Chapter 16

Salvador Dalí, The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus

I'm more than a little aware that including this book risks losing readers: those who are serious about the discipline of art history, those who are care about Dalí's politics under Franco, and those who care about experimental writing. But as a reaction against early 20th century art history, Dalí’s book is unparalleled, and it was written in 1933, making it contemporaneous with writers such as Breton, Bataille, and Lacan. It is therefore an appropriate prelude to the poststructural experiments I will be considering. (Later in this project I will look at Breton, because his fiction has more to do with writing and images than writing on art.)

I wrote a chapter on Dalí's book in 1999, in Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?—this is a revision and abbreviation of that chapter. That entire book is available, illegally, on and on Scribd.

Salvador Dalí’s book The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus, translated into English and published by that outlet of diluted surrealism, the Dalí Museum, is a brilliant text: it’s a sustained series of utterly improbable fantasies about Millet’s painting, soberly presented as a serious scholarly inquiry. For Dalí, “serious” means psychoanalytic, and so a reader need not be too shocked when, opening the cover of the original French edition, she encounters a double–page spread of an obscene postcard. (The English edition tries to be a bit more chaste, offering a reproduction smaller than a postcard.) 

Dalí then launches into an absurd psychoanalytic theory of the image:
Let us look at it. The mother, who could well be a variation of the phallic mother with a vulture’s head of the ancient Egyptians, uses her husband, whimsically “depersonalized” into a wheelbarrow, to bury her son while at the same time causing her own impregnation, being herself the foster–mother–earth par excellence. 
The double–image” of the phallus–cactus seems to us an unequivocal allusion to the desire to castrate the spouse, who, thus deprived of his virility and reduced to the state of a simple vehicle of social productivity, can no longer form a screen, or a hindrance in the direct relations of mother–son, or the rising sun of an absolute matriarchy. In the matriarchy, the mother wishes to substitute herself for the husband by replacing him in all “situations”; in the present case, that of a wheelbarrow. Thus she would like to play, be coaxed, a wheelbarrow rhythmically balanced by her son, himself at the zenith of his “heroic” athletic university student strength during which, in a matriarchy, he goes through a very short period of maternal idolatry just before undergoing in turn the fate of his father the moment he becomes a husband.
The passage contains most of Dalí’s theory of Millet’s painting: he wants it to depict a mother who has just killed her son and is anticipating being sodomized by her husband before she cannibalizes him.

There are many reasons to dismiss Dalí’s book—too many. He was famously undependable, excessive, theatrical, egomaniacal, and frivolous: as Freud said, he was a true fanatic. The book obviously revels in what it does to the Angelus, which was once a ubiquitous icon of middle–class values and pallid romantic yearnings. The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus is an extravagant self–promotion, made even worse in the American edition by the addition of The Myth of William Tell (The Whole Truth About my Expulsion from the Surrealist Group). In terms of art history, Dalí is marginal even to those historians who have sought to privilege surrealism.

And yet the book is exemplary art history. I mean that in a very particular way: Dalí’s book exhibits many of the strategies of art history, and it is irreproachably well–informed about conventions that only became widespread long after the book was written.

Art historical methods, put to perverse purposes
While most art historians learn their psychoanalysis from texts, Dalí “learned” his psychoanalysis from the source itself—from Lacan. "Learned” is in quotation marks since it is far from clear that Lacan did the teaching. Their relationship in the years 1933–36 was formative for both of them, and the give–and–take is still insufficiently studied. Dalí had read Lacan’s thesis, which was finished in 1932, but his own essay “Paranoiac–Critical Interpretations of the Obsessive Image of Millet’s ‘Angelus’” appeared in Minotaure in the pages just before Lacan’s seminal paper “Problem of Style and the Psychiatric Conception of the Paranoiac Forms of Experience.” The relation between the two is not easy to disentangle, though as Dawn Ades has pointed out, Dalí derived some support from Lacan’s notion of the “objective and ‘communicable’” nature of paranoid phenomena. Certainly not all Lacanians are interested in pursuing his thought in Dalí’s direction, and Dalí did not help matters by telling a ridiculous and embarrassing anecdote about a meeting with Lacan in My Secret Life. (Dalí wonders why Lacan is staring at him so strangely, and then when Lacan leaves, Dalí discovers he has a scrap of paper glued to his nose.) 

