What man cannot do, bread can.
—Salvador Dalí, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, 19421
“Bread,” wrote Salvador Dalí in 1945, “has always been one of the oldest fetishistic and obsessive subjects in my work, the one to which I have remained the most faithful.”2 Despite having been largely overlooked in Dalí’s work, bread—like the crutch, the lobster, and the detumescent clock—does in fact appear with remarkable frequency throughout the artist’s oeuvre.3 This essay considers the presence and significance of bread in Dalí’s visual and literary production from the 1920s to the 1970s by reviewing his many bread-related writings and works of art; it also assesses the artist’s attempts to establish the image of bread as a personal device or “trademark” in terms of what media history scholar Paul Rutherford calls “the Dalí brand.”4
Dalí’s famous persona as artistic showman, exemplified by his mountebank’s moustache, was in large part established through the use of various images that were intended, like contemporary product branding, to reinforce his public profile and establish his cultural relevance. Bread, the object to which Dalí “remained most faithful” throughout his career, was a remarkably plastic one, rife with resonance and symbolic agency, and thus ideal for addressing and contextualizing concerns and preoccupations germane to his art practice. The present study considers how Dalí remained faithful to the idea of bread, while deftly molding its significance to the conceptual and visual requirements of what are considered here to be the five distinct stages of his career. These include his pre-Surrealist experimental period, his tenure as a Surrealist in the late 1920s and ’30s, his “classic” post-Surrealist period of the 1940s, his religiosity-based “Nuclear Mysticism” of the mid-century, and his embrace of Pop Art and other contemporary movements and styles in the last active decades of his career.
To survey the use of bread in Dalí’s performed, assembled, painted, and written work is to acknowledge his continued use of the loaf of bread as an anthropomorphic surrogate of the primarily Dalinian body—an index of his self-styled role as “savior of modern art”—and in terms of contemporary politics and issues of cultural consumption. By proposing exegetical strategies to approach bread in Dalí’s work, this paper posits the significance of this object in the artist’s creative corpus, and in the process, assesses bread’s effectiveness as both a conceptual and promotional element in his ongoing strategies of self-endorsement.
During his early years within the Surrealist movement, Dalí evidently sought an object or symbol that embodied a number of the concepts and problematics that preoccupied him and other Surrealists, but also satisfied his specific requirement of being profoundly figurative rather than abstract. In his autobiography, the artist describes the moment when he claims he decided that bread was to become the primary “fetishistic and obsessive subject” in his work, and the launch of his subsequent campaign to make bread “his own,” as a trope for what might be called the Dalí persona or construct. In characteristically eccentric and baroque prose, Dalí recounts this epiphany, which occurs after he has partaken of a particularly satisfying meal. “I had eaten my fill and was looking absentmindedly, though fixedly, at a piece of bread,” he writes. “It was the heel of a long loaf, lying on its belly, and I could not cease looking at it. Finally I took it and kissed the very tip of it, then with my tongue I sucked it a little to soften it, after which I stuck the softened part on the table, where it remained standing.” According to Dalí, at this moment, he had “just reinvented Columbus’s egg: the bread of Salvador Dalí. I had just discovered the enigma of bread: it could stand up without having to be eaten!” “This thing so atavistically and consubstantially welded to the idea of ‘primary utility,’” he continues, “the elementary basis of continuity, the symbol of ‘nutrition,’ of sacred ‘subsistence,’ this thing . . . I was going to render useless and aesthetic.”5
Throughout his extensive body of literary work, Dalí seldom addresses the symbolism of the many objects depicted or incorporated in his visual practice. With bread, however, he often articulates its iconography, and his association with it as a sort of device or trademark. In The Secret Life, for example, speaking of his return to Paris after two intensely industrious months at his home in Port Lligat in the Ampurdan region of Spain, the artist explains the rhetorical value that bread holds in what he describes as his “cosmogony,” by which he indexes his “life system” of the period. “My bread was a ferociously anti-humanitarian bread,” he claims, “it was the bread of the revenge of imaginative luxury on the utilitarianism of the rational practical world, it was the aristocratic, aesthetic, paranoiac, sophisticated, Jesuitical, phenomenal, paralyzing, hyper-evident bread.” On the eve of his leaving for Paris, Dalí recounts the ecstasies and tortures of this productive time: “in the apparently insignificant gesture of putting the end of the loaf of bread upright on a table, the whole spiritual experience of this period.”6
Dalí’s insistence on his bread as a personal device in his public appearances, in his painting, sculptural endeavors, and performance work was so successful among the Paris beau monde and avant-garde, he claims, that, just as he had intended, Dalí and bread became inextricably linked in the mind of the forward-thinking Parisian. “Upon arriving in Paris,” he writes, “I said to everyone who cared to listen, ‘Bread, bread and more bread. Nothing but bread.’”7 This project worked so well that at one point the artist describes himself sitting with a number of friends in a bistro, as the waiter delivered a basket of bread to the table. Everyone present, Dalí maintains, “exclaimed in astonishment, ‘It’s like a Dalí!’” According to the artist, “The bread of Paris was no longer the bread of Paris. It was my bread. Dalí’s bread, Salvador’s bread. The bakers were already beginning to imitate me!”8
That the artist chose bread as a sort of personal device or emblem, similar to his famous moustache, points to an acute awareness of the potential for art, and more importantly, the artist’s personality, to become an object of mass consumption, to be “eaten” or “devoured” by the consumers of art and celebrity. Dalí described this phenomenon in terms of what he deemed the “cannibalism of objects,” presumably pertaining to the perpetual cycle of consumption requisite to high capitalism. This does not necessarily imply, however, a critique of the mechanics of the capitalist system, nor that of popular culture, both of which Dalí participated in with gusto. In the later 1930s, in fact, Dalí often described himself as a painter for the masses,9 writing in 1939, for instance, that “The masses have always known where to find true poetry.”10 Dalí champions what he cites as the preferences and preoccupations of the “masses”: a hunger for a sort of moral and spiritual nourishment in spite of the pleasures yielded by the fruits of consumerism. Accordingly, his insistence upon the most basic staple of the western diet points to his populist approach to art-making, which began in the later 1930s, as he posits his own “Dalinian bread” as a sort of sustenance for the multitude.
