Dalí’s Preoccupation with Death borne of Early Tragedies

By Paul Chimera

Salvador Dalí Historian


Was Dalí too focused on death? And if so, why? Intriguing questions. Of course, “too” is a relative term. How overboard Dalí may have gone in his preoccupation with death-related images is a matter of perspective. But there’s little debate that it most certainly sprang from some very early influences in his life – two in particular.


We know Salvador Dalí the artist was the second Salvador Dalí. His birth was predated by the birth and, only 21 months later, the tragic death of his brother – the first child, the first son, the first Salvador. Dalí’s grieving parents kept a picture of their lost son on the wall, next to the image of the dead Christ on the cross.


Dalí the artist – born exactly nine months after the demise of the brother he never knew – never quite got over feeling like he was the first Dalí, reborn. So he fought aggressively to establish his own unique identity in an attempt to free himself from the memory of the first child, which hung like a thick, dark cloud over Dalí’s grieving parents.


And then – like a MOAB bomb on top of an already decimated scene – Dalí’s mother dies of cancer when Dalí was a vulnerable 16 years old.


Any wonder Dalí and death were never far apart?


Hence, Dalí’s lifelong preoccupation with “the great tragedy of death,” as he put it. Indeed, Dalí insisted he would defeat death by one day having himself frozen. He reportedly was offering a substantial sum of money to any researcher who could effectively advance the science of cryogenics, such that Dalí could be assured his frozen body would one day be brought back to life.


That never happened. But what did was a remarkable body of provocative, thought-provoking works – paintings, drawings, prints and more – that focused in some fashion on the grand conundrum facing the human condition: the issue of death. Some of the many include…


Dalí’s and Luis Bunuel’s surrealist cinema classic, Un Chien Andalou, which included this scene of a dead donkey…




The Enigma of Desire, which featured the repeated phrase “ma mere” (my mother), in a young artist’s pain brought to canvas.


Salvador Dalí - The Enigma of Desire


Woman Sleeping in a Landscape, which makes us wonder if the woman is sleeping or deceased.


Asleep or deceased?

Asleep or deceased?


Geological Destiny, whose skulls are a traditional symbol of death.




Atavism of Twilight, in which the male figure quoted from Millet’s Angelus – a painting with which Dalí was obsessed, and which itself Dalí believed originally included not a basket on the ground but a child’s coffin – has become a skeleton, suggesting that the woman – whom Dalí saw resembling a praying mantis – has devoured her mate, as a female mantis does after copulation.




Specter of Sex Appeal, where little Salvador looks up in horror at a huge, gruesome figure that looks like death personified.




Morning Ossification of the Cypress, where the flying horse is reduced to dead-cold stone.




Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano. This is a quintessential example of the appearance of the two great themes that permeated so much of Dalí’s surrealism: death and sex.




The Horseman of Death is an extraordinary painting, aptly named and inspired by Arnold Bocklin’s haunting painting, The Isle of the Dead, on which Dalí based a number of his paintings of the 1930s.




The Face of War – skulls again – express poignantly the endless futility and savagery of war.




And, alas, Portrait of My Dead Brother. While the boy depicted is clearly much older than the first Salvador, I depart from most other scholars/experts/specialists – call us what you will – in that I actually see a more than passing resemblance to Salvador # 1. Here’s a photo of the ill-fated boy. What a beautiful child he was.


salvador-dali-portrait-of-my-dead-brother-1963 2


(Images used under Fair Use provisions for journalistic purposes only)