Life out there is the primary means of inspiration for any good writer. And today life tells me “Ode to Surreal(istic) Elephants”
This article represents how inspiration always comes from the things we see and hear from the world around us.
It all started with the horrible news of the killing of the pregnant elephant, who died from trusting the goodness of the man who offered her a pineapple. Although the news is now taking different forms, such as misunderstanding or accident.
We got inspired and elaborated this news creatively. The Blue Drop does this: it creates hybrids between art and writing, between art and psychology. Analyze art with the elements of the world around it. Find matches even where they don’t seem to be.
However, what could be nice about the news of a living being and her own cub killed? We can try an experiment and maybe doing homage to them.
“Ode to Surreal(istic) Elephants”). In Salvador Dalì’s unrestrained, sybaritic, twisted, ambiguous, psychotic and animalistic imagination, the elephant found a privileged place to say the least. In his artistic production, the mammoth animal found place in four cardinal works, with a very particular meaning.
1944: Elephant, Tigers and dream.
It is 1944, Dalì and his wife Gala are in America and she has a bizarre dream that she tells her husband. The painter is fascinated by it, as he has long been fascinated by Sigmund Freud’s theories on the unconscious and dreams. He decides to try to represent them and he paints “Dream Caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before waking up“. The master tries to condense highly articulated dreams into a single fairytale image, ending up creating what Christopher Green described in the 90s as “paranoid critical method” (where “paranoia” does not mean persecutory psychosis, but Greek word meaning “senselessness”). It means that Dalì in his art tries to do what Freud did with the word.
In this artwork, in addition to many elements straddling the iconographic and the symbolic staff, a beautiful elephant that runs in the background stands out. He has an obelisk on his back and very thin flamingo legs. Despite the sleeping woman, who offers a sense of dream and relaxation, the whole work is very dynamic; she is quick, quick, as if she wanted to hurry before the dream ended because of the bee sting, symbolized by a bayonet near the woman’s body.
The elephant with the obelisk was obviously easily traced back to Bernini’s sculpture from Rome in Piazza della Minerva. We know that Dalì was not type to leave things to chance: but we do not know for sure if there was an elephant in the dream that the artist chooses to represent in that way or decides to put the animal there only for its symbolic implications.
The elephant has a rather particular symbolism, as it is not a beast that often appeared in western art. In general it can be associated with physical strength, massive presence, resistance; but also to meekness and obedience, to slowness. Certainly also the courage and a certain idea of ”playfulness” that the animal possesses and which proves to be available to man.
The elephant that Dalì paints in this first work is in fact cheerful, he seems to run and smile (as in particular). The obelisk he carries rests on his back and is smooth as a crystal, but it will not always be so. Of course, the most bizarre detail is the long, slender insect legs, which make it as agile as an ibex. This is the first great contradiction, the clear distinction between the real data and a detail that cancels the basic concept of the elephant with such force. A light elephant. It’s paranoid criticism and love of contrasts, especially of oxymorons. Ode to Surral(istic) Elephants.
1946: Temptations’s Parade
Two years pass and Dalì proposes the elephant in the opera “The Temptation of St. Anthony“. The animal is again well turned, with skeletal legs and carrying something. However, the playful elephant of the first painting here is replaced by a caravan of very different elephants: starting from the first, in good health, the elephants become increasingly skinny, emaciated and with shreds of falling skin. They are submissive, look on the ground and seem to be affected by the weight they carry.
Indeed, it seems that the heavier the load becomes, the more their appearance worsens. On their backs symbols that should yearn for temptation: sex, power, wealth, golden palaces. Although the Sant’Antonio showing the vampire hunter-like crucifix, he seems to praise them more on arrival, completely reversing the classic scene’s iconography. But in the same way, elephants here too are twisted beasts, light but weighed down by their role and probably being worn out.
The last light-colored elephant in the background is the twin of that of the first painting, but it doesn’t run and it doesn’t laugh. He sadly carries a smokestack, although the usual phallic symbol has been seen in large part: the proximity of the chimney to the city suspended on the coffee-colored cloud would indicate a highly negative predisposition to the progressive vision of factories and toxic clouds. It was not for nothing that he was still in America and had a passion for scientific subjects, including the atomic bomb. And as if these elephants were at the (sad) service of all this.
