal human experiences, such as the hideous suffering of war, especially as portrayed in Dali’s premonition of the Spanish Civil War (Soft Construction with Boiled Beans). But in many ways Dali’s attempt to discredit reality rebels against the world as God made it. Therefore, I often find myself rebelling against Dali.

Nevertheless, I wanted to see his paintings of Christ, and for this reason I decided to see the show. For a brief period when Dali was at the height of his powers, his artwork took a decidedly religious turn. The artist seemed to be searching for his God. Beginning in 1949, Dali reconnected with the Roman Catholic piety of his childhood and painted various images of the birth and death of Jesus Christ. He even went to Rome to seek the Pope’s blessing on his work, which he did in fact receive.

Dali’s paintings of Christ are among his most interesting paintings. In a moment I will explain why I believe they do not portray Christ as he in the Scriptures, but first I want to acknowledge that by God’s common grace, there are some things we can learn from his spiritual quest. Dali was deeply affected by the nuclear horror of the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he wanted to understand why God seemed to be absent from the modern world. Therefore, his art honestly tells us the truth about alienation, destruction, and the longing for God in the twentieth century. “Heaven is what I have been seeking all along,” Dali said. But “at this moment, I do not yet have faith, and I fear I shall die without heaven.”

Dali recognized that somehow Jesus had to be the answer to his spiritual quest. He believed that Christ himself established the unity of the universe. But what never becomes clear in his work is the gospel of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In nearly all of his religious paintings, Jesus is disconnected from space and time. In The Madonna of Port Lligat (1949), for example, the Christ child hovers somewhere between earth and heaven. Similarly, Dali’s Nuclear Cross (1952) almost seems to be disintegrating. Or consider The Christ of Gala (1978), a late work that Dali painted for his wife. In this three-dimensional painting, the crucifixion is viewed from above, or one would almost say, sideways. But Christ is not nailed to his cross, and his cross is not touching the earth. Whatever this Christ may have done on the cross, he certainly did not die there. And wherever Christ may have done whatever he did on the cross, he certainly did not do it in this physical universe of space and time.

Dali’s presentation of Christ in these and other paintings is consistent with his artistic vision. The artist simply extended his dematerialization of reality into his religion. The result, not surprisingly, is that Dali’s Christ is not real; he is surreal.

Whatever else may be said about Dali’s surreal Christ, he does not have the power to save. Only a real Christ is able to do that—a Christ who was born in a smelly stable, wrapped in warm fabric, and laid in scratchy straw (see Luke 2:6–7). Only a real Christ could take on the flesh and blood of our humanity, becoming one of us to save us (see Heb. 2:17). And only a real Christ could atone for our sins—a bleeding, gasping, dying Christ (see Luke 23:46; John 19:33–34).

I do not know whether Salvador Dali ever knew this Christ. I can only say that he did not paint him. Nowhere is this more evident than in a crucifixion called Corpus Hypercubicus (1953–1954). The muscular Christ in this painting is not dying. He is not suffering. He is not even nailed to the cross, properly speaking. Strong and serene, his physical body is luminous, joyous, and seemingly immortal. It is as if Christ is already being glorified without actually being crucified.

That is not what the crucifixion was like—not at all, thank God! It was a messy, bloody business that ended with the real death of a real Savior. We must never forget that.

Published on the website www.tenth.org, section Window on the World.
 
Windows on the World have been published in My Father's World: Meditations on Christianity and Culture (P&R Publishing, 2002) and in He Speaks to Me Everywhere: Meditations on Christianity and Culture (P&R Publishing, 2004) by Philip Graham Ryken.
 
Philip Graham Ryken is the current president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.