The Dalí-Picasso Rivalry: Freud, Obsession, and a Savior Complex

There are few relationships that captivated the world’s minds in the 20th century in the way that the rivalry between Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso was able. The storyline sounds as old as time, but it is one that has always seduced the masses: mentor and mentee, once comrades beneath the umbrella of the same movement, undergo an ideological split that takes them down fiercely opposing paths. The rivals undoubtedly wish to emerge victorious and, in the case of Dalí who will be the main consideration in this piece, this yearning to supplant the mentor that the mentee often has becomes one of his life’s primary obsessions. Herein, the reasoning behind the ideological split between two of Spain’s greatest artists at a pivotal time in their nation’s history will be examined, and, since it will be argued that Dalí’s philosophy is largely formed as a reaction to Picasso’s (and Surrealist thought, generally speaking), it will be Picasso’s philosophy that is given careful consideration initially. We will then transition to Dalí’s response to the conditions that Picasso and his fellow Surrealists ascribed, and the goal will be to showcase that Dalí deemed himself the man who could save Surrealism from both Picasso and the movement itself.

The only way for Dalí to do this was to “kill” Picasso, in the Freudian sense of the son’s longing to kill the father, and some consideration will be given to whether Dalí was successful in this undertaking and what the ramifications of this undertaking were for the two men and society as a whole. Dalí’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the Twenty-first Century (1947) will be referenced throughout the piece as it in many respects showcases the complicated feelings Dalí held towards Picasso: envy, begrudging respect, yet starkly polarizing artistic visions. Ultimately, the two men held different views as to how to best spread Surrealist thinking as Dalí relied upon tradition whereas Picasso embodied the spirit of rebellion; in the process, Picasso largely ignored Dalí whereas Dalí used Picasso as a barometer for what was wrong with the direction of Surrealism, and the jury may just remain out in regards to how much of Dalí’s obsession with Picasso was rooted in a petty inferiority complex versus a true desire to save art.

So it is Picasso with whom we will begin, and in particular we will focus on the character traits that he bestowed upon himself and of course the traits given to him by his contemporaries. One characteristic that recurs time and again in descriptions of Picasso is that he has a ravenous nature, indeed Surrealist founder André Breton dubbed him “the ravenous one,” and Picasso all but reveals this depiction to be accurate when he reflects upon his state in the world as, “the miracle of knowing nothing … and of having learnt nothing except loving things and eating them alive.”[1] This hunger for life coupled with a humility that echoes Socrates ties in nicely with the Surrealist desire to unleash creative potential in all facets of life. Naturally, one who consumes all things interacts with all things, and therefore may venture into creative realms previously left unturned.

However, while in one sense Picasso’s ravenous nature can be interpreted as profoundly progressive and inevitably leading art to richer pastures, this is in fact where Dalí begins his dissent from the man he previously idolized. In his epilogue to Oui, published in 1971 but capping writings written from 1927-1933, Dalí includes a poem that references the polyhedrons Plato included in Timaeus of which Renaissance writer Luca Pacioli considered to be, “the four simple elements of nature, plus the Whole.”[2] In this poem, Dalí lays into those who are, “Romantic, ignorant of the five unique and perfect polyhedrons/Ignorant of the cages of divine geometry,”[3] perhaps not a shot taken aim exclusively at Picasso but one that would certainly include him. Contrary to the likes of Plato, Pacioli, and Dalí, Picasso and his ilk, in Dalí’s estimation, fail to respect the divine forms that govern artistic creation. It is this blatant disregard for structure that prompts Dalí to portray Picasso as a romantic, ignorant, and ultimately “a symbol of permanent revolution.”[4] Picasso’s affinity for revolution contrasted with Dalí’s penchant for structure in part helps explain why Picasso sympathized with the left-leaning Republicans in the Spanish civil war while Dalí aligned with the fascist Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco.

