In the summer of 2015, my family journeyed to Ibiza for the wedding of dear friends. After attending the big event and relaxing on the island’s rocky, clear-water beaches for a week, we flew to Barcelona and switched into tourist overdrive mode, fitting in as many of the attractions in my wife’s dated guide book as possible in the span of just two and a half days. We bathed in the vivid beams of color radiated by the Sagrada Familia stained glass, weaved through Gaudi’s masterful sculptures and whimsical designs at Parque Guell, and visited the stadium where the 1992 summer Olympics were held.
Yet, what left the greatest impression on me was the Salvador Dalí Museum, which is a short ride outside of the city in Figueres. My curiosity about Dalí’s mind was piqued even before I entered the building. As I approached it, I realized that the exterior walls were covered in hundreds of cement loaves of bread, and the roofs were topped with giant eggs. I knew that this artist was on the brink of insanity in the greatest way possible, and I have been intrigued by him ever since.
Salvador Dali was a Surrealist artist who gained fame by exploring the uncharted territory of the subconscious mind. He introduced the ideas of tapping into human thought to harness the imagination, condemning conformity, and reaching beyond realism. In 1930 he invented the Paranoiac-Critical method, defining the ability of the brain to link two things which rationally are not related. He achieved irrationality through juxtaposition, or the mixing of scenes with subjects that would never interact in the real world. This technique allowed him to distinguish himself, yet his conceptual boldness did not detract from his technical precision and naturalistic form.
The Paranoiac-Critical method is apparent in several Dali artworks, but the specific painting that resonated with me was Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, 1944. It portrays nonsensical juxtapositions that occur in the dream state. While the title describes a simple situation in nature, the flying bee around the pomegranate is overshadowed by the irrational imagery that surrounds it. The main subject is a naked Gala, Dali’s muse, who is featured in about a third of his works. She is deep into a peaceful slumber, as her pale body is stretched out comfortably and her head is tilted towards an extended arm. She is not in a bed, or even on earth, but immersed in her own dream.
Dreams are often cloaked in a hazy film, and in the painting this ambiguity is represented by the unrelated objects in the background and the creatures suspended in mid-air. While the area just below the “horizon” resembles the colors and aura of a calm ocean, it doesn’t behave like water, reflecting light in a mirror-like fashion. Instead, this shadowy matter is the foundation of Gala’s subconscious. It seems to go on forever, as indicated by the microscopic-sized mountain, which appears to be way off in the distance.
Hovering over Gala is a giant half-peeled pomegranate with a few glossy seeds spilling out, tigers pouncing out of the gaping mouth of a large orange fish, and a rifle pointing into Gala’s Right tricep, ready to fire at any minute. At first, these objects seem to have no significant connection or purpose other than to catch eyes and spark controversy, but educated guesses can be made about their meaning. Dali revealed in 1962 that this painting was intended to express “the consequence of the instantaneousness of a chance event which causes the sleeper to wake up,” but many questions are left unanswered: What is the relationship between Gala and her surroundings? What real life event does the image relate to?
I believe that, as the creatures progress from seed to fish to tiger, the Theory of Evolution is presented. Each pomegranate seed represents a life story. The seed of humankind begins with a fish and transitions into a four legged animal. This concept, so overwhelmingly complex and beyond Gala’s control, is still related to her position on earth.
But this life, which she has been granted after eons of evolution, could be taken away from her with a simple pull of the rifle’s trigger. Both the tiger and the rifle can abruptly end Gala’s life, but the former evolved naturally while the latter was designed by humankind. This nod to man’s self-destructive tendencies is timely and relevant, given the world’s state of war during the painting’s creation.
The bee, a miniscule element of this painting, is what causes Gala to wake up and escape her threatening situation. To me, it symbolizes the seamless transition humans make from the dream state to the real world. Despite the sudden awakening within the painting, the painting itself resists resolution, as Dali once admitted: “How do you expect to understand [my paintings] when I myself who am after all the man who has made them do not understand them either.”
Grasping Dalí’s intentions may feel like a shot in the dark, but Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee is relatable because of the universal human experience of having dreams. Like Gala, I am often unfazed by the ridiculousness of my dreams. They make sense in the moment because there is no interference of rational thought. The next day when I try to recall the sequence of events that went on in my mind as I slept, it is surprising how such an absurd dream seemed so plausible as it occurred. Similarly, Gala is unfazed by the improbable combination of creatures and objects around her, as they carry significance for her on a deeper level.