Art in the right place: Salvador Dali, surrealism and psychology

For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated with the eccentric Salvador Dali and his art. Luckily, I have managed to see many of his original paintings at art galleries all around the world. I’ve even had a few articles published about him. Dali was the last and most famous exponent of surrealism, an art form that reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, and was the forum where he displayed his originality, uniqueness and individuality. One measure of his greatness was that he influenced so many people in so many ways (e.g., through art, film, opera, ballet, fashion, design, etc.). Dali himself was influenced by psychology – particularly psychoanalysis – and Dali to some extent has had (and could still have) an influence upon present day psychology.

Dali was born on May 11, 1904 in the Spanish town of Figueras. After the death of his mother in 1921, Dali moved to Madrid where he studied at the Principal Academy of Fine Arts. It was there that his artistic brilliance and eccentricity began to appear. In 1929, three events occurred which had a significant impact upon Dali’s life. Firstly, he met his future Russian wife (Gala) who was at the time married to the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard. Secondly, he was welcomed into the Surrealist movement by André Breton after impressing him with a film he had made with surrealist filmmaker Louis Buñuel (the now notorious Un Chien Andalou). Finally, it was the year that Dali’s father – outraged by an irreverent Surrealistic boast – placed a curse on Dali that he would die poor and alone. Dali took the curse seriously, consulted the tarot cards daily and noticeably changed his attitude towards money.

As his reputation increased, reports began to appear that he was slowly turning mad. Dali suffered from many phobias including the fear of grasshoppers, telephones and the physical touch of other human beings. He was sexually confused and it was highly unlikely that with Gala he overcame his aversion to sexual contact. Sexual failure was symbolised as impotence in many of his most famous paintings that depicted limp watches, melted cheeses and sagging flesh. It is interesting to note that (according to Anthony Storr) Sigmund Freud believed that the sublimation of an unsatisfied libido produced great works of art through the discharging of infantile sexuality into non-instinctual forms. It has been suggested that if Dali not conquered his phobias on canvas he would have ended up in a lunatic asylum.

In 1948, Dali was expelled (by Breton) from the Surrealist movement for his anti-Lenin, pro-Hitler stance (Dali had declared Hitler’s personality a surrealist object), and for his increasingly materialistic lifestyle stemming from his father’s curse. As The Independent’s obituary on Dali noted, he was “fully aware of the Freudian unconscious identification of money and excrement (and) would have regarded being filthy rich as a necessary component of Dalinean identity”.

A number of authors have noted that Sigmund Freud was a major inspiration to Dali, especially his book The Interpretation of Dreams. This was described by Dali as “one of the capital discoveries of my life”. To surrealists like Dali, dreams were superior facts, thus surrealism applied Freud’s theories to art. In his pre-1940 paintings, Dali’s hysteria and hallucinations produced surreal dreamlike imagery, subverting the viewer’s sense of reality in a series of bizarre psychosexual landscapes. Shortly before Freud’s death, Dali was introduced to him by the writer Stefan Zweig and even made a sketch of Freud there and then at their one-and-only meeting. The next day, Freud wrote to Zweig and said:

“I really owe you thanks for bringing yesterday’s visitor. For until now I have been inclined to regard the surrealists, who have apparently adopted me as their patron saint, as complete fools…That Spaniard, with his candid fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery, has changed my estimate. It would indeed be very interesting to investigate analytically how he came to create that picture”.

This particular meeting was dramatised in Terry Johnson’s play Hysteria about the life of Freud. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst who attempted to link psychoanalysis and linguistics, was also an influence on Dali. In turn, it also transpired that Lacan was greatly influenced by the surrealist movement and even wrote articles for their magazine Minotaure. It is clear that Lacan’s eccentricity, his talent for abuse and his anti-establishment attitude owed much to the surrealists. The one area of mutual interest for both Dali and Lacan was that of paranoia. In the creation of his paintings, Dali used what he termed the “paranoid critical method” and described by Dali as “the interpretation of delirium”. Other more verbose descriptions of this concept (outlined in many of Dali’s obituaries immediately after his death) have described it as “a spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations”, the use of “the most academic and traditional of painting techniques to illustate the most way out of human imaginings”, or simply “looking at one thing and seeing another”.

Dali’s influence on psychology is much less talked about yet it is these potential influences that (for me at least) make him one of my heroes. His most direct contribution has been in the field of perception where his paintings have been used in psychology undergraduate textbooks to demonstrate figure-ground illusions (Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire, 1940), perceptual reconstruction (Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1934) and surrealistic images (The Persistence of Time, 1933). In many of his early paintings, Dali used what he called “tricks of fooling” to invoke “sublime hierarchies of thought”.

On a more individual level, Dali would make an excellent case study of someone with an outrageous and eccentric personality. It could be argued that Dali’s paintings said more about Dali than any personality test ever could. He has also been described as the “embarrassing genius”. The word ‘genius’ is often used synonymously with ‘high intelligence’. However, this may not be the case with Dali. It is through people like Dali that psychology’s understanding and limited concept of (academic) intelligence could be broadened.

Finally, Dali’s eccentricity can teach psychology about advertising, publicity, and self-promotion (something that some of my peers say that I am no stranger to). Many commentators have followed surrealism from the transformation of the artists revolt to standard television material. As The Independent obituary pointed out:

“There can be no doubt that Dali willingly collaborated with commercialism in compromising his gift by repetitive exploitation of the more luridly sensational products of the imagination”.

His stuntmanship and exhibitionism have assured him fame and has thus been labelled the ‘Old Master of Hype’. Dali’s gift of ‘reaching the masses’ with apparently little effort could be studied and utilized by various campaigners – especially those who need to get their message across to a wider audience. As Dali (and others like John Lennon) constantly demonstrated, like talent, a carefully calculated stunt can make a little go a long way. It is this coupled with his influence across so many different disciplines that made Dali such a pervasive and heroic type figure, not only for me but for many others as well.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Benvenuto, B. & Kennedy, R. (1986). The Works of Jacques Lacan: An Introduction. London: Free Association Books.

The Economist (1989). Headstones for a revolution. January 18, p.94.

Fallon, B. (1989). Surrealist stuntman, the Old Master of hype. Irish Times, January 24, p.10

Fuller, P. (1989). Dali’s vain glory. Sunday Telegraph (7 Days Magazine), January 29, p.6.

Gascoyne, D. (1989). Salvador Dali: Obituary. The Independent, January 24, p.11.

Griffiths, M.D. (1989). Salvador Dali and psychology. BPS History and Philosophy Newsletter, 9, 14-17.

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). Heroes: Salvador Dali. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 7, 240.

Hughes, R. (1989). The embarrassing genius. Time, February 6, p.42.

Jones, E. (1953). The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud. London : Penguin.

McGirk, T. (1989a). Salvador Dali: Obituary. The Independent, January 24, p.11.

McGirk, T. (1989b). Dali – A life shadowed by a father’s curse. Irish Times, January 24, p.10.

Storr, A. (1989). Freud. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

You can also check out the following website:


About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on April 4, 2013, in Advertising, Case Studies, Fame, Mania, Popular Culture, Psychology, Sex, Workaholism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. My recollection from reading a book called The Eudaemonic Pie (British title: The Newtonian Casino) is that a section on the history of gambling systems claimed that Dalí devised a method of playing poker (I think that was the game) which over time would reliably break even, not win. Not having the book in my possession, I was trying to verify my recollection when I found this blog post of yours. Given your professional work, I thought I should mention it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: