By Paul Chimera
Dalí’s artistic world was far from a tidy place. Yes, he painted many beautiful works – works that would not in the strict sense of the word even be considered surrealistic. Much of it was masterful realism, with a dash of mysticism and, of course, at least a hint of surrealism.
But a great deal of Salvador Dalí’s work courted the disquieting, the bizarre and, at times, the downright disturbing.
Fitting neatly into this last category is a work I admittedly don’t know much about, but which I keep coming back to as the most frightening work Dalí ever painted, in my personal view: “Cannibalism of the Praying Mantis of Lautreamont” (1934).
This haunting little canvas was inspired by the strange, relatively plotless poetic poem by Lautreamont, called “Les Chants de Maldoror.” An internet source notes that it’s difficult to summarize the poem of six cantos because it doesn’t have a specific plot in the traditional sense, “and the narrative style is non-linear and often surrealistic.”
The work concerns the “misanthropic character of Maldoror, a figure of absolute evil who is opposed to God and humanity, and has renounced conventional morality and decency.” The tone is macabre and violent, and it’s no huge leap to see how Dalí was drawn to such a provocative and controversial theme.
In “Cannibalism,” we see two figures that take on a human-like form of the praying mantis – itself a most peculiar and, to human thinking, a wretchedly violent creature, given that the female literally devours her mate after copulation. That’s surrealism in nature if ever it existed!
The mantis-like figure at left appears to be choking the opposing figure, while a piece of bloody excrement drapes over the left figure’s thigh, such as it is. A leg of meat stands nearby, propped up by a crutch festooned with a chop and a strip of bacon. It all appears in a kind of murky washed-out palette of sickly yellows/browns/blue.
But the terror sets in, for me anyway (and I literally find this work haunting) in the form of a strange little girl in a dress, over whom all the aforementioned imagery towers. She has the look of a scary doll, yet still exudes a lifelike character. Why it is that creepy dolls – both male and female – make for some of the most terrifying images in horror movies, I don’t know. But here in this little-known Salvador Dalí painting, that small figure of a child-doll just might send a shiver up some folks’ spines.
Somehow it pinches a raw nerve with me, which was surely Dalí’s sinister intention!
Dalí also did an impressive series of prints (engravings) inspired by Les Chants de Maldoror; the suite remains one of Dalí’s finest efforts in that medium. They’re startling in their imagery and the technical proficiency with which they were executed.