By Sabeeha Mirza of The Salvador Dalí Society®
Gouache and Watercolor on Paper (ARCHES)
56 x 40.5 cm
The late 60s and early 70s brought about a clear fascination with classic themes for Dalí. He borrowed subject matter from everything from folkloric stories, Shakespeare, to Renaissance sculpture. More specifically, Dalí was drawn to their reference to a singular common figure: the horse. The allure of this great animal in Dalí’s eyes comes as no surprise. Historically horses proved to be the vehicle for travel conquest and exploration and thus became a symbol of power and determination. For Dalí, horses not only exemplified grace, strength, and beauty but also anatomically were natural representations of perfect form and balance. Similarly, the artists Dalí modeled himself after also such as Velazquez, Da Vinci, Delacroix, and Goya had produced painterly studies of horses as well. By painting horses, Dalí cleverly included himself in a cultural lineage of great artistry through the common thread of motif. However as the title suggests, Dalí takes this shared theme and presents it uniquely– in his own Dalínean fashion.
From 1970 through 1972 Dalí created a suite of 25 horse-inspired paintings titled Dalínean Horses. Each of the works referred to a powerful story of heroism or to a prominent artist of influence as represented by a specific horse. One of the more alluring of works is Saint George. Dalí had a fascination with the parable of Saint George and the Dragon—a tale adapted from similar narrative of Eastern origin and brought to the West by early Christian Crusaders. Dalí had produced several works throughout his career modeled after the story, perhaps sparked by his interest in Gregorian folklore or the religious subtext of the story. Whatever the reason may be, the story of Saint George is a captivating one. As legend had it, a small kingdom had been plagued by a man-eating dragon which was fed a person periodically to satiate its appetite, preventing it from running havoc on the nearby towns. The unfortunate-soul that was offered to the beast was selected by lottery by decree of the king. That was until the lottery fell upon the princess–the king’s only daughter. By happenstance, Saint George was passing by the lake of which the dragon inhabited and spotted the damsel in distress. Saint George fearlessly charged at the beast, bearing merely a holy cross and a single spear, and wounded it. After rescuing the princess from harm’s way, Saint George harnessed the dragon using the princess’s girdle as a leash and led it back to the king. Upon arrival, George swore to kill the dragon and end its reign of terror with one condition: the king and his people must agree to accept the Christian faith, and thus join the legion of “the saved”. The king accepted the terms and thus Saint George secured himself a position as a hero and protector of the faith. It was this demonstrated valor, fortitude, and wit that made Saint George a reoccurring subject throughout Dalí’s long career.
Saint George from Salvador Dalí’s suite Dalínean Horses is hard to miss. While the story of Saint George was the inspiration of several of Dalí’s works, Dalí had never shown the protagonist quite like this before. In this rendition of Saint George, the off-primary colors of fuchsia, cerulean blue, yellow jump off of the paper in thick, bold strokes making it one of his most captivating versions yet. Perhaps inspired by the brazen nature of the preceding decade’s Pop Art, or the innovations in Technicolor television, Saint George is sophisticated and bold. Dalí had also become a fan of groundbreaking Modernist artists such as William de Kooning and befriended out-of-the box thinkers like Duchamp and Warhol whose influence is evident in this loud, yet precise reduction of form. Dalí’s technical emphasis does not lie in the quickness of brushstroke but rather in the deliberate use of color and composition.
It is this change in technical priority that makes this painting of Saint George unlike those of the painting masters. Dalí is not necessarily concerned with accuracy of representation but rather with the impression the work leaves on the viewer—a truly modern concept. Also in contrast to other renderings of Saint George is the curious absence of the dragon in this piece. This is an obvious nod to the gravity of the impact of the work’s visual components, which reflects the boldness of the protagonist Saint George himself. This sort of fearless approach is resonated by the powerful stance and form of the horse he sits upon.
One of Dalí’s greatest gifts was his ability to latch on to something that inspired him and consistently re-invent these motifs without crossing the line into redundancy. It is no wonder that Saint George became a figure that Dalí admired and repeatedly looked to for inspiration. However, it is in his Dalínean Horses version of Saint George that we see true innovation. Its subject matter may be traditional, but much like the artist who produced it, it is in no way conservative.