This emphasis on mass consumption is plainly underscored in a 1933 essay entitled “Concerning the Terrifying and Edible Beauty of Art Nouveau Architecture.” Using ruminations upon Art Nouveau style as a point of entry, Dalí outlines what he views as the advantages of the capitalist system, and pits the idea of mass consumption and the prevalence of his cited pan-cultural “moral hunger” against Surrealist leader André Breton’s insistence upon the primacy of the erotic. “Erotic desire is the downfall of intellectual aesthetics,” Dalí insists.
Beauty is none other than the sum total of the consciousness of our perversions. — Breton said: “Beauty will be convulsive or will cease to be.” The new Surrealist age of “cannibalism of objects” equally justifies the following conclusion: Beauty will be edible or will cease to be.11
Dalí illustrates the idea that “beauty”—or the “true poetry of the masses”—will be edible, in the most literal of ways, through his insistence upon the western dietary staple of the loaf of bread. Bread, as a metaphor for the consumable object (including the artist himself) that is to be “cannibalized” by masses suffering from “moral hunger,” is one of the key problematics that Dalí employs in his engagement with the iconography of bread, and one which served him not just in his Surrealist period, but through the subsequent phases of his career. In this sense of “feeding the multitudes,” Dalí also self-consciously evokes Biblical references to bread, in particular the famous passage from Luke 9:16 in which Christ miraculously feeds five thousand people with a mere five loaves and two fish.
Although Dalí had dabbled with bread imagery before he joined the Surrealists, after his alleged epiphany in The Secret Life about the significance of bread for his creative practice, the artist flatly concluded: “I was going to make Surrealist objects with bread.”12 Here he is referring to what at the time was a novel art concept inspired by the Duchampian found object and Dada collage, that of constructing three dimensional articles in resonant and unsettling ways using often incongruous combinations of mostly commonplace materials. The idea for the Surrealist object was first introduced by Breton in the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, wherein he proposed that objects that appeared in dreams could be given tangible form, thereby reifying the products of the unconscious mind and “making strange” articles in everyday use. Surrealist objects, Breton asserted, acquired agency through their “change of role” and it was important, he wrote, “to strengthen at all costs the defences which can resist the invasion of the feeling world by things used by men more out of habit than necessity.”13
While Breton’s criteria for the creation of Surrealist objects was relatively glib, a prime concern—although one left unarticulated by the poet—was the objects’ pointed, if not satiric references to Freudian symbolism, including the often grotesquely erotic and the comically anthropomorphic. Dalí immediately embraced the idea of the Surrealist object when he first joined the movement in 1929. He particularly relished and often parodied certain Freudian concepts, mostly from Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality, which had gained tremendous notoriety at the time in its dealing with issues of castration, the genital symbolism of objects, and sexual fetishism. Dalí was also clearly taken with the idea of object animism, described by Freud in his 1919 essay “The Uncanny.”14
In addition to producing a number of now famous assemblages, Dalí also wrote much on the Surrealist object in the early 1930s, such as his 1931 essay “Surrealist Objects,” which appeared in the French vanguard journal Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution. In this essay, he creates a general catalogue of six types of objects, including “Objects Functioning Symbolically,” “Objects to be Thrown,” and “Objects-Machines.” A year later, he produced a similar essay for This Quarter magazine, entitled “The Object Revealed in Surrealist Experiment,” in which he adumbrates the conceptual growth of the object, and suggests that it had undergone four different phases. These apparently ranged from anthropomorphic items, to “dream-state articles,” to kinetic or interactive pieces that Dalí describes as “articles functioning symbolically,” to objects that tend to “bring about our fusion with [them] and makes us pursue the formation of a unity with [them] (hunger for an article and edible articles).” The latter, he writes, reflect a yearning to “form a whole” with them due to a “new hunger” from which “we” are suffering. “As we think it over,” he explains, once again pointing to issues of consumption, “we find suddenly that it does not seem enough to devour things with our eyes, and our anxiety to join actively and effectively in their existence brings us to want to eat them.”15
In 1932, Dalí exhibited two objects at the Pierre Colle gallery in Paris, one of which, entitled Hypnagogic Clock, embodied what might be described as his ethos of the edible. According to the artist, it “consisted of an enormous loaf of French bread posed on a luxurious pedestal.” On the back of this loaf, Dalí notes that he “fastened a dozen ink-bottles in a row, filled with ‘Pelican’ ink and each bottle held a pen of a different colour.”16 Because of its ephemeral nature, this object did not survive, but like other of his Surrealist assemblages, such as his well-known shoe construction entitled Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically (The Surrealist Shoe) of 1931, there is often somewhere in Dalí’s writing an invariably obfuscatory or quixotic “explanation” for these works or how to “use” them. In this case, The Secret Life again sheds light on how one might presumably approach Dalí’s bread constructions, facetiously or otherwise. Describing the production of an object similar to Hypnagogic Clock in his autobiography, Dalí writes:
One day I hollowed out entirely an end of a loaf of bread, and what do you think I put inside it? I put a bronze Buddha, whose metallic surface I completely covered with dead fleas which I wedged against one another so tightly that the Buddha appeared to be made entirely of fleas. What does that mean, eh? After putting the Buddha inside the bread I closed the opening with a little piece of wood, and I cemented the whole, including the bread, sealing it hermetically in such a way as to form a homogeneous whole which looked like a little urn, on which I wrote “Horse Jam.” What does that mean, eh?17
“People were constantly asking me,” Dalí writes, “What does that mean? What does that mean?,” a question the artist ostensibly, through seemingly absurd or impracticable explanations or simply by bypassing the question, leaves open.18 Further inquiries, however, continue to yield a rich variety of meanings that Dalí ascribes to bread, expressed in duly pointed, albeit cryptic, ways.