Turning to Dalí’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the Twenty-first Century specifically, the characteristics of Picasso can be seen naked and exposed for the entire world to see. The spoon protruding from Picasso’s mouth would appear to be a confirmation that Picasso does eat the world around him as everyone seems to attest but, save the extended spoon, we are drawn to what would appear to be a broken cube above Picasso’s head. The simple explanation for what Dalí is conveying can be attributed to the aforementioned notion that Dalí considers Picasso to be unjustly disrespectful of conventional forms and structures. Hence Picasso has not only pushed the geometric form out of his own mind but the form itself is also broken (and may have always been broken). Vincent Santamaria de Mingo at the Universitat Jaume I takes this interpretation a step further, speculating that the cube is, “not only a symbol of liberty and romantic anarchy, it is [one] of madness which instead of remaining within the head is exposed to everyone as the madness of Picasso, manifested in the disequilibrium of forms.”[5]

de Mingo also asks us to consider the drooping nature of Picasso’s tongue and breasts in the portrait—and he speculates this, “could represent the excessive emotiveness Dalí always recognized in Picasso’s work.”[6] de Mingo directs viewers to a passage by Dalí’s idol and fellow Catalan Eugenio d’Ors that Dalí references in his own autobiographical work The Secret Life (1942) that includes the sequence, “Do you know what the French mean by a bourru bienfaisant [a rough diamond] when defining a character? Outwardly, all toughness; inwardly, all tenderness. Like the crustaceans. On the surface, the skeleton; on the inside, the soft meat.”[7] Dalí, in effect, removes the tough exterior skeleton from Picasso and only leaves his soft insides on display. Picasso is left with a soft and weak appearance—further suggesting Dalí’s message is that once Picasso is broken down he is merely overly-sentimental.

It appears the influence of d’Ors on Dalí cannot be overstated. Just as d’Ors had written in 1919, “I don’t want to bring you revolution but continuation,” Dalí proclaims, “Instead of Reaction o Revolution, RENAISSANCE.”[8] In an early review of Dalí’s autobiography, Ángel Zúñiga argues, “the return to the monarchy, the academy, hierarchy, architecture, Catholicism, angels—all this, sounds like pure d’Ors.”[9] Again, so just as Spain is experiencing a civil war in which Surrealist intellectuals largely backed the leftist Republican rebels with whom they shared a solidarity of populist revolution, Dalí is firmly establishing himself as anti-revolutionary, anti-modern, nostalgic for the old order that brought art and humanity as far along as it had. Thus, Dalí can be interpreted as a reactionary because he is responding to the threat of unfettered rebellion, but equally much of what he espoused was a conservatism rooted in a desire for the continuity of autocratic and religious ideology that had of coursed reigned in much of Europe for centuries.

Most artists saw these traditional social structures as the very problem, the very reason the masses had been chained in squalor for so long, and thus they turned to Trotskyism, communism, and anarchy. Dalí repudiates this movement he considers dangerous, and Picasso symbolizes a particular anarchist attitude that Dalí finds particularly foreboding. de Mingo adequately sets the stage for our consideration of Dalí’s decision to save Surrealism from Picasso via “murder” with the final thought of, “The struggle of contraries which Dalí seeks to promote between himself and Picasso is a clear reflection of d’Ors’ radical and irreducible Manichaeism, of which tradition and plagiarism, form and amorphousness, classical and romantic, continuity and revolution, order and anarchy, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and ultimately, angel and demon, form apart.”[10]

Thus far, it would seem that Dalí renounced Surrealism in favor of a more classical form of artistry. However, Dalí does not see his undertaking as an abandonment of Surrealism, after all he did identify as a Surrealist before being disavowed by its founder Breton, but rather an improvement, a recalibration, of Surrealism. In his own words, Dalí was, “entering a new phase which combines the mythology of the individual with the esthetic tradition,”[11] which is to say that he remained loyal to classical art but still intended to indulge the individual unconscious thinking that dominated post-Freudian Surrealist art. In Dalí’s estimation, Picasso is overcomplicated esthetic run amuck, and the implications are vital to Dalí’s claim to the surrealist throne, so to speak. Picasso “privileges visual expressivity over the subject of representation,” but the complex esthetic system, according to Dalí, will actually inhibit unconscious thinking for the viewer will be pain staked to merely understand what is happening in the work of art.[12] In other words, the conscious mind is overworked by Picasso, and as a result the unconscious mind may be deterred from entering the fray altogether.

