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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.

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