In considering the use of bread in his oeuvre, Dalí scholar Dawn Ades claims that “Dalí turns the idea of bread as ‘the staff of life’ on its head,” which is precisely what the artist did with one of his most famous Surrealist objects, a 1933 work entitled, Retrospective Bust of a Woman (Figure 1).19 This bricolage was comprised of a commercial fin-de-siècle porcelain display bust of a woman’s torso and a head of the kind that would be used for displaying hats and wraps. Dalí embellished this found object in a sort of inverted parody of Parisian fashion, with ears of dried corn resembling a stole. Around the neck, he attached a collar made of a strip of paper from a nineteenth-century child’s toy, a Zoetrope, printed with cartoon images of a dancing boy. The head of the figure swarms with the artist’s trademark ants and sports a feathery skullcap which is itself graced with a large loaf of bread; in the loaf, the artist embedded a bronze inkwell featuring the French peasant couple from Jean-François Millet’s renowned 1859 canvas The Angelus in their characteristic attitude of prayer.20
Thanks to the absurd juxtapositions of unlikely trappings, this object has immediate visual appeal and Dalí undermines any possible exegetical gravitas in a remark he makes in the caption to a photograph of the work in The Secret Life. While this object might be read as profoundly uncanny, or as a metaphor for consumption of the female image, or of fashion embodied in the mannequin’s bizarre accoutrements, Dalí plays up its comic potential. Writing of the first time Retrospective Bust of a Woman was exhibited at the Salon des Surindépendents in Paris in 1933, he explains that Picasso had visited the exhibition with his dog. While Picasso’s reaction to Dalí’s work is not recorded, his dog, blissfully unaware of art gallery etiquette and devoid of reverence for the art object at hand, apparently “leaped at the loaf of bread and devoured it,” effectively eliminating the distinction between art and the everyday object.21
As he describes in his memoir, Dalí became intensely preoccupied with bread during his early Surrealist years, and in 1932, the same year Hypnagogic Clock was exhibited, he painted at least five canvases in which the primary signifier is bread. Or rather, considering the invariably anthropomorphic aspect of the said bread, and the narrative implications of the content, perhaps these works might more accurately be described as having bread as their protagonists. Indeed, the artist has transferred many of the incongruous, bizarre and, duly comedic aspects of the Surrealist object in his rendering of various loaves in oil on canvas, in which all of his baguettes have decided personalities. They are also, for the most part, unambiguously phallic, as Dalí plays up the long, thin shape of the bread, and even stages them in erotic scenarios.
The first of these is his Anthropomorphic Bread, circa 1932, which features a phallic and undeniably erect loaf swathed in a white, prepuce-like sac (Figure 2). This diminutive oil, rendered in a palette dominated by burnt orange and cerulean blue, beams a theatrical spotlight upon what might be described as the head of the bread “figure.” Leaning against a wall, this aptly described “staff of life” appears to be ready to spring into action, and the title for the work, Anthropomorphic Bread, flatly explains the uncanny sentience of the loaf, iterating Dalí’s trope of the “living” bread, or bread as surrogate for the human figure.
Dalí executed a second bread painting in 1932, Anthropomorphic Bread—Catalonian Bread, which features a similar loaf placed horizontally, drooping from one of the artist’s trademark soft clocks, as well as the familiar inkwell and the white paper or blanket that appeared in Anthropomorphic Bread, drawn back here to allow a piece of string to restrain it on one side (Figure 3). Depicting a complex and highly resonant construction made, for the most part, of simple everyday materials, this work plainly suggests the Surrealist object rendered in two dimensions, and that Dalí was working with a similar idiom in a different medium. In this rendering the subject has become decidedly flaccid, and the erect pen in the inkwell serves as a foil for the detumescent loaf, which requires a string to hold it up. This assumption is reinforced by the presence of Dalí’s soft watch, drooped over the fettered bread and swathed in a condom-like pocket. Compared to Anthropomorphic Bread, which features a rigid and energetic baguette, this work suggests the precise opposite, mobilizing various images of the flaccid in a metaphor of sexual impotence. That Dalí cites a specifically Catalan loaf also suggests that this work is self-referential, pointing to Dalí, a Catalonian, and expressing his own sexual fears and dysfunctions in a poignant, albeit caricatural way.
In a third bread painting of 1932, the phallicism of the loaf of bread is rendered even more comically blunt, and the painting’s subject has notably surmounted any sexual dysfunction. The precise title perhaps precludes the need for a description: Average French Bread with Two Eggs on the Plate without the Plate, on Horseback, Attempting to Sodomize a Crumb of Portuguese Bread (Figure 4). As with the previous paintings mentioned, once again Dalí paints the work using a starkly atmospheric chiaroscuro, highlighting the bread with dramatic, self-consciously staged lighting, and employing a subdued palette evoking Dutch Old Master paintings. Dalí’s French bread, with its duo of testicle-like eggs perched upon its lower quarter, buggering the crust of a Portuguese loaf, takes Dalí’s phallic satire to the level of the pornographic. Most pointedly, here the artist also suggests nationalist rivalries, pitting the French baguette against the Portuguese bread, thereby indexing the phallic comparisons incumbent in cultural competitiveness, rendered graphically in sport and politics, and likely, as was common throughout Dalí’s creative corpus, referencing a specific event in current affairs of the period.
