Shaping the Grotesque Through Art

I remember the grotesque forms plaguing my childhood – amorphous and animalistic, the stuff of nightmares. Landscapes where time melted and where identity was fluid all escaped the realm of comfortable normalcy.

As a child, my family and I had the pleasure of escaping the rainy English summers for the blissful heat of Southern Spain. But the joy of strolling along the sun-bathed streets was shattered by the sight of offensive objects demanding attention. It was difficult to comprehend. Where did the limbs stop and the face begin? Was it a human, an animal? Salvador Dali, the mastermind behind the terror, was responsible.

The Spanish Surrealist created his most famous and, to what my young mind seemed, his most harrowing pieces during the thirties and forties. Nonetheless, there was something alluring about Dali's his work. It was as if the repulsion I felt towards it pulled me closer. Like the fascination with picking a scab to see what lies beneath it, an insatiable curiosity made me return to his works. I decided to revisit Dali in Paris and gash open the scab once more.

At L’Espace Dali in Montmartre, I checked my watch, mindful of the time I designated for the visit. Looking up, I felt rendered a mockery at the hands of Dali. A melting clock, mounted on a wall and dangling precariously off a hanger, greeted me sardonically. I tried to calculate the time it would take me to go around the exhibition, to look upon each piece and truly understand it. Like the languid clock, slowly wilting and waning before my eyes, I needed to give Dali time. “A painting can only unfold for the viewer in time”, insists the essayist Siri Hustvedt. (1)

The exhibition hall resembled a cave. Mystic with dimmed lights, it was as if my young self had awoken, stepping into a scene only Alice herself would find familiar. I explored the wonderland of warped bodies and distortion. Each corner of the exhibition contained different sculptures, paintings, and sketches, but a single thematic thread effortlessly weaved everything together. The far left corner harbored images of Alice and the array of bizarre characters that inhabited her world. No wonder the artistic marriage between Lewis Carroll’s novel and Dali’s illustrations became “one of the most sought-after Dali suites of all time” upon its release in 1969. It was a perfect match for an artist that transformed reality into a morphing dream.

One look at Dali’s “Alice in Wonderland” sketches, and I was captured by the swirls of vivid colors, the shapes that took subtle form, and the outlines of familiar figures from the Disney cartoon. The initial similarity between the fairytale told by Disney and Dali’s rendition disappeared the longer I lingered by the works. Somewhere in the medley of colors and shapes, something much darker brooded. Perhaps it was in the representation of Alice, faceless and straining her hands in the air. Her posture appeared frantic and distressed, and a long shadow drooped behind her. I felt unsettled, but the longer I peered, the more that unraveled.

Underneath the layers of confusion and repulsion, I began to see the painting as a representation of vulnerability. Siri Husvetdt’s voice echoed in my mind again. Certainly, there are “levels of play in an image...if you move away from the image you're losing all that will come later to you.” (2) The painting made me feel as if a child-like fairy tale was stripped away to reveal the more the anxieties and fears of adult life.  

As I moved further along the exhibition, “The Snail and the Angel” captured my interest.  “One of Dali’s favorite symbols,” the snail expresses “his own duality,” stated the concise description offered by the museum. A snail hides what is vulnerable behind its tough exterior. To me, Dali’s art brings forth the troubling emotions and desires we often camouflage with our own hard shells for fear of judgment. The works at the Museum made me feel as though I was in the midst of someone’s mind. It reminded me of reading novels by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, whose narratives are candid and dreamlike. Dali’s works were as unpredictable as the talking cats and rain clouds filled with fish in Kafka on the Shore.

It wasn’t hung up like a normal painting. Instead, it lay flatly on a desk. The piece was “Le Papillon fantastique ou Arlequin.” In the center of the frame was a realistic drawing of a butterfly. A metal pylon protruded above the creature. The butterfly was drawn in such intricate detail that, at first glance, it looked like one of those preserved insects encased in glass. But closer observation left me deeply shaken. The pylon reflected the insect in a way that formed its body into a leering human face. The terrifying reflection followed my gaze around the object’s circumference. Two antennae formed an eccentric mustache; it was clear that the figure was a self-portrait of none other than Dali.  Anamorphosis—“a distorted projection…of an image, using an optical system”— is what the artist used to create the visual trick. Dali was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and the piece echoes the idea of a suppressed unconscious. The butterfly represents the image we uphold to society whilst our true self, the human reflection on the pylon, is forced into hiding, emerging in unexpected ways.

Indeed, Salvador Dali was a central figure in the Surrealist movement.  A reaction to the horror of the First World War, the movement was characterized by irrational and often aesthetically unpleasing forms created out of the rejection of rationalism. His work may not attest to a literal war like that of his contemporary Picasso through works like “Guernica,” yet nonetheless is informed by war’s fallout and emotional debris. Dali's work represents the war of inner turmoil, a conflict not only temporally but eternally relevant. His work does not appease the senses but instead challenges them. Revisiting Dali dispelled my initial childhood fear towards his unsettling forms. Leaving the exhibition, I stumbled on a quote from Dali’s friend, Pierre Roumeguère’s—a psychoanalyst—whose words encapsulated experience at L’Espace Dali. “That which we perceive is not inherent to the object itself, but to our soul.”



1. Hustvedt, Siri. "Siri Hustvedt Interview: Art Is a Memory." Interview by Synne Riftberg. N.d. Television.

2. Ibid.