In the absence of a good account of Dalí’s relation to Lacan, it is enough to point to the confluence of ideas, and the fact that Dalí’s book may have been written virtually simultaneously with Lacan’s dissertation. What art historian could claim anything similar? Art historians who use Lacanian theories learn at first from translations of partly unreliable and mysteriously edited transcripts of seminars that took place decades ago. To some degree Dalí and his theorist du jour were collaborators, or at least equals.

Psychoanalysis is not the only theory mobilized in the book, though it is the only one that is named as such. The entire book is set as an exploration of the painting’s power, and it is confessional about the effect the painting had on his life (given, of course, that Dalí’s confessions are rarely what they seem). Despite the many rhetorical reasons not to believe Dalí's stories about Millet's painting, it seems the painting did actually trouble him: even if the prose is unreliable on that score, the paintings testify to an enormous amount of time spent with the image. The encounter had effects that lasted over thirty years, from the first appearance of a Millet-motif in 1929 to Gala Looking at Dalí in a State of Anti–Gravitation in 1965; it was a central preoccupation, a guiding obsession or "obsession" for most of his working life. 

When I was teaching this text in a graduate seminar, two Spanish-speaking students (one from Mexico, another from Colombia) told me that in the original Dalí's tone is wild, rough, and informal, much more than in the English or French versions of the book. That undisciplined, unacademic voice is compatible with his insouciance about history and scholarship. The autobiographical mode Dalí deploys so carelessly has only come into art historical writing as measured deconstructions of the distanced authorial voice. (As in Krauss's descriptions of Clement Greenberg's face in The Optical Unconscious.) What could be more openly autobiographical, and less guarded, than the crazy photograph of “The beginning of an erection on Dalí while being photographed disguised as The Angelus”?

Dalí is also ahead of the curve in the anti-Kantian project of describing the "power of images." He recounts an instance in which a man knifed the Angelus and was put in an insane asylum, and uses that anecdote to make a point about the painting’s unpredictable power: exactly what David Freedberg and Leo Steinberg were to chronicle over forty years later. And Dalí does them one better by providing an appendix describing the outcome of Lacan’s interview with the man, in which the patient rants about Watteau’s Embarkation to Cythera, which in turn leads Dalí to promise an entire book on the “marvelous trilogy” of the Angelus, the Embarkation to Cythera, and the Mona Lisa. (Although that book never appeared, he did write an essay  explaining “Why They Attack the Mona Lisa”; it divides assailants into “ultra–intellectuals” such as Duchamp, and “more-or-less Bolivians” who throw “pebbles,” or just steal the image.) 

For Dalí as for the surrealists images are disruptive, disorienting, or sexually coercive, and though he treats the issue carelessly he is more at ease with the confessional mode, and with the thought that images can have deep and unexpected effects, than some the most adventurous postwar art historians. 
The same could be said of Dalí’s uses of several other art historical methodologies. Peircean accounts of the mobility of meaning, and texts about performative criticism, are not often as kaleidoscopic as the interpretations Dalí offers beginning with his very first illustration. Experiments in mingling “literary” and historical writing are overshadowed, in a sense, by Dalí’s literally incredible reminiscences, his purple prose, and his giddy mixture of criticism, philosophy, history, and confession. It is a sign of the text’s overwhelming inventiveness that it even has an echo of Derrida’s discourse on Van Gogh’s shoes: speaking of the man who had slashed the Angelus, Dalí says 
one cannot fail to compare this man’s case with that of Van Gogh, whose obsession with Millet at the crucial point in his madness, forced him to copy in his own style several paintings by Millet from postcards. On the other hand, there is every reason for stressing the automatic repetition of drawings of wooden shoes in the pictures of Millet.
It’s a funny passage, not quite on Derrida’s subject, but uncannily near it in the way it plays with Van Gogh, shoes, obsession, interpretation, and violence. 

