Salvador Dalí featured animals with great frequency in his works. Surrealism explored the human subconscious, the world of dreams, and it was fertile ground for portraying recurring images in one’s nocturnal cinema of the mind – which frequently includes animals. Who among us, after all, hasn’t had at least one dream about a man-eating octopus or a bloodthirsty shark, or some giant, menacing swarm of insects!
Of the many animals that make an appearance in Dalí’s oeuvre, large and small, the elephant was an oft-seen favorite, such as in the present lithograph, Celestial Elephant of 1979. It’s a little known fact that Salvador Dalí actually owned an elephant, which he named Susurus, and which was housed at the Barcelona zoo.
Except for Dalí’s 1970 Hannibal Crossing the Alps watercolor, it’s rare if not impossible to find a “normal” elephant in Dalí’s works; i.e., one where the large beast doesn’t stand impossibly heavy and tall on stilt-like spider or giraffe legs!
What is the idea behind this unusual and amusing treatment of the mighty pachyderm, anyway? In three words: ambiguity, paradox, contradiction. All, in effect, underpinnings of Dalí’s approach to his art and, to a large extent, the way he lived his life. By doing the exact opposite of what people expected, Dalí provoked us in exciting, amusing, sometimes unsettling, but always memorable ways.
In Celestial Elephant, the paradox is boldly and colorfully evident: a multi-ton animal supported by skyscraper-tall chicken limbs! It is an undeniably funny sight, and Dalí clearly intended to elicit a smile or two in creating this whimsical work. Trumpeting cherubs herald the strong presence of the elephant, which, together with its riders, is already high enough to be in the heavens (celestial, as it were), as it moves along an Egyptian desert featuring a brick-walled pyramid in the middle distance, on top of which a crutch-carrying, victorious-looking figure stands. Colorful dragonflies, butterflies, and the jeweled garment on the elephant itself add to the pageantry and mystique of the scene.
Important images in Dalí’s work, such as the elephant, often find an echo in other works of his, sometimes in a variety of mediums. In the case of Dalí’s elephants, there is a long line of sensational works in which the animal is found.
An early and dramatic appearance of elephants – used to extraordinary double-image effect – was Swans Reflecting Elephants of 1937. This masterful oil painting shows four swans on a small lake, which, at the same time, reveal reflections that are in the shape of elephants (the painting sold at auction for upwards of $3 million in the 1990s).
Another dramatic canvas by Dalí, and one of his most celebrated, is The Temptation of Saint Athony (1946), where various temptations (sex, riches, etc.) are carried upon the backs of three elephants, whose sky-high spider-like legs are perhaps the most dramatic of any of Dalí’s paradoxical elephant portrayals.
Dalí introduced his interest in the elephant into other mediums, too. In the late 1960s, Air India commissioned him to design a promotional ash tray for the company; Dalí came up with a design that was both a swan and an elephant, depending on whether it was right side up or upside down. The skinny-legged pachyderm also showed up – with an obelisk on its back, similar to the one in Temptation of St. Anthony – in Space Elephant, a dramatic jeweled object designed by Dalí.
Dalí even counted among the unusual, surrealistic props strewn about his unconventional property at Port Lligat, Spain, an actual elephant’s skull!
Among other serious paintings in which his utterly unique brand of elephants appears are Triumph of Dionysus and Melancholy, Atomic, Uranic, Idyll. The year Celestial Elephant was created, 1979, was a time when Dalí was playing visual “games” in another way, as well. He was involved in optical explorations that began a few years earlier with his interest in holography and stereoscopy. His 1979 Searching for the Fourth Dimension canvas was another step on the road to discovering new visual phenomena in the medium of oil painting.
Taken in context, then, Celestial Elephant finds plenty of company within Dalí’s prolific career. The graphic has a cheery, optimistic, jubilant quality about it and is a splendid example of how Salvador Dalí could take a comparatively normal subject and give it that special paranoiac-critical twist that made it uniquely Dalínian!
We might be bold enough to say here that, just as Gala told Dalí that once someone sees the soft watches in The Persistence of Memory they will never forget it, so too can it be said of a work like Celestial Elephant. After all, are you ever going to forget so contradictory yet compelling an image?