Written by GQR / Image by Jakoz Idzie
Salvador Dalí recognises the terror ants can stir in a person. Ants frequently establish their presence in his artworks, the same way they establish their presence at a picnic or a kitchen. It’s a panic that began in his childhood.
In Dalí’s world, ants symbolise decay, decomposition, personal anxiety, human morality, the ephemeral, and overwhelming sexual desire. Pick your poison. Dalí’s pursuit is relentless. He must wrestle with that which torments him. In sporting terms, it’s round after round of bareknuckle boxing for Dalí and his ants.
So, ladies and gentlemen, we begin with our two contenders. In the red corner, brandishing one of the most famous moustaches in the world, Spanish Surrealist superstar extraordinaire Salvador Dalí. In the blue corner, with the antennas, every housewife’s waking nightmare: ants.
Let the battle begin!
The clash between Dalí and the ants rages across various art forms, none more than his famous work The Persistence of Memory (1931)—also known as the Camembert melting in the sun.
Dalí throws a left hook! jab! right uppercut! with this artwork concerning itself with dreams. Watch as the ants scurry across the orange melting clock, working to decay the timepiece as though it were the carcass of an animal. Brutal comeback from the ants. There’s a backstory to this fight, and it’s none more pleasant than the ravaged clock.
In The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, he reminisces on a childhood encounter with a half-living bat “bristling with frenzied ants”, picking it up and biting it. Like, biting the head right off.
“With a lighting movement I picked up the bat, crawling with ants, and lifted it to my mouth, moved by an insurmountable feeling of pity; but instead of kissing it, as I thought I was going to, I gave it such a vigorous bite with my jaws that it seemed to me I almost split it in two.” The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí
This psychological impression recreates itself in The Persistence of Memory. For Salvador Dalí, the memory is a stinger, and so, the ants win this round.
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Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve only gotten through the first round. A near harmless spat between Dalí and the ants. A few bruises have bloomed, but the real impression the insects have on the artist is yet to reveal itself. As we go deeper into the ring, or rather, closer to the end, prepare to feel the warm touch of blood on the skin, the spit flying through the air. Notice, reader, the rounds seeming to get shorter and shorter, the impressions deeper. Before the end, there must be a climax, and it is one which comes early in Round 2: the productive year of 1929.
* * *
The presence of ants throughout Dalí’s oeuvre is unmissable, and if you are expecting another psychological annotation of a Dalí-and-ants painting, then I must disappoint you now. It’s for your own good, darling. We shall not analyse this man’s every surreal creation, otherwise we’ll be here all night, and nobody wants that. Instead, see here, 1929. An unmissable year in the Dalí oeuvre, punches from both sides that really land blows.
The ants make the first move with a terrible right hook, scurrying across the canvas of The Accommodations of Desire in 1929. Inspired while on a walk with his future wife and collaborator, Gala, Dalí felt a wave of anxiety wash over him as he thought about the situation of his complex love life (at the time of said walk, Dalí was having an affair with Gala’s husband, Paul Éluard). The ants make their appearance here, crawling over a pebble in the bottom corner.
Actually, they appear throughout the year in the paintings Desecration Descripti, Illumined Pleasure, Playing in the Dark, The Ants, The Great Masturbator, and The Lugubrious Game, raising alarm bells for academics intent on theorising art. These are only a few of the many artworks Dalí made in the ever so productive year of 1929, a gallerist’s wet dream. While it is difficult to believe an individual’s productivity could lead to such a high number of artistic executions, it is also hard to believe the number of times ants are included in the mix.
The punches and jabs, combination body shots and uppercuts, are all too apparent in these paintings featuring ants: – Combinations (or The Combined Dalínian Phantasms; Ants. Keys, Nails) (1931) – Autumnal Cannibalism (1936) – Ant Face (1937) – Soft Self-Portrait with Grilled Bacon (1941) – Juliet’s Tomb (1942) – Apotheosis of Homer (1944-45) – Melancholic Atom and Uranium (1945) – The Alchemist (1962) – The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1958-1959)
This is but a fraction of the art in Dalí’s body of work that contends with ants. The battle continues with the ants, continuing to overwhelm the punchout, with works like The Font (1930) and Daddy Longlegs of the Evening – Hope! (1949), but my editor wouldn’t allow for all those artworks featuring ants to be listed in this article. Apparently, it’s excessive. Apparently, it’s a waste of words. Apparently, it isn’t necessary. Apparently, I should just get to the point. Thought I was.