Out of de Mingo once again, “The absolute freedom and continual transgression reflected in Picasso … with their extreme anatomical distortions will be the antithesis of the classical beauty [Dalí] now claims, a beauty constrained by academic rules and the models of tradition.”[13] Following this line of argumentation, Dalí has a claim to Surrealism insofar as his artistic mode is more conducive to Surrealism’s ultimate goal of releasing the creative potential of the unconscious mind than is Picasso’s. It is just quite remarkable that Dalí found a way to argue this stance by falling back on rules and tradition—concepts that one might assume to be anathema to Surrealism. Nonetheless, if given the benefit of the doubt that simpler esthetic systems are easier for the unconscious mind to access than excessively intelligent esthetic systems, then his position may well have merit.

At this juncture, Dalí sees himself as the savior positioned to supplant Picasso’s romantic Surrealism with another of a classical bent. As will be further developed, he is the Theseus to Picasso’s Minotaur. Picasso is the plagiarism, the modern plague, who only sees the history of art as something to be recklessly destroyed. Dalí wants to draw from the fountain of tradition and, since Picasso is the would-be-murderer of tradition, he must kill Picasso before the Minotaur can lay waste to tradition. And Surrealism is the beneficiary of this most noble of acts.[14] In order to confirm this was in fact Dalí’s intention, the evidence will now be examined.

The quotation from de Mingo introduced earlier in the piece likening Dalí to Apollo and Picasso to Dionysus provides an amenable starting point. Of course, Apollo is the god of reason and rational juxtaposed with Dionysus’ irrational and chaos—thus it makes perfect sense that Dalí would align with Apollo to stymie the revolt of Picasso the Dionysian Minotaur. Furthermore, Freud, hugely influential to Dalí, deems the superego as “nothing but the representative of tradition.”[15] Apollo is certainly a close relative of the superego, and, as has been noted time and again, Dalí is a loyal proponent of honoring tradition. Taking all of this into account, even if Dalí did not confirm his desire to kill Picasso, the writing was on the wall. Fortunately for us, he does so much as confirm it in his writings and in Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the Twenty-first Century.

Once Dalí considered himself to be the rightful heir to Surrealism and Picasso the outlaw, he held no punches. “Picasso is the Antichrist. He has diabolically entombed the great Western pictorial tradition, but he’s proposed nothing definite in its place,” proclaims Dalí.[16] In a letter addressed to Picasso himself, “With the violence of your Iberian anarchism, you have reached … the limits and ultimate consequences of that which is abominable. And you’ve marked it all with your own blood, just like Nietzsche would have liked. Now, turning our gaze back to Raphael is all what is left to do. God bless you!”[17] He thus appears to gloat in the face of Picasso—thankful that Picasso’s reckless abandon afforded him the opportunity to fulfill his savior complex. In the portrait, Picasso is depicted with ram’s horns—an animal that de Mingo tells us, “is associated with the Devil and which represents impurity and lust in Christian symbolism.”[18] de Mingo goes on to speculate that the flower emerging from between Picasso’s drooping breasts symbolizes “a new Narcissus,”[19] I assume the implication being that it serves as a signature of Dalí’s vanity and victory over Picasso. In other words, from the death of Picasso blossoms the flower of Dalí’s saved Surrealism.

