Salvador Dalí’s “Skull of Zurbarán”

Salvador Dalí’s “Skull of Zurbarán”

Often the Halloween images that we find spooky, and scary come from the thoughts, and beliefs we wrestle with everyday. Think about skeletons, or skulls. While bones can have a cringe factor, they also remind us of our own mortality. Today we will look at Salvador Dali’s “Skull of Zurburán.” He painted this in 1956. The painting is an optical illusion. It contains two images. Neither image is hidden, so you can see both simultaneously. Before we can dissect the painting it’s important to understand a little about Dalí, and how he viewed the world. We will take a look at how world views of Catholic and atheist creates a surrealists, how a reconsideration of his faith brought about the view of  Nuclear Mysticism, with an inspiration of the classical resulting in the Skull of Zurburán.

To be Catholic or Atheist or Surrealist

the-persistence-of-memory
the persistence of memory Salvador Dalí Courtesy Moma

Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech grew up in a home divided over God. His mother was a devout Catholic. His father was an atheist. Originally, like most of the surrealists, he rejected religion. During this time Dalí would actively try to tap into his subconscious before painting. Which is why paintings like “The Persistence of Memory” look like a dream. In the 1940s Dalí moved to the United States. At this point, he began to reconsider his faith, and religion.

Nuclear Mysticism

the disintegration of the persistence of memory

As the world entered the nuclear age, and science continued exploring quantum physics, Dalí began to view the world through the lens of nuclear mysticism. Dalí thought everything in the universe was connected. Not just the material, but also  the spiritual. He began to incorporate this philosophy into his artistic process. His paintings throughout the 1950s are often a combination of science, mathematics, and religion. Works from this period frequently have a strong geometric component to them. In 1954, Dalí revisited his famous work on memory. He carefully constructed, and executed “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” based on his new beliefs.

A Return to Classicism

Saint Lucy by Francisco de Zurbarán
Saint Lucy by Francisco de Zurbarán c. 1625/1630

Around this time, Dalí also started looking at classical paintings for inspiration. One of his favorite artists was the Spanish Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán. A key flourish of Zurbarán’s paintings were bright, puffy, white textiles. An example of this is found at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Look at the sleeve in Zurbarán’s painting of “Saint Lucy.” If you are wondering why Saint Lucy is carrying a tray with two eyeballs, this is how you could identify her without seeing the name of a painting. Most saints are depicted with the method of torture they endured. Saint Lucy’s eyes were gouged out.

It All Comes Together

You can almost see Dalí’s creative process melding all these things together in “The Skull of Zurbarán.” The fact that the painting can be viewed as both a skull, and a monastery plays into both Dalí’s philosophy that everything is connected, and the dreamlike quality of his earlier surrealist works. The geometric patterns on the floor, and walls point to his new philosophies. The robes of the monks, and the name of the painting, are an homage to Zurbarán. When we look at a painting like the “Skull of Zurbarán,” it raises a lot of questions. We can’t be sure what answers Dalí was looking for. But, we can see that this is more than just a spooky image. Hopefully it allows us to wrestle with those
images that scare us too 

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Kristin Johnson

I love art, and writing. One is deeply personal, the other helped me get my BA in journalism from IU. I am passionate about storytelling. My greatest professional compliment came from a business owner who said, “Your profile piece captured everything I believe about my business.”
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