Skip to main content

Salvador Dali, The Elephants (1948)

Symmetry is a manifestation of Beauty at its purest and most disciplined. Some might dismiss it as banal; the only mechanism the reactionaries will trot out when their definition of Beauty is constrained by the age-old tradition. But symmetry begets a feeling of orderliness and reverence; it seems like an impossible creation that only the Divine can conceive. What the victor most wants to witness, when returning home from a gruelling battle, is the ponderous portal that welcomes his victory with a low murmur of solemnity, and the symmetrical symbols of his country that engraved on the portal will become the indelible memory that lives with him until he is the Elder, who with voice wispy but sober recounts countless tales of his heroic deeds, his glorious past.

Symmetry also inspires a feeling of uncanniness, as in the case of Salvador Dali’s The Elephants (1948): two elephants, with legs rail-thin, stand face-to-face against a barren background of vast, blood-red heaven. Elephants are a leitmotif in Dali’s oeuvre, but never are them rendered as such vulnerable, defeated creatures as those in the 1948 painting. Both elephants are carrying obelisks, which weightiness does not seem so prominent if our eyes are not instantly fixed upon the scrawny legs. How hazardously the elephants carry their weights! But in close inspection one can discover without difficulty that the obelisks are floating at least an inch above the elephants’ backs. By virtue of doing this Dali reverts the substantial realisation of weightiness back to its original state as purely formless sentiment.

The contrast between lightness and weightiness is therefore blurred; one might even suggest that the two can be interchangeable. Something that dwells on so heavily that ultimately everything is elevated- such sensation is not one that is too anomalous, if likening to one’s endurance to a protracted heartbrokenness, the longer one internalise the heavy feeling, the lighter physically and mentally one becomes. Vulnerability is only the semblance of a developing valour, when one reaches the state of light heaviness, or heavy lightness.

That is what makes the symmetry in The Elephants so uncanny. Symmetry is all about the most astringent form of Beauty; it assumes peace and order rather than begging questions and suggesting mysteries. When an unsolved paradox, or a pronounced contrast, is introduced, the bland serenity is finally broken. But symmetry persists in this painting nonetheless, by means of the barrenness of composition, by means of the blatantness of colours. The beholders have nothing else to behold than the two ill-shaped elephants, staring oddly at each other. This is often the moment when one comes to the conclusion that everything within the painting can be symmetrical: the elephants, the colours, even the lightness and heaviness.


Popular posts from this blog

Honore Daumier

“If you shut up truth and bury it under ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”- Émile Zola
Exited Honoré Victorin Daumier, 10 February 1879, in an impoverishment that many of his contemporaries, especially his foes, would have thought was his long overdue retribution- the painter was blind, heavily in debt, and later relegated to a pauper’s grave. His friends, upon visiting his resting place, would, I imagine, see it a chance to admonish their children: “Now that’s a lesson for you cheeky devils whose tongues rattle off things that should better stay unspoken.” But Daumier devoted his life in revealing those “unspoken things.” His lithography ink proved sharper than most writers’ pens. He vented his rage and stigmatised others’ infamy in his satirical and, oftentimes, side-splitting cartoons. The tone was relentlessly acerbic but only because Daumier was exposing truths that, in the time…

Review: Late Spring (1949)

As a storyteller, Yasujiro Ozu insists on an implausibly objective stance that refrains from direct commentary or criticism; his camera customarily assumes the role of a detached observer, to whom the characters in the film, staring or talking straight to the camera, occasionally address, with an intimacy akin to that between a host and his guest, a closeness that is underpinned by a mutual recognition of the psychological distance that separates the two. The audience, whose perspective, in this case, conflates the camera’s (the director’s), an invisible character’s in the film (to whom the other characters address) and their own, is thus situated amidst this spatial complexity which, as a rule, every work of art necessarily creates.
In Late Spring (1948), the camera serves in part as an underlying comment to the story, which is noted by its economy of details. A prolonged shot of a departing train, on which the father and daughter travel to the city for a one-day excursion, prefigures…

Review: Breathless (1960)

Jean Luc Godard’s first feature feels oddly like a swansong: in many respects the film seems a self-mockery of what it ostensibly celebrates – the new, the bold, the reckless; the 60s zeitgeist that resurrects the anguished ghosts of the 1920s, who, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, grow up to “find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.” For the children of the ‘60s, their wars are of a kind in which the opponents constantly change roles: sometimes they are the unmerciful authorities bent on making miserable lives out of their inferiors; in other times they are the society at large, weeding out in its insidious and devious way the errant law-breakers. They all seem to be donning the same masks, through which the warriors recognise themselves.
This fight with one’s inner demon necessarily evokes concerns of mortality and death - timeless concerns that acquire an added pungency in the 1960s: would a dangerous, unheeding spell of hedonism finally defy life’s incontrove…