When The Surrealists Expelled Salvador Dalí for “the Glorification of Hitlerian Fascism” (1934)

Image by Carl Van Vecht­en, via Library of Con­gress and Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

We may be con­di­tioned to offer­ing an opin­ion at the push of a but­ton, but before ven­tur­ing on the ques­tion of whether we can, or should, sep­a­rate the art from the artist, it seems ever pru­dent to ask, “Which art and which artist?” There are the usu­al case stud­ies, in addi­tion to the recent crop of dis­graced celebri­ties: Ezra Pound, P.G. Wode­house, and, in phi­los­o­phy, Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger. One case of a very trou­bling artist, Sal­vador Dalí, gets less atten­tion, but offers us much mate­r­i­al for con­sid­er­a­tion, espe­cial­ly along­side an essay by George Orwell, who rumi­nat­ed on the ques­tion and called Dalí both “a dis­gust­ing human being” and an artist of unde­ni­ably “excep­tion­al gifts.”

Like these oth­er fig­ures, Dalí has long been alleged to have had fas­cist sym­pa­thies, a charge that goes back to the 1930’s and per­haps orig­i­nat­ed with his fel­low Sur­re­al­ists, espe­cial­ly André Bre­ton, who put Dalí on “tri­al” in 1934 for “the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Hit­ler­ian fas­cism” and expelled him from the move­ment. The Sur­re­al­ists, most of whom were com­mu­nists, were pro­voked by Dalí’s dis­dain for their pol­i­tics, expressed in the like­ness of Lenin in The Enig­ma of William Tell (view here). It’s also true that Dalí seemed to pub­licly pro­fess an admi­ra­tion for Hitler. But as with every­thing he did, it’s impos­si­ble to tell how seri­ous­ly we can take any of his pro­nounce­ments.

Anoth­er paint­ing, 1939’s The Enig­ma of Hitler (view here) is even more ambigu­ous than The Enig­ma of William Tell, a col­lec­tion of dream images, with the recur­ring melt­ing objects, crutch­es, mol­lusk shells, and food images, set around a tiny por­trait of the Ger­man dic­ta­tor. Kami­la Kocialkows­ka sug­gests that psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic motifs in the paint­ing, some rather obvi­ous, reflect Hitler’s “fear of impo­tence, and cer­tain com­men­ta­tors have not­ed that Hitler’s enthu­si­as­tic pro­mo­tion of nation­al­is­tic breed­ing can fur­ther explain the innu­en­do present in this image.”

The Hitler obses­sion began years ear­li­er. “I often dreamed of Hitler as a woman,” Dalí sup­pos­ed­ly said,

His flesh, which I imag­ined as whiter than white, rav­ished me. I paint­ed a Hit­ler­ian wet nurse sit­ting kneel­ing in a pud­dle of water….

There was no rea­son for me to stop telling one and all that to me Hitler embod­ied the per­fect image of the great masochist who would unleash a world war sole­ly for the plea­sure of los­ing and bury­ing him­self beneath the rub­ble.

The paint­ing Dalí alludes to, The Wean­ing of Fur­ni­ture-Nutri­tion (view here), is the work that first raised Breton’s ire, since “Dalí had orig­i­nal­ly paint­ed a swasti­ka on the nurse’s arm­band,” notes art his­to­ri­an Robin Adèle Gree­ley, “which the Sur­re­al­ists lat­er forced him to paint out.” Dalí lat­er claimed that his Hitler paint­ings “sub­vert fas­cist ide­olo­gies,” Gree­ley writes: “Bre­ton and com­pa­ny appear not to have appre­ci­at­ed a fel­low Sur­re­al­ist sug­gest­ing that there were con­nec­tions to be made between bour­geois child­hoods such as their own and the fam­i­ly life of the Nazi dic­ta­tor.” Like­wise, his creepy dream-lan­guage above is hard­ly more straight­for­ward than the paint­ings, though he did write in The Unspeak­able Con­fes­sions of Sal­vador Dalí, “Hitler turned me on in the high­est.”

Oth­er pieces of evi­dence for Dalí’s pol­i­tics are also com­pelling but still cir­cum­stan­tial, such as his friend­ship with the proud­ly pro­fessed Nazi-sym­pa­thiz­er, Wal­lis Simp­son, the Amer­i­can Duchess of Wind­sor, and his admi­ra­tion for Span­ish dic­ta­tor Fran­cis­co Fran­co, whom he called, as Lau­ren Oyler points out at Broad­ly, “the great­est hero of Spain.” (Dalí paint­ed a por­trait of Franco’s daugh­ter). Oyler points out that Dalí’s “wicked­ness,” as Orwell put it in his scathing review of the artist’s “auto­bi­og­ra­phy” (a spu­ri­ous cat­e­go­ry in the case of ser­i­al fab­ri­ca­tor Dalí), mat­ters even if it were pure provo­ca­tion rather than gen­uine com­mit­ment.

The claim car­ries more weight when applied to the artist’s attest­ed sadism in gen­er­al. Dalí spends a good part of his Con­fes­sions delight­ing in sto­ries of bru­tal phys­i­cal and sex­u­al assault and cru­el­ty to ani­mals. (The famous Dalí Atom­i­cus pho­to, his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Philippe Hals­man, required 28 attempts, Oyler notes, and “each of those attempts involved throw­ing three cats in the air and fling­ing buck­ets of water at them.”) Whether or not Dalí was a gen­uine Nazi sym­pa­thiz­er or an amoral right-wing troll, Orwell is com­plete­ly unwill­ing to give him a pass for gen­er­al­ly cru­el, abu­sive behav­ior.