Following the image of an erect loaf, an impotent loaf, and two loaves of bread engaged in a sexual act, Dalí takes the erotic breadstick even deeper into phallic territory in yet another small oil of the same year, entitled Woman and Catalan Bread. This time the work is centered upon a more romantic vision of a disembodied Spanish loaf, which appears to fondle the breast of a topless blonde woman, apparently of its own volition (Figure 5). Roughly executed and with little detail, this small painting is likely an oil sketch rather than a finished work, although its grainy texture and uncharacteristically rough and rapid brushwork also suggest distorted vision, as if the viewer were a voyeur gazing through a glass window at this bizarre erotic scene. Placed this time in a more familiar context, interacting with a human being rather than merely focusing on an unsettling and isolated animism, this picture, perhaps more than the previous bread-related paintings of 1932, suggests the loaf as a surrogate for a human presence or perhaps the artist himself. This renders the work less a Surrealist exploration of the phallic object than an animated vignette.
The fifth and final painted work of what might be termed Dalí’s Surrealist “year of the bread” is entitled The Invisible Man. This canvas shifts its focus from the sexual symbolism, colored by the contemporary interest in the writings of Freud, to that of science fiction, and is decidedly narrative in intent (Figure 6). Indeed, in keeping with his embrace of popular culture, the artist makes reference in the title of the work to H.G. Wells’s famous and extremely popular science fiction novella of 1897, which would be made into a Universal Pictures film starring William Harrigan the following year. Here, three loaves of bread are the main subjects of the painting, which finds its setting in a close room with a tiny window. Once again, Dalí employs dramatic lighting, dominated by warm hues in a penumbral palette that emphasizes the theatrical nature of the event.
The first loaf is a sliced baguette sitting on a table; the second, a breadstick balanced on the back of a chair, while a third, upright loaf sits in the chair itself, which reveals the imprint of a human body. Regarding the latter, the artist may well have been inspired by Wells’s assertion that when the invisible protagonist of his book ate, his food could be viewed through his stomach, and would remain so until it was digested.22 This gesture unambiguously transforms the bread into a signifier for an invisible sitter, and foregrounds, in a startlingly metalinguistic way, the very function of metaphor itself, where the presence of one thing indexes the existence of another. That this aspect of Wells’s work, in which food can be viewed through the imperceptible man’s body, would appeal to Dalí is clear, as it resonated with his own “epiphany” about the marvelous nature of bread: that “it could stand up without having to be eaten!” In this case, however, bread could stand up only after it had been eaten.
In Dalí’s hands the loaf of bread could become unsettlingly anthropomorphic and decidedly uncanny, although it was perhaps bread’s potential as a concrete and invariably displaced object that appealed most to the artist, particularly in terms of comedic possibilities, and especially as a prop in his endless cycle of performance and performativity. While loaves could nuzzle women’s breasts, struggle with sexual dysfunction, recline in chairs, pose saucily on women’s heads and energetically sodomize one another, Dalí too could harness the energy of bread for his own purposes, reified on the stage of his own masquerade as eccentric artist and consummate Surrealist. Indeed, for Dalí, the anthropomorphic elements ubiquitous among his Surrealist objects constructed with bread and the invariably sentient loaves in his paintings of 1932 segue directly into his own use of bread in the performative aspects of his work, where the artist himself becomes the catalyst for the animism of the object.
From the perspective of performance, loaves of bread appear throughout Dalí’s oeuvre in films, staged photographs, and public appearances, primarily perched on people’s heads, similar to Retrospective Bust of a Woman. An early example of Dalí’s deployment of bread in this capacity in his own performative practice is described in his memoir. This episode commences with his description of the instructions he gave to two aides during a lecture he presented in the early 1930s “before a revolutionary group with predominantly anarchist leanings.” Requesting a large loaf of bread and some leather straps, the artist directed his aides:
At a certain point in my speech I shall make a gesture with my hand and say, “bring it!” Then two of you must come up on the stage while I am talking and tie the loaf of bread to my head with the straps, which are to be passed under each arm. Be sure to keep the loaf horizontal.