I don’t want to imply Dalí’s book is in some way a model for what recent art history has been doing. His autobiographical writing, his confessional approach to artworks, his semiotics, and his combinations of criticism and history are quite different from the forms those strategies have taken in art history. But his writing is so free, and it embraces its methods so fully, that it can be understood as a more radical version of the relatively suppressed writing in and around art history.

Dalí’s formal analyses, for example, are sometimes astonishing—they have the same hypertrophied precision that went into his paintings—and his writing style is fluent beyond what most historians could accomplish. There are a number of points in the book where his rhetorical power is used to create a force of argument that is lacking in much art history:
How then explain and reconcile this obsessive unanimity, this undeniable violence brought to bear on the imagination, this power, this absorbing and exclusivist efficacy in the reign of images? How reconcile, as I said before, this force, this fury even in the reproductions with the miserable, tranquil, insipid, imbecilic, insignificant, stereotyped, and conventional to the most mournful degree, of the Angelus of Millet? How can such antagonism not seem upsetting? No explanation can henceforward appear valid to us if it continues to count on the belief that such a picture has nothing to say or “almost nothing to say.” We are convinced that causes of a certain importance cannot fail to correspond to such effects, and that, in reality, under the grandiose hypocrisy of a content manifestly the sweetest and the most worthless, something is happening.  
Like many art historians from Riegl and Gombrich to Jonathan Crary and Alexander Nemerov, Dalí collects an unexpectedly wide range of sources. The pornographic postcard is only his first popular image; as Gombrich was to do thirty years later, Dalí collected Angelus cartoons and postcards from all around the world. He also reports on storefront displays, sets of china, and a book he had as a child. And have any art historians cited sketches they first published in Playboy

When it comes to questions of technique, most art historians make use of existing conservation reports; Dalí convinced the technical laboratory at the Louvre to make an X-ray of the Angelus, to see if they could uncover hidden images. (The X-ray, which he reproduces, reveals a small curvilinear form on the lower margin which he claims is coffin–shaped, confirming his conviction that the painting is about the burial of a son.) 

His research is often surprising. Having found the vaguely “trapezoidal” outline of the “coffin,” he produces a photograph of a gravestone in Quinéville which is not only black and trapezoidal, but has a relief of the Angelus sculpted in it! (Needless to say, the discovery proves exactly nothing, but it is the kind of astonishing visual material that art historians often want to find.)

Dalí is also more adventurous than most art historians in his use of scientific images, though of course he puts them to irrational uses. Aside from the images of the praying mantis (they were only later to become clichés of surrealism), there is also a reproduction of a Surinam toad, “which even today causes me to shiver,” and he discusses genetics, aviation, and other scientific and technical subjects.

The book as object
Here, too, Dalí's book is exemplary of a certain kind of experimentation. The original French edition is bound in imitation of a schoolbook, with a sharp little metal clasp. 

The American editor has added information he thought Dalí would have liked, and interpolated additions throughout the book. On one page there is a reproduction of the cover of Science, with a photograph of a praying mantis; the issue announces the discovery that mantises have a single “cyclopean” ear in the middle of the faces. “Were Dalí not so ill,” the editor remarks, “there is no way of telling what interpretation his paranoiac–critical method would make of this recent discovery.” The most important additions are two reproductions of pornographic drawings by Millet, one showing two peasants making love “missionary style,” exactly as Dalí had imagined (and painted) in reference to the Angelus. Dalí’s interest in postcards and what is now called popular culture also receives comical confirmation in the form of snapshots taken by the translator and editor on a visit to Port de la Selva and Cape Creus, where Dalí saw rock formations that reminded him of the Angelus. It’s especially apt and unexpected to see the famous surrealist rocks oddly juxtaposed with tourist photos of the editor and his wife and friends waving at the camera. 