In any case, the ants are now outnumbered by Dalí, thanks to his unrelenting production of paintings. He simply won’t let them bring him down, no matter how many body shots they’re getting in there. They’re not getting the better of him, not if he can help it. Guard up. There he goes with a jab-cross-hook combination, another jab, uppercut, left hook. Raining down those blows. The crafty Catalan charges through, clearly winning the round.
Homemakers and those generally suffering from myrmecophobia roar with applause.
Ants throw their weight on every medium Dalí expresses himself on. The onslaught is brutal to watch. These insects are relentless, never letting Dalí out of their sight. The psychological impression shines out from the ink, the film, the porcelain, like a nasty bruise. But the impression runs deep and stings terribly in the Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (1929).
Hands feature prominently throughout the film, but no image is more striking than that of ants infesting a man’s hand caught in a door. The insects symbolise a Freudian castration complex and, with the hand being caught in the door, it doesn’t relieve one from the fears of dismemberment of a vital organ. Any sleeping beauty would wake in horror at seeing creepy critters swarming around a hand. To have dreams like this, one would need a therapist’s lounge to throw their body across—or a good sit and think at the Museum of Modern Art, perhaps.
Dalí co-wrote Un Chien Andalou with the director Luis Buñuel (also known for trying to strangle Gala that one time. But the Gala vs. the Surrealists is a fight to witness on another occasion). After the production of Un Chien Andalou, ants make at least one appearance on every other medium Dalí experiments with. Dalí dares to roam outside the canvas and battle the ants across posters (Bryans Hosiery Advertisement (1944)), porcelains (Retrospective Bust of a Woman (1933)), and magazine covers (Vogue Magazine (April 1944)).
The ants are not done with Dalí as he dared to experiment with more film. In 1932, Dalí pens Babaouo, a script to follow Un Chien Andalou. The poster for Babaouo, titled Babaouo c’est un Film Surrealiste, is created in Paris and made for the public announcement of its script. The ants throw a few jabs here and there, as they crawl across this poster, trying to find a space for that thunderous right hook.
Then Alfred Hitchcock comes along and woos Dalí with the suggestion that he help him with a twenty-minute dream sequence for his upcoming film Spellbound (1945). Little does Hitchcock know of Dalí’s fear, obsession, and ongoing battle with ants (or perhaps he does and now weaponises it), because Dalí goes full-throttle here and wants to have ants crawling across Hollywood actress Ingrid Bergman. An unprecedented idea, and the ants seem to have a tight hold of their opponent.
The ants’ ability to seamlessly enter another art form says a lot about their traumatic impact on Dalí. The ants are determined to taunt a living man haunted by their memory. The ants take round 3.
The appearance of ants in Dalí’s work begins to slow down now. Perhaps it’s because Dalí is getting older; their battle raging across cinema, paintings, illustrations, advertisements. What other medium is left for these two great rivals? This fight is drawing to an end, but do not hold your breath, reader, for there are a few more blows remaining in these two fighters: music.
Alice Cooper—the rock musician from Phoenix, Arizona—now enters the fight, standing in Dalí’s corner.
It’s the ‘70s and Dalí’s star power still reigns supreme. The bond between Dalí and Cooper appears to be the last leg the Surrealist can stand on. And perhaps he knows it. Because soon after this team-up, Dalí plans to declare himself and Alice the greatest artists alive.
Cooper, it turns out, is a massive fan of the Spanish Surrealist. He’s more than willing to throw an uppercut at the enemy of a friend. Dalí creates the artwork First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain, a hologram, for Cooper in ’73. Dalí recreates Cooper’s brain by mixing together his main fear of ants with plaster, diamonds, and chocolate eclairs, placing them on a red velvet pillow. Harry Winston jewellers even offer Cooper to wear diamonds worth a million dollars.
The tag team seems to be something out of a high-gloss wrestling match, it’s now an all-out brawl. The appearance of the ants is rough, but Dalí is relentless. With the aid of Cooper, Dalí successfully grapples with these waking terrors in a new artform he’d been trying to experiment with: stereoscopic images. While it seems like a close round, with the points added up, Dalí topples his six-legged foe.
In the corner, Cooper helps Dalí with his gloves, holds the spit bucket and wet towel.
To restrain a man from wrestling with his demons would be a crime against the soul. Their battle reigns free across all fields of art, and the psychological damage is damning. The two panting souls are ripped free of one another because there is no end to their fight. Not until one or the other croaks. Which one comes first? Dalí? The ants? Or is one only alive because of the other?
We can safely assume the ants won the battle that raged on for a lifetime. Post-mortem, insects reign king. The ants would have, presumably, scurried across Dalí’s corpse and treated it as he did the bat from his childhood. Both sides fought hard. Dalí’s punches are now immortalised in art, while the ants have the definitive last say of the battle that continued in death.