Finally, the artist insists, “This operation must be performed with utmost seriousness, and even with a touch of the sinister.”23
During the speech, Dalí, who describes himself as dressed with “provocative elegance,” alleges to have whipped the crowd into a frenzy as he pronounced the “crudest obscenities” which “no one had ever heard uttered in public.” While the hall began to “roar like a lion,” he waved his hand, and the aides approached and proceeded to strap the large loaf to his head, to the discernable amazement of the crowd. “When the bread was secured to my head,” he continues, “I suddenly felt myself infected by the general hysteria, and with all the strength of my lungs I began to shout my famous poem on the “Rotten Donkey.” At this point, an anarchist doctor in the audience, with a crimson face and a white beard was allegedly seized with “a fit of real madness,” and finally,
After the tirade of my obscenities, which still rang in everyone’s ears, the apparition of the loaf of bread on my head, and the fit of delirium tremens of the old doctor, the evening ended in an unimaginable general confusion.24
Dalí’s absurdly ceremonious “crowing” with the loaf of bread served in this instance as a catalyst for confusion, exemplifying creative freedom and taking anarchy to an artistic extreme. To cite it solely as part of Dalí’s so-called “conquest of the irrational,” or characteristic insistence upon the absurd or the inconceivable is to deny the agency of this gesture in terms of Dalí’s self-promotion or his attempts at social commentary. Indeed, spectacles such as these continued to establish the concept of “Dalinian bread” as Dalí’s “brand” or device, as well as to resonate with post-depression discourses of abundance and poverty. This is perhaps more evident in another proposed bread project from the early 1930s which was later to blossom into an elaborate plan Dalí proposed to found a “secret society of bread.” In the descriptive passage that follows, the artist delineates in elaborate detail his plan for a tremendous avant-la-lettre happening or work of performance or environmental art. The idea was to bake colossal loaves of bread, fifteen to forty-five meters in length, and to leave them, anonymously, in various elite spots around the globe, such as the inner gardens of the Palais Royal, the court of Versailles, and in New York between the Savoy-Plaza and the Hotel St. Moritz. Dalí’s description of the project, as he wrote about it in the early 1940s, was purely conjectural, although it should be noted that, in 1958, Dalí did manage to find a baker equipped to carry out part of this project. From him, the artist commissioned the baking of a twelve-meter baguette, which he used to illustrate his lecture on the theories of the physicist Werner Seisenberg at the Théatre de l’Étoile in Paris.25
According to the artist, this type of operation was intended as a point of departure which,
in accordance with my principles of the imaginative hierarchical monarchy, one could subsequently try to ruin systematically the logical meaning of all the mechanisms of the rational practical world.26
Despite this abstruse rationalization of the project, and regardless of the fact that Dalí is seldom considered in terms of political activism or commentary, the proposed placement of these massive loaves in the most prominent centers of luxury reads as a conspicuous underscoring of the discrepancies between privilege and poverty, that is, between gross abundance enjoyed by the moneyed and the poor’s lack of access to bread. For the latter, bread functioned in its broader, traditional sense, as a symbol of base sustenance. In this way, the “secret society of bread” raises a number of issues regarding access to, waste of, and the antipodes of distribution of food, bringing new meaning to Marie Antoinette’s famous expression “let them eat cake.”
As invested as Dalí was in Spanish politics and the events of the Spanish Civil War, he would have been well aware of a book that was a veritable Bible for the left-leaning faction leading up to and during the conflict. This was The Conquest of Bread, written by the Russian anarchist communist Peter Kropotkin and first published in 1892. In it, the author denounces capitalism and cites it as the primary cause of poverty, suggesting various socialist-centered solutions. While Dalí was to shift from ardent communist leanings in the early- to mid-1930s, to a decidedly reactionary, pro-Franco stance after the Spanish Civil War, the metaphor inherent in the phrase The Conquest of Bread, and its implied commentary on social inequity, was something that Dalí well knew would resonate with his bread project, suggesting his own personal “conquest of bread” in the domain of art practice and consumption.
While Dalí often employed the imagery of or actual loaves of bread in his visual practice, he likewise incorporated bread symbolism in his writing. This is most evident in his autobiography, in which the artist employs bread to index his Surrealist work, which, by the time of writing his memoir, he had rejected in favour of a new aesthetic. Calling it “classic,” Dalí based this new style on academic and renaissance models. In The Secret Life, the extent to which he associated the work of his Surrealist period with bread becomes clear when the artist discusses his attitude toward America and his first visit to the New World in 1934. “America!” he writes, “I wanted to go over there and see what it was like, to bring my bread, place my bread over there; say to the Americans, What does it mean, eh?’”27
Consequently, it is no surprise that upon his first voyage to America, by ship, Dalí managed to coerce the baker on the Champlain to bake him a two and a half meter long loaf of bread. Bolstered with a wooden armature to prevent it from breaking, and wrapped in cellophane, the artist boasted to fellow passengers that he could not wait to speak to the reporters on shore. “I love getting publicity,” he announces, continuing—once again evoking Biblical imagery—“and if I am lucky enough to have the reporters know who I am, I will give them some of my own bread to eat, just as Saint Francis did with the birds.” Arriving on shore, Dalí is greeted by a throng of reporters, all of whom were, according to the artist, “amazingly well informed as to who I was.” In one of his comic turns, however, he in fact ends up immensely disappointed that while being interviewed, not a single reporter asked about the enormous baguette that he “held conspicuous during the whole interview either on my arm or resting on the ground as though it had been a large cane.”28
According to the narrative forwarded in his highly embellished and novelistic memoir, while Paris enthusiastically embraced Dalí’s Surrealist work, and therefore his Surrealist “bread,” America clearly did not respond to this particular artistic fare. This despite what Dalí describes as his “most directly exhibitionistic way of showing my obsession with bread,” which involved parading his oversized baguette around the streets of New York until it was hopelessly dry and dented.29 Dalí ceremoniously employs the symbolism of bread here once again; this time in order to signal his break with Surrealist practice in America.
With his loaf crumbling to bits on the sidewalk in front of the Waldorf Astoria, Dalí writes that at precisely twelve noon he decided to throw it away, although before he did he slipped and fell. This caused the bread to split in half, and slide away some distance. A policeman immediately arrived to help him off the ground, and when the artist looked about him, it was to discover that the two halves of the breadstick had completely vanished.30 According to the trajectory of The Secret Life, which maps the shift from Dalí’s Paris-based Surrealist period to the beginning of his eight-year exile in America, the birthplace of his new “classic” phase as an artist, at this point bread, like Surrealism, disappears from The Secret Life. Dalí’s bread, as an emblem of his Surrealist aesthetic and career, evidently found no place in America and, dry, crumbling, and spent, it broke in half and disappeared, both literally, in the form of his evasive loaf, and symbolically, as a presence in his memoir.31
Collaterally with the writing of his autobiography in the early 1940s in America, a painting on the subject of bread that Dalí had executed some nineteen years before during his youthful, pre-Surrealist experimental phase suddenly took on renewed importance for the artist. This was The Basket of Bread of 1926, which depicts a rustic basket holding a few pieces of sliced bread. As with his bread paintings of 1932, here Dalí has once again employed striking chiaroscuro, setting the luminous central images against a stark black background to provide contrast for the basket and its contents, which have been placed reverentially upon a white cloth, resting atop a wooden table (Figure 7). This simple, unambiguous still life, executed in an Old Master style, was a showpiece for Dalí’s technical abilities, and an index of his proficiency at academic rendering and subject matter.