History as hallucination
There is one crucial difference between Dalí's use of all these methods and materials and their appearances in art history. Dalí only pretends to uncover truths about the Angelus, because actually the entire book is about his own hallucinations. Instead of setting out from a hunch about a picture and shoring it with evidence until it becomes a reliable explanation, Dalí begins with a hunch suggested by a hallucination, and then sets out to explain his hallucination, using the painting as evidence. He uses the painting to explain his own delusions. He is fully aware of the distance between the actual image and his fantasies: “it was precisely a question of the contrast,” he remarks at one point, “between the delirious image and the unalterable aspect of the known image… [i]n the case of the Angelus, the delirious productivity is not of a visual order but is very simply psychic.”

The book’s first three chapters chronicle his successive hallucinations: an “initial delirious phenomenon” in June 1932 when the painting suddenly appeared to him, leading to the “first secondary delirious phenomenon” and the “second secondary delirious phenomenon,” itself comprised of six further “phenomena.” The rest of the book purports to explain those phenomena, but it does so by circling back to them, re-imagining them, and introducing new hallucinations. The structure is labyrinthine. An excursus describes a series of subsidiary hallucinations, including a kind of Ur–image, an “instantaneous image associated with the Angelus,” which gave rise to a series of further images including the line of Lenin heads on a piano, a set of fried eggs, a line of inkwells on a loaf of bread, and several sculptures, including the one that Dalí had himself photographed while wearing. 

Even now, he says, the image “still continues to cause me anguish”: it seems that if any image is primordial in his imagination, this one is. But the excursus closes by saying that the analogy to the Angelus was clarified after yet another delirious phenomenon, the unexpected apparition of a set of china decorated in Angelus motifs—and that apparition is listed as number five out of six aspects of the “second secondary delirious phenomenon”: in other words, the structure closes on itself, bites its own tail.

Logically, if not chronologically or narratively, the opening moment of the book is Dalí’s sense of the “inexplicable uneasiness of the two solitary figures” in the Angelus. But after the initial delirious phenomenon, “the admiration and sudden attractiveness” he feels for the painting “was to occur again, and in what followed was corroborated by the ‘fervent’ skepticism with which my friends opposed my abrupt admiration for the Angelus.” The feeling must be true because everyone around me doesn’t believe it: a sign of paranoid schizophrenia, as Dalí knew perfectly well. 

His description is designed to be unreliable: it is a hallucination, first of all, and it is reported in a bombastic style with deliberately suspicious details. At the same time, he observes his hallucinations very carefully (that is, before he records them) and he plays off their “delirious” quality. In the first secondary delirious phenomenon, Dalí is lying on a beach, playing a game in which he arranges tiny pebbles and imagines them as colossal stones (menhirs and mountains). It’s also a sexual game, and he tries out “various locations, pairings and ‘situations’,” including “the evocative poses of lovemaking.” Suddenly two stones remind him of the Angelus and provoke “the strongest emotion.” Later, reflecting on the moment, he recalls how the stones formed not only a normal Angelus, but an exaggerated one, and “the sentiment of this exaggeration nevertheless helped make me conscious of the clearly delirious character of the association of ideas which were in question.” Hallucinations, in this book, are the impossible preconditions of anything that can be presented as history, research, or truth. It's a hyperbolic position, but what in the recent literature on history, the authorial voice, and subjectivity, from Derrida, Barthes, Foucault and Hayden White onward, prohibits such hyperbole?

What kind of text is this?
Of the many reasons not to read Dalí's book in the context of this project, the most compelling is that he inverts the purpose of art history so completely that he avoids the many issues of writing and history that preoccupy most of the other authors I am considering here. And yet The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus is in full possession of the apparatus of early 20th century art history (the scientific “evidence,” the theories), and the issues and methods he so happily inverts are the same ones that continue to help determine what is legible as history, and what as writing. Reading this book only as a document of surrealism would overestimate the stability of art history and even the innovations of postwar experimental art writing.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for an interesting account about a wonderful book. I read that the original manuscript has been found and it would be interesting to know if the text was left unaltered (as Dali has claimed). The original language is french, so the "rough, and informal" language is the translator´s (i have read the stranslation myself, but own the Beautiful French original published inthe early sixties-as well as an american copy).