The artist Salvador Dali was born in Figeuras, Spain in the year 1904 and from the start was destined to be an artist, he made his first landscape painting at the tender age of six and although he originally wanted to be a chef because as he put it so often “I know what I’m eating, I don’t know what I’m doing” he abandoned that idea and by the age of ten he had already developed an understanding of art even declaring himself to be an Impressionist painter, to the amusement of his family.
But it was in school that Dali would have an experience with an image that would be repeated through his life. When he first observed a reproduction of Jean-Francoise Millet’s “The Angelus” which hung outside the door to Dali’s classroom (causing him to look at it obsessively every time the door was opened) this picture would change his life and his art forever. Millet painted pictures depicting the rough life of the peasant farmer and The Angelus portrays a man and a woman, standing with heads bowed facing each other a few feet apart. The man stands with hat in hand, his wheelbarrow and pitchfork standing idle nearby, and his wife has her hands clasped in front of herself . They give the appearance of praying but overall is a feeling that they must not take too long, there’s work to be done and they should pick up their tools and continue the long day of the fieldworkers but the real impact of the painting on Dali would not manifest itself until twenty years later when Dali was in the prime of his Surrealist powers.
Then in June of 1932 the image of The Angelus appeared in Dali’s minds eye, he said at the time “Without advance warning or any kind of conscious associations, the image was clear and colorful and dis-placed all other images.” The experience made a deep and devastating impression because even though his vision precisely matched all the reproductions he had seen, it seemed to him totally transformed, fraught with so powerful a latent intent that Millet’s painting suddenly struck him as the most bewildering, enigmatic, compact picture, rich in unconscious ideas that had ever been painted.
Dali would go on to paint numerous different versions of the figures used in Millets Angelus, in “Atavism at Twilight” the figure of the man has a skull face and the wheelbarrow is morphing out the back of his head while the pitchfork is sticking out the woman’s back! In another painting Dali introduces a coffin and claims to know that Millets original has the couple mourning over their dead child’s unmarked grave. They were also painted as tall ruined buildings in “Archaeological Reminiscences of Millets Angelus”(my personal favorite), and also used in Dali’s illustration of “Les Chants de Malador” and also to great effect in Dali’s woodcuts of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” which will be featured in Dali & Death-Part 2. This is a mere scratch at the coffin lid of Dali’s obsession with death and his use of death symbols in his work, and it’s very telling of how images seen as a child can penetrate ones mind and influence future events and work. Dali would even go so far as to paint a portrait of his dead brother who died before Dali was born!, and was never photographed as a child but Dali painted it from intuition!
But as always, Dali was way ahead of everyone else in his thinking and indeed when Millets original was x-rayed layer by layer years later, it was revealed that a “coffin like shape” was underpainted thinly on the canvas where Dali said it would be years before…in the space between the mourning couple under the ground at their feet!