Basket of Bread was painted when the artist was only twenty-two years of age, up to which point his oeuvre had been decidedly abstract, having already gone through Impressionist, New Objectivity, Cubist, Purist, and other stylistic phases before he was to join the Surrealist ranks in 1929. Following this line of inheritance, it might be presumed that at the time the artist executed Basket of Bread, he was testing the limits of his technical mastery, decidedly working in an Old Master technique that was reminiscent of any number of Italian or more specifically Dutch paintings from the Renaissance onward. However, the work of the seventeenth-century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurberán, a great favourite of Dalí’s, is the most immediate referent.32
This painting is nothing like any of Dalí’s other works before or after the period in which it was painted, and is apparently devoid of irony, humor or contemporary influences of any kind. The artist shows undeniable technical mastery here, something that made a notable impression on the American press when it was exhibited at the Twenty-Seventh International Exhibition of Paintings, at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1928—it was one of the first three works by Dalí to be exhibited in the United States.33 While Dalí was not to set foot in the United States for the first time until four years later, the painting was, in fact, one that introduced the artist to the American public that was eventually to enthusiastically embrace him as a prolific and eccentric Surrealist in the following decade. However, at the time of his writing of The Secret Life, Dalí clearly sensed that Surrealism had run its course, and he even began referring to himself as an “anti-Surrealist.”34 At this point he evidently believed that he could capture a wider audience in the New World by returning to the kind of work exemplified in The Basket of Bread. “To become classic!” was his new battle cry in exhibition catalogues and his autobiography, and having done away with his “Surrealist bread,” he now embraced a new kind of “bread,” that is, a new artistic style: one in which he continued actively to explore bread as an artistic subject and medium.
It was under these auspices that Dalí began to experiment once again, almost two decades later, with Old Master, Renaissance, and academic styles, as he did in a 1945 oil painting entitled Basket of Bread, often published with the subtitle Rather Death than Shame, a work which self-consciously returns to his experiment of 1926 (Figure 8). That this canvas is intended to reference his earlier, and quite famous, Basket of Bread is established in a catalogue essay produced for an exhibition held in November and December of 1945 at the Bignou Gallery in New York. It is here that Dalí states his fascination with bread, as described at the beginning of this article, as the “oldest fetishistic and obsessive subject” in his work. “I painted the same subject nineteen years ago,” he explains. “In making an accurate comparison of the two pictures, one can study the entire history of painting, from the linear charm of primitivism to the stereoscopical hyper-aestheticism.”35
While Dalí’s assertion is characteristically abstruse, it is evident upon closer examination that the artist is not simply returning to the traditionalism of his first Basket of Bread. Despite the impressive and meticulous academic technique, this and other works of the “classic” phase, which began in approximately 1939, were in fact a sort of caricatural inversion of academic and Renaissance styles. These invariably referenced, with subtle and often menacing humor, subject matter relating primarily to current affairs, and most notably to the Spanish Civil War and World War II. This is evident in Dalí’s more recent Basket of Bread. In this work, the artist has bypassed the delicate white cloth and the implied reverential handling of the subject, and placed the new basket upon a stark, depression-era wooden table, where the basket, holding a heel of bread, has been shoved to the edge of the table. While this positioning might hardly seem notable in itself, the title of the work suggests that this is yet another animistic rendering of bread, in which Dalí has conflated his Zurberanesque style of 1926 with the anthropomorphic, “comedic” bread from his Surrealist period, and given this loaf a sort of “soul.” The subtitle of the work, Rather Death than Shame, refers to an “honor suicide,” and the bread—a mere heel, and therefore seemingly at the end of its usefulness and life—is perched on the edge of the table against a bleak black backdrop as if on the precipice of its own self-inflicted demise.
In the Bignou catalogue, Dalí writes that he painted this picture in two months, during which “the most staggering and sensational episodes of contemporary history took place.” The picture was finished, he maintains, “one day before the end of the war.”36 Consequently, the artist’s insistence upon the political framework for the creation of this canvas, and upon the dates of its execution, clearly suggests that the “staggering and sensational episodes of contemporary history” must be factored in to any analysis of it. In terms of subject matter, then, the most immediate reference to an “honor suicide” occurring in the final two months of World War II, during the death throes of the Third Reich, was Adolf Hitler’s.
The Nazi dictator, a subject of well-documented fascination for Dalí, had in fact chosen death rather than the inevitable shame of capture that awaited him at the hands of the Soviet army, which converged on his Bunker as it advanced through the streets of Berlin. As a result, Hitler made the decision to commit suicide on April 30th, 1945. That Dalí would portray Hitler as the heel of a loaf of bread refers back to the “moral hungers” to which he contends people are subject in the age of modernity. In one of his best-known essays, “The Conquest of the Irrational” of 1935, Dalí cites the German people as suffering from such a hunger, and argues that their resulting turn to Hitler and National Socialism fills a niche previously occupied by religion. Hitler’s followers, he writes, “systematically cretinized by machinism” and “ideological disorder,” among other ailments, “seek in vain to bite into the senile and triumphant softness of the plump, atavistic, tender, militaristic, and territorial back of any Hitlerian nursemaid.” This “irrational hunger,” he continues, “is placed before a cultural dining table on which are found only . . . cold and insubstantial leftovers.”37 As such, this interpretation dramatically underscores the degree to which Dalí stretches the simple iconography of the banal loaf of bread from the comedic, the phallic, and the anthropomorphic, to that of a metaphor for the self-inflicted demise of the most horrific and influential political leader of the twentieth century.