de Mingo also suggests that Dali endows Picasso with an ambiguous sexual orientation because, for Dalí, both his wife Gala and Picasso acted as interchangeable substitutes for the parental figure in the same way that, according to Freud, “a child does not distinguish in value between its father and its mother before it has arrived at definite knowledge of the difference between the sexes.”[20] I must profess, however, that a full Freudian analysis of Dalí lies outside the scope of this paper, and part of the reason that Dalí depicts Picasso with drooping breasts and no male genitalia so as to accentuate his femininity, in addition to the fact that he wanted to portray Picasso as excessively emotive, may simply be to establish dominance over Picasso. Clearly Dalí’s relationship with Picasso was deeply complex, and in his own words Dalí did fulfill his desire to kill Picasso. “In regard to myself, Picasso is dead,” he begins, “he became my father, and my subconscious ambition was to be unfaithful to him, to kill him.”[21] Interestingly, it is normally the superego that restrains the id from killing the father, yet in Dalí’s case he acts on behalf of the superego to kill Picasso. This inversion of roles is clearly a testament to just how complex the Dalí -Picasso relationship was for Dalí, and also further cements that Dalí’s act was rooted in reasoned desire, to save art, as opposed to a baser form of mere jealous desire. This distinction is most assuredly critical to Dalí.

In the end, this fascinating rivalry had several elements at play, and the concluding remarks must simply state that Dalí and Picasso were two brilliant artists with competing worldviews on many levels. Dalí’s fixation with Picasso may strike as unhealthy, and it may well have been, but, in the same token, if he felt that the history of art was at risk due to Picasso then someone with the means must surely dutifully take on the onus of saving art. Yet, it is also hard to imagine that some of the motivation was not simply rooted in some degree of insecurity for the eccentric Dalí. That Dalí depicts Picasso as sightless in the portrait may sum up the relationship best: Dalí could be calling Picasso a prophetic soothsayer or he could be disparagingly showcasing him as blind. Chances are, there is likely a double-meaning at play. For one can respect a sage man he may also consider misguided.

[1] Pablo Picasso, Écrits (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux / Éditions Gallimard, 1989), 9.

[2] Vincent Santamaria de Mingo, “Picasso Is Tiresias, Me Too: An Essay on Salvador Dalí’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the Twenty-first Century,” The Dali 1:1 (2015): 1-19, 4.

[3] Salvador Dalí, Oui à la repression des libertés. Oui 2. L’Archangélisme scientifique (París: Denoël/Gonthier, 1974), 187.

[4] de Mingo, “Picasso Is Tiresias, Me Too: An Essay on Salvador Dalí’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the Twenty-first Century,” 4.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Eugenio d’Ors, Poussin y el Greco (Madrid: Caro Raggio, 1922), 65-66.

[8] de Mingo, “Picasso Is Tiresias, Me Too: An Essay on Salvador Dalí’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the Twenty-first Century,” 6.

[9] Ángel Zúñiga, “Al margen,” La Vanguardia, 24 January 1946, 9.

[10] de Mingo, “Picasso Is Tiresias, Me Too: An Essay on Salvador Dalí’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the Twenty-first Century,” 7.

[11] Salvador Dalí, Obra completa, vol. VII (Barcelona: Destino, 2006), 78.

[12] Salvador Dalí, On Painting (Unpublished text).

[13] de Mingo, “Picasso Is Tiresias, Me Too: An Essay on Salvador Dalí’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the Twenty-first Century,” 3.

[14] Pilar Parcerias, “Picasso and Dalí, double portrait in the bullring of art,” The Dali 1:1 (2015): 1-12, 1-2.

[15] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (Paris: Gallimard, 1936), 95.

[16] Dalí, Obra completa, vol. VII, 754.

[17] Salvador Dalí, Le cocus du vieil art modern (Paris: Les Cahiers rouges, Grasset, 1956), 29.

[18] de Mingo, “Picasso Is Tiresias, Me Too: An Essay on Salvador Dalí’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the Twenty-first Century,” 8.

[19] Ibid., 13.

[20] Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (1923) (New York: W.W. Norton, 1962), 21.

[21] Alain Bosquet, Entretiens avec Salvador Dalí. (Paris: Belfond, 1966), 130.

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