We should be grateful to the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, (1904-1989), not only for hundreds of his incomparable visions, but also for the dozens of the prescient, and usually witty, remarks he uttered during his time with us on earth. Probably the most well-known is: “I don’t take drugs. I am drugs.”
My favorite quote, however, is this one: “So little that can happen does…. For instance, when you order lobster in a restaurant, why don’t you get instead a telephone book on fire?”
Dalí’s observation takes us right into the heart of Surrealism, an attempt in the 1920’s by poets, painters, sculptors and film makers to come to terms with the unimaginable butchery– and ultimate stupidity– of World War I. Consider this: during two decades of war in Vietnam (1954-1975) an estimated 3,500,000 civilians and combatants lost their lives. This total includes 58,000 American servicemen and women. In contrast, World War I was shorter, August, 1914-November, 1918. During those four years, 70,000,000 men fought, mostly in trenches in Northern Europe. Nine million of them (9,000,000) never returned to their jobs or to their farms, or into the arms of those who loved them. As Robert Hughes lamented in his book, The Shock of the New, “If you ask where is the Picasso of England or the Ezra Pound of France, there is only one probable answer: still in the trenches.”
Were alive a century later, but the unimaginable horrors of 1918 are now all-too imaginable, and all-too real. We’re aware that political leaders in the USA and in many other parts of the world have learned nothing from the past and that we are living in a nightmare like the Surrealists a hundred years ago.
This painting began as a simple autumn landscape. Months later, the ship appeared in a dream. In yet another dream, the flock of ravens arrived. I finished the painting in 2013 without a thought of Surrealism and only premonitions of what would become our current situation in 2018. Like most surrealistic images, the force comes from a juxtaposition of unrelated objects: clouds, trees and grass, stables in the distance, the carcass of a rotting ship, birds gliding into the meadow. At first I took the title of the work to refer to the ship. But lately I wonder if the best information doesn’t instead come from trees and ravens.
As for Dalí’s remark, let’s leave the last words of this post to my fellow surrealist painter, Della Heywood: “Most people who order the lobster don’t have the imagination to see that what they’re really getting is a flaming telephone book.”