When Salvador Dali Viewed Joseph Cornell’s Surrealist Film, Became Enraged & Shouted: “He Stole It from My Subconscious!” (1936)

Did Sal­vador Dalí meet the diag­nos­tic cri­te­ria for a per­son­al­i­ty dis­or­der and maybe, also, a form of psy­chosis, as some have alleged? Maybe, but there’s no real way to know. “You can’t diag­nose psy­chi­atric ill­ness­es with­out doing a face to face psy­chi­atric exam­i­na­tion,” Dutch psy­chi­a­trist Wal­ter van den Broek writes, and it’s pos­si­ble Dali “con­scious­ly cre­at­ed an ‘artis­tic’ per­son­al­i­ty… for the mon­ey or in order to suc­ceed.” No doubt Dalí was a tire­less self-pro­mot­er who mar­ket­ed his work by way of a sen­sa­tion­al­ist per­sona.

But maybe Dalí faked symp­toms of men­tal ill­ness (via his under­stand­ing of Freud) in order to delib­er­ate­ly induce states of psy­chosis as part of his para­noid-crit­i­cal method, a “spon­ta­neous method of irra­tional knowl­edge based on the crit­i­cal and sys­tem­at­ic objec­tiv­i­ty of the asso­ci­a­tions and inter­pre­ta­tions of deliri­ous phe­nom­e­na,” he wrote. One of Dalí’s extreme “unortho­dox meth­ods for idea gen­er­a­tion,” the prac­tice of pre­tend­ing to be insane may have dri­ven Dalí to believe too strong­ly in his own delu­sions at times.

Through­out the ear­ly 1930s, Dalí cham­pi­oned para­noia, “a form of men­tal ill­ness in which real­i­ty is orga­nized in such a man­ner so as to be served through the con­trol of an imag­i­na­tive con­struc­tion,” he said in a 1930 lec­ture. “The para­noiac who thinks he is being poi­soned dis­cov­ers in all the things that sur­round him, down to their most imper­cep­ti­ble and sub­tle details, prepa­ra­tions for his death.” And the para­noiac Sur­re­al­ist who believes he’s being robbed of his ideas may see artis­tic theft every­where — espe­cial­ly in an exhib­it of Sur­re­al­ist artists that does not include him. (After all, as Dalí once declared, “I am Sur­re­al­ism.”)

In 1936, Dalí attend­ed a screen­ing of Joseph Cor­nel­l’s short Sur­re­al­ist film Rose Hobart (top), named for the obscure silent actress whose scenes Cor­nell excised from a “1931 jun­gle adven­ture film” called East of Bor­neo. Cor­nell took the footage, slowed it down, “chopped it up, reordered it, and dis­card­ed the entire plot,” writes Cather­ine Cor­man. “He cut out reac­tion shots… removed overt­ly upset­ting scenes,” edit­ed in scenes from oth­er films, and “made the film seem delib­er­ate­ly mod­est and worn,” pro­ject­ing it through a blue fil­ter and scor­ing it with two songs from Nestor Ama­r­al’s album Hol­i­day in Brazil (which he’d found at a junk shop).

The screen­ing hap­pened to be held in New York at the same time as the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art’s first exhib­it of Sur­re­al­ist art, an exhi­bi­tion “rife with con­tro­ver­sy,” MoMA writes, that “pro­voked fierce reac­tions from bat­tle fac­tions among the Dadaists and the Sur­re­al­ists.” French Sur­re­al­ist poet and crit­ic André Bre­ton, who two years ear­li­er expelled Dalí from the Sur­re­al­ist group for “the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Hit­ler­ian fas­cism,” wrote the cat­a­logue intro­duc­tion. The Span­ish Civ­il War had just bro­ken out that year, fur­ther aggra­vat­ing Dalí, no doubt, when he encoun­tered Cor­nel­l’s film at a mati­nee screen­ing.

Part­way through the screen­ing of Rose Hobart, Dalí became enraged, stood up, shout­ing in Span­ish, and over­turned the pro­jec­tor. Lat­er, he report­ed­ly told Julian Levy, whose gallery held the screen­ing: “My idea for a film is exact­ly that, and I was going to pro­pose it to some­one who would pay to have it made.… I nev­er wrote it or told any­one, but it is as if [Cor­nell] had stolen it.” Oth­er ver­sions of the sto­ry had Dalí say­ing, “He stole it from my sub­con­scious!” or “He stole my dreams!” Cor­nell had not, of course, reached into Dalí’s sub­con­scious but had man­i­fest­ed the film from his own obses­sions with silent film and Hol­ly­wood divas, themes that run through­out his work. After Dalí’s out­burst, the shy, reclu­sive artist refused to screen Rose Hobart again until the 1960s.

Dalí had van­quished an imag­i­nary rival, but per­haps his true tar­gets — Bre­ton and his for­mer Sur­re­al­ist col­leagues — remained untouched. It would not mat­ter: Dalí eclipsed them all in fame, espe­cial­ly in the age of tele­vi­sion, which embraced the artist’s antics like no oth­er medi­um. But through his per­for­mances of insan­i­ty, maybe Dalí actu­al­ly did touch into a cre­ative pre­con­scious state shared among artists — a place in which Joseph Cor­nell just might have found and stolen his ideas.

In 1932, Dalí had an epiphany about Jean-Fran­cois Mil­let’s The Angelus, a paint­ing with which he’d been obsessed since child­hood and that influ­enced him heav­i­ly as an adult, becom­ing a key source for his para­noid-crit­i­cal method. Dalí claimed that the two farm­ers pray­ing over a mea­ger har­vest were actu­al­ly mourn­ing a lost child. He per­sist­ed in this belief until the Lou­vre agreed to X‑ray the paint­ing. Under­neath, they found a small, child-sized cof­fin, and at least one of Dalí’s para­noid fan­tasies was proved true.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Jour­ney Through 933 Paint­ings by Sal­vador Dalí & Watch His Sig­na­ture Sur­re­al­ism Emerge

Sal­vador Dalí Gets Sur­re­al with 1950s Amer­i­ca: Watch His Appear­ances on What’s My Line? (1952) and The Mike Wal­lace Inter­view (1958)

When Sal­vador Dalí Cre­at­ed a Sur­re­al­ist Fun­house at New York World’s Fair (1939)

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

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