‘The Great Masturbator’ Holds a Mirror to Dalí’s 25-Year-Old Psyche

By Paul Chimera

Dalí Historian/Writer


For this blogger, the toughest thing I have to grapple with when talking about Dalí’s “The Great Masturbator” is its title. Call me a hopelessly conservative guilt-ridden old curmudgeon, but I still cannot say I’m fully comfortable telling people the name of this work.


But this blog is all about Dalí – and this painting (OK, I’ll say it again: “The Great Masturbator”) is part of the open book that was Dalí’s life at this time, shared via his revealing surrealist paintings of the very late 1920s and the mind-probing decade of the 1930s.


“The Great Masturbator,” painted in 1929, is almost literally a lobotomist’s view into the mind of a 25-year-old Dalí, swirling with angst, sexual yearnings and fears, erotic thoughts, and curious sources of personal shame and terror.


The huge yellow head, its long-lashed eye closed, its prominent nose shoved to the ground, derives from a very specific rock formation Dalí saw daily along the landscape of his home in Port Lligat, Spain. It was the impetus for the same-shaped figure – some call it fetus-like – that appears in the foreground of Dalí’s most famous picture, “The Persistence of Memory.” And, as in “Persistence,” in “Masturbator” it is meant to be a self-portrait. (Some have suggested it looks like a painter’s palette – a perfectly plausible interpretation.)


So what was on Salvador’s mind when he was painting this picture? Everything! Let’s start with sex, shall we. Eroticism underpinned a great deal of Dalí’s art, and here we see a seductively posed woman on the cusp of fellatio. A phallic lily flower is close by, and, coupled with the trickle of blood, conjures up thoughts of deflowering (or possibly castration).


Lovers embrace at the bottom center of the painting, but something huge and menacing towers above them: a horrifying grasshopper in immense scale, its belly bloated with a swarm of ants, as the insect clings to Dalí’s face! Such a concept literally terrified Dalí, whose panic fear of grasshoppers was widely known.


Meanwhile, a lone figure at far bottom left points up a sense of isolation and dread, adding to the angst-riddled nature of this remarkable example of surrealism at its finest: everything is out there; no restraints. A self-pleasuring, anxiety-driven, erotic-minded 25-year-old lad is hardly a far-fetched concept: this was truly a Dalí self-portrait!


A work like “The Great Masturbator” reminds us how Salvador Dalí art was driven by a host of influences: the world he actually saw, the world of his dreams, and the emotions that affect us all. Speaking of dreams, one might conclude that the precariously balanced rocks and shells seen in the upper left represent the dream world, where there’s always that delicate balance between the world of dreams – and nightmares – and the waking state. One small disturbance and the balance is off; everything changes.


The rock-inspired head in this important painting informed countless Dalí paintings, Dalí prints and other works that followed – the most significant of which was 1932’s “Persistence of Memory.” Underscoring how important Dalí’s native countryside was in influencing the imagery that appeared so impressively on the canvases of the Catalan master.