“In his out­look,” writes Orwell, “his char­ac­ter, the bedrock decen­cy of a human being does not exist. He is as anti-social as a flea. Clear­ly, such peo­ple are unde­sir­able, and a soci­ety in which they can flour­ish has some­thing wrong with it.” But per­haps Dalí means to say exact­ly that. Allow­ing for the pos­si­bil­i­ty, Orwell is also unwill­ing to toss aside Dalí’s work. The artist, he writes “has fifty times more tal­ent than most of the peo­ple who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paint­ings.”

When it comes to the ques­tion of Dalí as fas­cist, some less-than-nuanced views of his work (“Marx­ist crit­i­cism has a short way with such phe­nom­e­na as Sur­re­al­ism,” writes Orwell) might miss the mark. The Wean­ing of Fur­ni­ture-Nutri­tion, writes Gree­ley, seems to reveal “a secret about his own mid­dle-class back­ground” as a nurs­ery for fas­cism, espe­cial­ly giv­en the “dis­turb­ing” fact that “the nurse is a por­trait of Dalí’s own, and that she droops hol­low­ly on the shore near the painter’s Cata­lan child­hood home, sug­gest­ing that Dalí him­self might have had a ‘hit­ler­ian’ upbring­ing.”

Gree­ley’s fur­ther elab­o­ra­tion on Dalí’s con­flict with Bre­ton fur­ther weak­ens the charges against him. “Ten days before the Feb­ru­ary meet­ing, he had defend­ed him­self to Bre­ton,” she writes, “claim­ing, ‘I am hit­ler­ian nei­ther in fact nor in inten­tion.’ ” He point­ed out that the Nazis would like­ly burn his work, and chas­tised left­ists for “their lack of insight into fas­cism.”

The ques­tion of Dalí’s fas­cist sym­pa­thies is inco­her­ent with­out the biog­ra­phy, and the bio­graph­i­cal evi­dence against Dalí seems fair­ly thin. Nonethe­less, he has emerged from his­to­ry as a vio­lent, vicious, oppor­tunis­tic per­son. How much this should mat­ter to our appre­ci­a­tion of his art is a mat­ter you’ll have to decide for your­self.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell Reviews Sal­vador Dali’s Auto­bi­og­ra­phy: “Dali is a Good Draughts­man and a Dis­gust­ing Human Being” (1944)

Ernest Hem­ing­way Writes of His Fas­cist Friend Ezra Pound: “He Deserves Pun­ish­ment and Dis­grace” (1943)

Heidegger’s “Black Note­books” Sug­gest He Was a Seri­ous Anti-Semi­te, Not Just a Naive Nazi

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • Karl Reitmann says:

    Dali is an inter­est­ing case…
    He is a celebri­ty which taints any assess­ment of him or his art.
    I came to the (per­son­al, sub­jec­tive) con­clu­sion that he was a fool.
    His art makes lit­tle sense to any­one apart from him­self, and most of it is just not worth analysing and try­ing to find a mean­ing.
    But his tech­nique was mag­ni­fi­cient. Just get close to his can­vass­es when you vis­it the Museo Reina Sofia.
    He had the gift, he had the work ethique, per­haps the best since the Renais­sance, and he should’ve used all these tal­ents bet­ter.
    Feel free to dis­agree!

  • Asher says:

    His art is gen­uine and genius. he might like fac­sim but on the ather hand he also was pro Israel

  • Ezra Di Amantea says:

    What’s the prob­lem with being a fas­cist? Beau­ti­ness itself is fas­cist. It’s unfair, unequal, and unar­guable. It exists or it does­n’t, and it’s hence, ant­ie­gal­i­tar­i­an too. By the way, I would like to add that Dali had a pic­ture of José Anto­nio Pri­mo de Rivera him­self, the founder of Falangism (The Span­ish Fas­cism) in the hall of his own house. The pho­tos are avail­able on the Inter­net, just google: Sal­vador Dalí José Anto­nio Pri­mo de Rivera.

  • Mags says:

    Nobody cares.

  • Ian Kernott says:

    Fas­cism attempts to define beau­ty as bru­tal­i­ty. That bru­tal­i­ty has led to the death, tor­ture and impris­on­ment of mil­lions of inno­cent peo­ple. If you think that is beau­ti­ful, you tru­ly are a naive or sick indi­vid­ual. Also beau­ty can be found in many things and many places. To an extent beau­ty is sub­jec­tive just depends where you find it.

  • Joe MaMa says:

    Fas­cists are no good

  • Paul Orsi says:

    I find sur­re­al­ism a cult of per­son­al­i­ty. Dali, one of its true orig­i­na­tors was counter-cur­rent and a Anarch in the Ernst Junger def­i­n­i­tion of the word. Sur­re­al­ism is for the destruc­tion of mankind. I have no faith in it except what can be used against it.

  • Jesse says:

    What’s wrong with fas­cism you ask? Are you out of touch?
    It’s embed­ded obses­sion with pri­vati­sa­tion, social caste sys­tems and rigid author­i­tar­i­an ideals for one. The long his­to­ry of fas­cist racial vio­lence for anoth­er. The colo­nial mind­set and ter­ri­to­ri­al­i­ty often embod­ied by it’s mem­bers. The last­ing trau­ma of its liv­ing and dead vic­tims.
    Dali, well, good paint­ings. Been to Reine Sofia and it was well inter­est­ing. I find it hard to seper­ate art and artist as state of mind does influ­ence how you paint. Was he try­ing to express any­thing pro or crit­i­cal to fas­cism? The jury is out.

  • Matt says:

    if you can glean any kind of mean­ing or any­thing out of ANY of Dal­i’s vast work that says more about you than him. What you said could­n’t be fur­ther from the truth. It’s burst­ing with mean­ing. Some you can pick up on your own, some, if you know just a lit­tle bit about him, reveals lay­ers and lay­ers of mean­ing.

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