One of the leading Surrealist painters, the Spaniard Salvador Dali (1904-89), who spent many years in the United States, tried to imitate this weird confusion of our dream-life. In some of his pictures he mixed surprising and incoherent fragments of the real world - painted with the same detailed accuracy with which Grant Wood painted his landscapes - and gives us the haunting feeling that there must be some sense in this apparent madness. As we look more closely at the figure, for instance, we discover that the dream-landscape in the upper right-hand corner, the bay with its waves, the mountain with its tunnel, represents at the same time the head of a dog, whose collar is also a railway viaduct across the sea. The dog hovers in mid-air - the middle part of its body is formed by a fruit-bowl with pears, which in its turn merges into the face of a girl whose eyes are formed by some strange sea-shells on a beach crowded with puzzling apparitions.

As in a dream, some things, like the rope and the cloth, stand out with unexpected clarity while others shapes remain vague and elusive.

A painting such as this brings it home to us for the last time why twentieth-century artists have not been satisfied in simply representing "what they see". They have become too much aware of the many problems which are hidden in this demand.  They know that the artist  who wants to "represent" a real (or imagined) thing does not start  by opening his eyes and looking about him but by taking colours  and forms and building up the required image.

Apparition of face and fruit-bowl on a beach



Oil on canvas

114,2 x 143,7 cm.

Wadsworth Atheneum

Hartford, Connecticut

The reason why we often forget this simple truth is that in most pictures of the past each form and each colour happened to signify only one thing in nature - the brown strokes stood for tree trunks, the green dots for leaves. Dali's way of letting each form represent several things at the same time may focus our attention on the many possible meanings of each colour and form - much in the way in which a successful pun may make us aware of the function of words and their meanings. Dali's sea-shell, which is also an eye, his fruit-bowl, which is also a girl's forehead and nose, may send our thoughts back to the first chapter of this book, to the Aztec rain-god Tlaloc, whose features were composed of rattlesnakes.

            And yet, if we really take the trouble to look at the ancient idol we may receive something of a shock - how great is the difference in spirit for all possible similarity of method! Both images may have emerged from a dream, but Tlaloc, we feel, was the dream of a whole people, the nightmare figure of the dire power that held sway over their fate; Dali's dog and fruit-bowl reflect the elusive dream of a private person to which we hold no key. It would clearly be unfair to blame the artist for this difference. It arises out of the totally different circumstances in which the two works were created.

            To produce a perfect pearl the oyster needs some piece of matter, a sandcorn  or a small splinter round which the pearl can form. Without such a hard core it may grow into a shapeless mass. If the artist's feelings for forms and colours are to crystallize in a perfect work, he, too, needs such a hard core - a definite task on which he can bring his gifts to bear.


(E.H. Gombrich, The story of Art, Phaidon, London, 1995, reprinted 1999)