The Bernini’s Prototype in Rome
We all know it well: the first model that inspired Salvador was Bernini’s “chick” in Rome. But does anyone know why? It is a long chain: Bernini sculpted the sculpture in 1667, so that it is the base of an obelisk found in the archaeological area of Campo Marzio, in the heart of Rome. The model of the sculpture is taken from a miniature belonging to Cristina of Sweden, who moved to Rome after the exile but the iconography was taken from an illustration of the allegorical novel “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (literally “on the love battle in a dream of Polifilio”) of 1499. I don’t want to go further because the discussion would be long, but only to suggest two details:
The first is in the writing that Bernini inserts on the base of the sculpture, to explain the Egyptian obelisk:
<< Anyone here seeing the signs of the Wisdom of Egypt carved on the obelisk, supported by the elephant, the strongest of the beasts, understand this as proof that a robust mind is needed to support a solid wisdom >>
Mighty wisdom and ability, mighty strength of the animal. Dalì can not help but consider the elephant for its physical strength but also spiritual and integral: it is an animal worthy to appear within a dream subconscious (first work) and to support the weight of the ethical “softness” of the ‘man (second work). It is proper this to kill the animal.
Another thing to note is that the symbolic value of the hieroglyphics on the obelisk. Without embarking on translations, simply Dali in the first work leaves the obelisk bare; in the second, the obelisk is replaced by symbolic images that allude to temptations. It will be only in the last work that something changes.
1948: The desert of loving Elephants
Last work, this time entirely dedicated to elephants, entitled “The Elephants” from 1948. Perhaps one of the most hieratic, certainly with a silent atmosphere. The scene looks like that of a desert or even a post nuclear disaster. There are the two elephants with the usual, “oxymoronic”, long and light legs. These too are in a serious state of thinness and wear. The dualism between heaviness and lightness and between vigor and fragility returns. If one wanted to elaborate a unique description, in relation to “The Temptation of St. Anthony“, this could be: the man has been corrupted by the gifts brought by the procession of animals. Toxic smoke did the rest, everything burned, even the tiny figures under the paws of the procession (like the almost invisible little family). Now there is nothing but desert and silence and a couple of battered elephants who survived the disaster.
Everything is in reading the details: First of all, now Egyptian symbols appear on the ruined obelisks. There are eyes and the structures float weightlessly on the back of the elephants. The obelisk, as a symbol of power in general in Egyptian society, was believed by folklore as a petrified sunbeam on earth and led back to Ra, the solar deity, even if here the sun is not seen but is felt. Furthermore, there is a surreal (justified!) use of light, as one elephant is in the shade and one in the light.
The eyes of the obelisks are a very fortuitous detail for Dalì, as they were the privileged means of seeing beyond in the metaphysical dimension of the paranoia that the artist had designed in all his works. Elephants, wise animals ruined by human disaster, still manage to convey power and ability to see. (Two elephants for two eyes in one face, but that’s just a personal thought.)
Dalì’s art is extremely layered. His images are endowed with multiple meanings, the “double images” as well as double eyes and human personality. His works are often mirrors or concentric circles, two halves of a single coin. The realities he presents to you are like the second category of dreams described by Freud in his great book “The Interpretation of Dreams“: they are fantäsmata, or amplified reproductions like nightmares. Speaking of doubles and speculars, in 1937 Dalì made a work entitled “Swans reflecting elephants” (to remain on the subject of pachyderms); although the picture is complex, one can guess that at the base there is the theme of reflection that reveals something else from one’s personality or appearance. From the series “You believe yourself graceful and with a curvy neck, you are actually awkward and heavy” (although we have seen that the elephant is powerful and strong!)
The last detail of the work, very small, are the two figures walking under the paws of the elephants. A man and an angel.
The angel who comes to the rescue in the desert is very recurring in religion and art, like the story of Hagar who is rescued by the Angel of God. Considering the eccentric and almost mystical religiosity of the master, it may have been inspirational, even if you cannot be sure of the real interpretation. If, however, we wanted to consider the theme of the angel in the desert with narrative intent, then we would say that together with the elephants who survived whatever bad things happened, a man is still there and an angel of Providence runs to his rescue.
Perhaps, in this universe of apparitions, double and triple meanings, in truth the work has a meaning of hope even after the disaster and of intelligence behind stupidity. Of Love after hate.
To want to go even further inside, however, the angel of “The Elephants” remembers a lot the figure on the building symbol of sin in the procession of “The Temptation …” (which surely Dalì has taken from a sculpture). Given the negative meaning of that work, it may also be that the Angel is there to deceive and tempt the man again. In that case, hope is over.
Luckily Dalì was unable to see what they do to his precious elephants today. Episodes like that one in India could have pushed him to create his own version of “The sleep of reason generates monsters“, quoting Goya.
In a certain sense what Dalì had painted (unfortunately) came true. His elephants wear out and perish behind human stupidity and “softness”…
Hoping that you liked the piece, I dedicate it to the beautiful elephant and her cub. I leave you with some surrealist elephants of our times.
This post is also available in: Italian