Decoding Salvador Dalí’s Paintings

By Anne Seoung Eun Bae

March 12, 2021

“Freud’s cranium is a snail! His brain is in the form of a spiral—to be extracted with a needle!” from Salvador Dalí, SECRET LIFE OF SALVADOR DALI, trans. Haakon M Chevalier (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 2020). 

One of the most important tasks of a critic is the responsibility to her reader to decode images—including paintings, photographs, and illustrations—which all carry messages in their forms of representation. In order to be appreciated for their full value, images must be decoded. This idea was once described by the Czech philosopher and writer, Vilem Flusser in his treatise, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, when he stated that “photographs are concepts encoded as states of things, including photographers’ concepts such as those that have been programmed into the camera.”[1] Flusser writes specifically about photography, but his notion can be applied to images across all artistic mediums. To reword the statement as it relates to painting, we might say, “Images are concepts encoded as states of things such as those that have been programmed into the brushes and paints of the artist’s deliberate choices.” Flusser also suggests that “if critics do not succeed in this task, photographs remain encoded and appear to be [utterly] representations of states of things in the world out there.”[2] Decoding an artwork is more than providing an interpretation. It is a process of searching for connection between the artist’s historical context, the artwork itself, the contemporary moment, and the personal state the viewer is in at the moment.

This process of decoding images requires sharpened perception, in order to not only to discern what is easily visible but also to see the unseen. And by doing so, we start to understand what previously might have seemed incomprehensible. Artist Salvador Dalí, one of the most important figures of the Surrealist movement, often made use of optical illusion in his paintings in order to probe and reckon with the workings of our subconscious behaviors, desires, and dreams. Sigmund Freud, whose psychoanalytic work heavily influenced Dalí, suggested the idea of “dynamic unconscious,” in which the preconscious is actively working to take effect on people’s behaviors unconsciously. In Dalí’s paintings, we are able to find unconscious or subconscious through a process of decoding.

Salvador Dalí, Skull of Zurbarán (1956), oil on canvas, 39 ½ x 39 ½ in. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum.

Dalí’s Skull of Zurbarán (1956) displays his illusionistic technique. He painted this work for the subject to be seen depending on how the eyes of the viewer perceive it. In the bigger picture, there appears a large skull at the center of the canvas. But on closer examination it becomes clear that the “skull” is actually composed of a series of stacked cubes, while six hooded figures make up its teeth. Then, the painting morphs; now it appears to be six hooded figures praying at a dome-shaped temple. Whichever way the work is perceived, it can also be read in yet a third manner: as a message of Dalí’s reverence for the Spanish Baroque painter, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). Zurbarán frequently painted both hooded figures and skulls; their presence in Dalí’s canvas reflects the artist’s admiration and respect for the classical artist. Perhaps Dalí also shares his own fear of death through the representation of the ominous skull. Or perhaps he sought a form of immortality, or salvation, through his depiction of religious ritual. He might also have been thinking of the continuation of his presence, his legacy, through his work after his death.

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory (1931), oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13 in. Courtesy of MoMA.

Dalí’s engagement with death is even more complex in his earlier painting, The Persistence of Memory (1931). He depicts a dream state in which memories are distorted and the sense of time literally melts away[3] in the shapelessness of the liquefying clocks. Perhaps it is Dalí’s own way of seeing death—the failed mechanism of time that all living beings eventually grapple with. Observing the background of the painting, a jagged cliff and the sea on the horizon, known to be similar to the landscape near Dalí’s hometown of Portlligat, Spain,[4] I came to an interpretation of my own. I associate his perception of time in The Persistence of Memory in relation to his youth. Dalí escapes his fear of the passing of time, which leads to death by rendering his home, an early sanctuary. Looking at this painting, viewers may only see the well-known, somnambulant clocks. But the artist has transformed death into a phantasmagorical experience by shielding it within a cocoon of what could be the happiest moments of his life because, in Dalí’s own words, Portlligat was the place where “time goes more slowly and each hour has its proper dimension. There is a geological peacefulness.”[5] Faculties constituting the image, including its title, together, with context become a language.

Dalí, with his great oeuvre, prefigured the development of Op Art in the 1960s, which came to prominence during the final few years of his life. All of his works involve utilizing his own method of the “paranoiac-critical:” painting psychotic hallucinations and images in a paranoid state.[6] Works of Op Art, emerging in 1960s, often appeared to the eye to be in motion, when in reality the eye was only “tricked” into seeing movement where none existed. The vibrating effect of Op Art relies on optical illusion often rendered by the geometric forms and repetitive colors used by the artist.[7] Dalí’s life-long interest in optics was shared by the younger Op Artists. Many of his paintings seemed to have been a precursor to the movement, especially considering that most of Dalí’s paintings of visionary illusion were created during the 1930s and 1940s.

Bridget Riley, Current (1964), synthetic polymer paint on board, 58 3/8 x 58 7/8 in. Courtesy of MoMA.

For instance, looking at artist Bridget Riley’s Current (1964), for a brief moment there is a sensation where it no longer feels like a painting but rather a black-and-white-striped piece of cloth, undulating in the air’s currents. Is the painting moving or are we, the viewer, in motion? There seems to be vibration, which triggers one’s consciousness, causing them to question their state of being in relation to this painting. It is the same way that the previously mentioned pieces of Dalí’s challenge and question what the eyes are actually conceiving by stimulating the viewer’s ability to not simply observe but decode the images in their own way. His work was able to excite the paranoid feeling of viewers who were disturbed by art that seemed to look back at them as they looked at it.

Despite the distinct stylistic differences—Dalí intended for Skull of Zurbarán to be specifically illusionistic while The Persistence of Memory was more centered within a Surrealistic framework—both play with vision as a way of not only seeing things with our eyes but also feeling them within our bodies and minds. In them, Dalí hides a message beneath the surfaces of his images. And likewise, contemporary artists continue to spur their observation “[to] find new and unique ways to view the world around them,”[8] to create images that represent themselves. When the symbols and motifs in those images are decoded, it may be possible that they represent subliminal decisions or set plans, which predict an artist’s next step in their thinking process, or the direction of their art. Searching for what lies in the abyss between the image and the artist, we may find a sign that alludes to events of the future. The future that may also be a guide for our own lives when we get lost. Artists are observers and thinkers. But they are also oracles whose language is rarely obvious. When critics decode their language, we do not rob the image or the artist of their magic, but we may deepen our experiences and those of others as they respond to the work.


[1] Vilem Flusser, Towards a philosophy of photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), 48.

[2] Ibid.

[3] K Shabi, “Salvador Dali Persistence of Memory: Meaning of the Melting Clocks,” Legomenon, May 30, 2013, accessed November 13, 2020, https://legomenon.com/salvador-dali-persistence-of-memory-melting-clocks-meaning.html.  

[4] Ibid. 

[5] “Salvador Dalí House – Portlligat. History,” Fundació Gala – Salvador Dalí, accessed March 9, 2021, https://www.salvador-dali.org/en/museums/house-salvador-dali-in-portlligat/historia/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bob Lansroth, “10 Op Art Artists Whose Work You Have to Follow,” Widewalls, October 29, 2015, https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/op-art-artists.

[8] Ibid.


Anne Bae is a Korean art writer living in Washington, DC. She is currently writing about Korean abstract art, Dansaekhwafor her MFA Art Writing thesis at the School of Visual Arts.

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