As if to further showcase the extraordinary versatility of his iconography, in the same catalogue for the Bignou Gallery exhibition, Dalí refers to bread once again, as metonymic of something that could not be further from the current events of the period. This is in regard to a painting he produced in 1944, of his beloved wife Gala, entitled Galarina (Figure 9). Once again in Dalí’s meticulous “classic” style, referencing Renaissance and academic painting, this work depicts Gala against the now familiar stark black background. She is rendered from the waist up, with her arms folded, and her soft white cotton shirt has been left open to reveal one perfect naked breast.
In the catalogue, Dalí explains that the work is entitled Galarina in reference to Raphael’s famous circa 1518 painting La Fornarina, which was a similar depiction of the Renaissance painter’s mistress, Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter (“fornarina” referring to flour and baking). No other reference or depiction of bread appears in any overt way in the canvas, yet according to the artist, “without premeditation, here again is . . . bread!” In explanation of the work, he continues: “A rigorous and perspicacious analysis will bring to light the crossed arms of Gala, looking like the intertwinement of the basket, her breast like the end of the bread.” Further, Dalí explains in an uncharacteristically glib interpretation of his own work his “subconscious desire to devour her,” and thereby fuse with the object of his devotion, and be perpetually nourished by her love. “[N]ow that Gala has risen in the heraldic hierarchy of my nobility,” he writes, “she has become my basket of bread.”38
After Dalí’s “classic” stage, which lasted until approximately 1948 and was exemplified in Basket of Bread—Rather Death than Shame, the artist was to move on to a new phase of his career he dubbed “Nuclear Mysticism.” This one-man movement conflated religious imagery, inspired by his conversion to Catholicism circa 1940 (he had previously been a lifelong atheist), with a sort of science-fiction aesthetic that was inspired by Dalí’s interest in recent studies in nuclear physics and quantum mechanics, at the forefront of scientific research during the 1940s and early ’50s.39 At this point, bread re-emerges as a considerable presence in the Spanish artist’s oeuvre, but this time in relation to his decidedly religious themes, where the animistic and “Old Master” bread was resurrected iconographically as the Eucharistic host.
This was a dualistic conceit for Dalí, representative not merely of the body of Christ the savior, but also with that of the painter himself, who announced in The Secret Life that he was to be the “savior of modern art,” justified by the very fact of his own name, Salvador, which means “savior” in Spanish.40 In this sense, the artist’s early embrace of bread imagery in 1926 was remarkably prescient, as his turn toward religious art would have been unconscionable to the Surrealist Dalí, an atheist and leftist steeped in the religious skepticism of the avant-garde. Nevertheless, Dalí’s embrace of bread as a personal device or icon, following his “epiphany” in a Paris bistro, was to continue along a remarkably smooth trajectory of what might be termed bread praxis, from Renaissance still-life object to Surrealist displaced object to academic-style painterly still life to religious object of devotion.
The first of the images from Dalí’s Nuclear Mysticism period that takes bread as its primary subject is The Madonna of Port Lligat (Second Version) of 1950 (Figure 10). This immense oil, spanning approximately twelve feet by eight feet, is based on models of Renaissance religious paintings, and most notably Piero della Francesca’s Madonna and Child with Saints and Duke of Urbino of 1472, which features similar architecture and an ostrich egg suspended above the Madonna’s head as a symbol of purity. Equally, this work reflects the artist’s fascination at that period with molecular science and quantum physics. This is reflected in the beautifully rendered objects, mostly seashells and the suspended egg, and the central altar which forms the grid of the work, all of which float freely in space, as if gently pulled apart by the absence of gravity.
In the altar-like niche sits the artist’s beloved wife Gala as a mid-life Madonna, swathed in white robes, with a square of empty space carved out of her torso and stomach. Nestled within this space sits a naked, blond Christ child, inside of whose own chest and belly floats a heel of bread. In a press interview taken at the time of the first exhibition of this work, at the Carstairs Gallery in New York in November of 1950, Dalí explains that the existing version of the painting had changed dramatically from an earlier, 1949 rendering. He describes how he had altered the focus of the original conception from the Madonna to the Christ child in the center of whose body appeared the Eucharistic bread, symbolizing the body of Christ.41 Dalí describes this image as nothing less than a “tabernacle ‘filled with Heaven.’”42
Dalí’s use of imagery of the sacrament in his work is rendered even more schematically in the next few years, as in his Eucharistic Still Life of 1952, a grid-like representation of the enduring symbols of Christianity, the fish and the loaf of bread, and finally his stark and imposing Nuclear Cross of 1952 (Figure 11). Here, the painter has rendered the elements of the Madonna of Port Lligat down to its most simple syntax: that of reverence for faith, and of faith being at the center of all things, indexed by a round slice of sacramental bread representing the body of Christ. This host is surrounded by a grid-like cross composed of nine hundred and fifty tiny cubes which encircle the central wafer, which serves as the focal point for the work.43 New to his oeuvre, this cubic aspect reflects Dalí’s interest in contemporary experiments in geometric abstraction, although, characteristically, the artist has conflated this modular style with a meticulous, near trompe-l’oeil Renaissance technique captured in the exquisitely rendered fraying cloth of silk and gold, folded neatly as an altarpiece beneath the cross.
As part of his “nuclear mystic” interest in science, Dalí has also depicted the bread in a manner reminiscent of a moon or a planet, and the golden glow in which the entire canvas is bathed suggests the divine nature of this lustrous orb which, surrounded by its grid-like rays, seems to be floating in the dark and infinite cosmos. The overall image, with a planet-like round of bread at the center of a radiant and radiating cubic cross posits bread as the body of Christ, as the giver of light, the originary source of spiritual sustenance, and the center of all things.
