To understand Dalí more fully, one must understand his relationship with Sigmund Freud, whose popularity curve, not coincidentally, matched that of Surrealism itself. Surrealism began in the early 1920s as a social movement, led by writer André Breton. Whereas Cubism was a re-interpretation of reality, Surrealism was a rejection of it. Surrealism celebrated the irrational by de-coupling linkages between subjects and their component parts. The concept was to free the imagination, and was largely predicated on the works of Freud’s psychoanalysis.
The rejection of the rational had strong overtones in the social and political areas. Proponents rejected societal structure and customs in their pursuit of freedom. This led many surrealists to align themselves with communism or even anarchy. Not surprisingly, that in turn led to a fractured movement, with numerous splits and schisms. Breton himself was a friend of, and collaborator with, Leon Trotsky, the driver of Russia’s lurch into communism.
In understanding the barest rudiments of Freud, and recognizing Freud’s belief that the truth of being is depicted in dreams, it is possible to understand the forces driving the Surrealistic movement. This is the reason that Freud’s theories were gaining popularly, or perhaps notoriety, at the same time that Surrealism was on the ascent.
To an artistic mind, the thought that dreams play a central, even pivotal, role in representing reality would indicate that reality is not governed by traditional society and personal forces, but rather by the forces hidden deep inside the mind. Therefore, in order to gain access to those areas, one must throw off any and all restraining shackles. Doing so would result in freedom, and that in turn could lead to freedom of expression. Rationality is a shackle in this model. Repression is an enemy. Dreams must be explored to see true reality, not the filtered reality determined by the Ego.
Freud postulated that there were three parts of the human in terms of governing forces: the Id, the Ego While these entities had no physical location, they comprise theoretical constructs that explain forces governing behavior.
Generally, according to Freud, the Id operates behind the scenes in the unconscious, driven by a “pleasure principle” where basic instincts are gratified. The two instincts he identified were Eros and Thanatos. Eros is comprised of breathing, eating and sex. Together, the resultant energy is referred to as “libido”. Thanatos is the negative force counteracting Eros. When the destructive Thanatos forces are expressed, they are aggressive and violent.
The Ego develops in infancy and is the force that harnesses the Id in order to operate in socially acceptable ways. It is based in reality and can, unlike the Id, operate in both the conscious and the unconscious mind.
The Superego develops in childhood and governs morality. It is similar to the Ego in that it attempts to govern behavior, but does so in terms of moral behavior rather than reality behavior. Guilt is therefore a function of the Superego. There is a constant struggle between the elements of the mind. If the Id desires sex, but the Superego argues that such actions would be immoral, it is the Ego that must determine the solution.
According to Freud, the human mind has a number of coping mechanisms. Repression is a means of putting hurtful thoughts “out of mind”. Denial is a force that refuses to acknowledge obvious truths— “smoking will kill me, but I want to smoke anyway.” Projection moves a person’s shortcomings to another person, thereby freeing the person to do things they might otherwise not do. Displacement is a substitution of one action for another. An angry worker kicks the dog. Regression moves a person back to a different time when the person felt comfortable. Sublimation satisfies an unacceptable impulse through an acceptable one. Lifting weights in order to work out anger is an example.
Dalí was putty in Freud’s hands because Freud could explain Dalí to Dalí. In its purest form, Surrealism utilizes psychic automatism by which expression, either verbally or in writing, shows the true function of thought—thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations. Dalí believed that he was the very essence of Surrealism, as evidenced by his statement that, “The only difference between me and the Surrealists is that I am a Surrealist.”
His adherence to the cause is most identified through his use of the “Paranoiac-critical Method,” which he said, in true Dalínian fashion is a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge, based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.”
Dalí was a strong believer in the importance, perhaps even the preeminence, of the subconscious or unconscious mind. Based on the wholesale rejection of the society that brought about such massive death and destruction as was witnessed in World War I, and the subsequent rejection of the rational underpinnings of a society that could cause such mayhem, another course of human behavior was sought. Hence the rise of Sigmund Freud, whose psychotherapeutic methods were used to treat the innumerable soldiers suffering the psychological injuries of war, and thus became the basis for forward thinkers in the years after the war.
If rationality brought about warfare and a class system that both elevated and subjugated members of society in an essentially random manner, then irrationality would represent the antidote. Within any society, iconoclasts purport to pronounce the path to the future while destroying the status quo. So in the 1920s, the path forward was highlighted by the notion that through the tapping of the real mind, the subconscious, truth could be revealed.
In order to support this process, Freud sought an understanding of, arguably, the greatest mind in history—that of Leonardo da Vinci. He published Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood which explored the artist/inventor’s sexuality in an attempt to connect great thought with Freud’s theory. Indeed, da Vinci did use irrational methods, as would be expected of an artist and inventor who made such quantum leaps past the minds of the time. If one is to invent or design, one must move past the forces that created the present.
Dalí was influenced both by Freud and da Vinci, interpreting them into his own paranoiac-critical method. ngs, the paranoiac believes things that are false, but in the process allows their mind to elevate to a new level of reality.
There is little doubt that Dalí had psychoses and neuroses, including multiple phobias. The question is whether he suffered from them or reveled in them. It is likely true that without his psychological issues, there never would have been a Salvador Dalí. Among his ailments, or critical aspects of influence, were his deep issues with sex. His father, in his attempt at keeping the young Dalí on some form of strait and narrow, provided as much negative feedback and context in all aspects of sex as he could muster. This led the young man to a eurotophobia, a fear of female genitalia, that would last his entire lifetime. He was fearful of any contact, as he was fearful of the consequences of contact—sexually transmitted diseases.
This manifested itself in a series of ways, but is of particular importance in Soldier Take Warning. It is no accident that the two young women shown in the work are, in reality, simply parts of a skull. The two lack faces as they themselves represent death. Dalí was not new to the concept of using a skull in art, and the practice dates back hundreds of years to at least a German artist, who painted in the Dutch tradition, Hans Holbein, who painted a dual portrait of Jean de Dinteville, the French Ambassador to the court of Henry VIII, along with Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur, in a work entitled, The Ambassadors (1533). The tly shows an anamorphic skull, which can only be identified through a sharp-angled view from the lower left to the upper right.