By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dalí Historian
One of the saddest realities of life is that history shows us there were very few if any times when war wasn’t a reality somewhere on our planet. Salvador Dalí reflected this disquieting fact in a host of important works of art, beginning with his iconic oil on panel of 1935, “Flaming Giraffe” (Kuntsmuseum, Basel, Switzerland).
It’s funny how certain Dalí paintings sometimes transport us back to a precise time and place when we first encountered the work, or when it somehow triggered a particular thought or experience. Whenever I see a reproduction of “Flaming Giraffe,” for instance, it takes me back to a public speaking class I took in undergraduate school at Ohio University. We had to riff in front of fellow students on a favorite piece of artwork. I chose Dalí’s “Flaming Giraffe” and the class seemed spellbound (I ace’d the assignment).
“Spellbound” is certainly not an uncommon result when we contemplate Salvador Dalí’s strange but compelling images, born of his inimitable imagination. In the present case, it was all inspired by the grip of impending war – specifically the Spanish Civil War.
The haunting surrealist masterpiece shows a woman against an ethereal aquamarine background. Her flayed arms are disturbing enough, but perhaps pale in comparison to what could be seen as her head consumed in blood. Freudian symbolism riddles her form: seven drawers emerge from her left leg; crutches prop up phallic appendages curiously growing out of her back and legs.
Seen at right is another figure – more elaborately festooned with phallic protuberances – from whose hand a piece of raw meat dangles. And, of course, the giraffe on fire! This shocking, paradoxical, counterintuitive image came to represent war or the specter of war, and made its foreboding symbolic appearance in a good number of Dalí paintings, prints and drawings. Among them, “Inventions of the Monsters” in the Chicago Art Institute, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
The monstrous image – the tallest animal we know, its body engulfed in flames – symbolizes the cruelty and futility of war, and has become synonymous with the Dalí mystique itself, joining such other Dalínian symbols as flies, ants, soft watches, and crutches.
While “Flaming Giraffe” is one of the most significant war pictures created by Salvador Dalí, there’s little debate that the single most important Dalí painting embracing the impact of war was his “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans; Premonition of Civil War” (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA). The late, iconic TIME magazine critic Robert Hughes proclaimed “Soft Construction” the single most important war picture of the 20th century, even overshadowing Picasso’s “Guernica.”