Nuclear Cross marked a decline in the appearance of bread in Dalí’s painted work, perhaps as the ultimate conclusion to a cycle that virtually exhausted a subject that Dalí employed liberally and with pronounced and versatile symbolism. While bread was to disappear, for the most part, from Dalí’s painting around 1952, the artist occasionally resurrected the loaf of bread in his installations, constructions, and performance activities for the remaining three decades of his career. This was particularly evident in the 1960s and 1970s, when he embraced Pop Art, which led to his recreating works such as Hypnogogic Clock in 1964, and incorporating bread and images of it in various films and performances. Perhaps the most whimsical of these final bread “acts” was his commissioning of a number of bread sculptures from Paris’ most famous baker, Pierre Poilâne, including salon furniture, a chandelier, and a birdcage out of which the bird was presumed to be able to eat.44
Perhaps one of the most poignant and enduring manifestations of bread executed during Dalí’s later career is one that appears on the outside of the museum dedicated to his work that the artist founded in 1972 in his home town of Figueres, Spain. This is the Dalí Theatre Museum, designed by Dalí himself, and described in promotional literature as the “world’s largest Surrealist object.” Dalí embellished this building with dozens of giant concrete eggs and, as an architectural ornament, neatly spaced across the fascia of the red brick building, hundreds of identical ceramic loaves of Catalan bread, traditionally shaped like a matador’s hat. As this building was a virtual monument to Dalí and his work, and today the locale that houses his tomb, it might be gauged that the artist wished to offer up the “sacrament” of his own body and creative spirit to those visiting a place where he could, as he stated in his autobiography, “appease for some hundred years the spiritual, imaginative, moral and ideological hunger of our epoch.”45 It also stands as a testament to Dalí’s identification with bread itself, as an image of the Dalí spirit or “brand.”
This final monument brings together only a few of the many themes Dalí explored in his embrace of bread as entity and image throughout the various phases of his work: as displaced and uncanny object, as animistic surrogate, as performance prop, as Christian/Dalinian sacrament, and as metonymic of the Dalinian body and body of work. As this essay has argued, to neglect the prevalence and relevance of bread imagery in Dalí’s creative production is to overlook a highly loaded symbol that establishes the fundamental meaning of a number of his most important works. Nevertheless, despite Dalí’s perpetual iteration of, and identification with, the image and object of bread, its complex and highly plastic signification largely continues to be disregarded in both scholarly and popular approaches to Dalí’s creative corpus. As such, unlike his virtual monopoly of the crutch, lobster, and villain’s mustache in the visual lexicon of western art, Dalí’s attempt to reinforce the distinction and reach of the “Dalí brand” through the perpetual iteration of bread imagery was clearly unsuccessful. Only in retrospect, through a survey of the fluid iconography of bread in the artist’s work, can one begin to break the code of the “Savior’s” many loaves, and plumb the significance of what, in 1942, he called his “ferociously anti-humanitarian, aristocratic, aesthetic, paranoiac, sophisticated, Jesuitical, phenomenal, paralyzing, hyper-evident,” and profoundly Dalinian bread.46
Figure 1: Salvador Dalí, Retrospective Bust of a Woman, 1933 (some elements reconstructed 1970). Painted porcelain, bread, corn, feathers, paint on paper, beads, ink stand, sand, and two pens. 73.9 x 69.2 x 32 cm (29 x 27.2 x 12.5”). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Figure 2: Salvador Dalí, Anthropomorphic Bread, 1932. Oil on canvas. 24 x 33 cm (9.45” x 12.99”). The Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida.
Figure 3: Catalan Bread—Anthropomorphic Bread, 1932. Oil on canvas. 24 x 16.5 cm (9.45” x 6.5”). Town Hall of Figueres, on permanent deposit at the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres.
Figure 4: Salvador Dalí, Average French Bread with Two Eggs on the Plate without the Plate, on Horseback, Attempting to Sodomize a Crumb of Portuguese Bread, 1932. Oil on wood panel. 16 x 22 cm (6.29” x 8.66”). Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota Aichi.
Figure 5: Salvador Dalí, Woman with Catalan Bread, 1932. Oil on canvas. 16 x 22 cm (6.29 x 8.66”). Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres.
Figure 6: Salvador Dalí, The Invisible Man, 1932. Oil on canvas. 16.5 x 24.5 cm. (6.5 x 9.66”). The Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida.
Figure 7: Salvador Dalí, The Basket of Bread, 1926. Varnish medium painting on panel. 31.5 x 31.5 cm (12.4” x 12.4”). The Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida.
Figure 8: Salvador Dalí, The Basket of Bread—Rather Death than Shame, 1945. Oil on panel, 34.7 x 43.5 cm (13.6 x 17.1”). Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres.
Figure 9: Salvador Dalí, Galarina, 1945. Oil on canvas. 64.1 x 50.2 cm. (25.2 x 19.76). Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres.
Figure 10: Salvador Dalí, The Madonna of Port Lligat (Second Version), 1950. Oil on canvas. 275.3 x 209.8 (12’ x 8’). Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan.
Figure 11: Salvador Dalí, Nuclear Cross, 1952. Oil on canvas. 78 x 58 cm (30.70 x 22.83”). Private collection.
Julia Pine recently received her Ph.D. in Cultural Mediations, with a specialization in Visual Culture, at the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Her doctoral thesis was on the subject of Salvador Dalí’s 1942 autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, and she is currently conducting research on Dalí’s war-era paintings, as well as his society portraits of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.