Swans Reflecting Elephants - Salvador Dali

Swans Reflecting Elephants - Salvador Dali

"Swans Reflecting Elephants" is a 1937 painting by Salvador Dali. This artwork was destined to become one of his first canvases, executed in full accordance with the "paranoid-critical method". The author of the method, which is easy to guess from the name, was Salvador Dali himself.


"Swans Reflecting in Elephants" (oil on canvas, 51 x 77 cm) is a vivid example of one of the most successful and memorable double images created by  Dali the surrealist.

To begin with, a few words should be said about the paranoid-critical method, the value of which for the creation of works of art in the genre of surrealism was recognized by the creator of this movement, André Breton.

Dali himself defined it as "a spontaneous method of irrational cognition based on an explanatory-critical combination of delusional phenomena." As it should be understood, and as was explained by Dali himself in his programmatic essay "The Conquest of the Irrational", his method was a significant step forward in comparison with "ordinary surrealism".

If surrealism in its original form was called upon to glorify the unconscious-delusional-irrational - and nothing more, then Dali's "method" went further, calling for subjecting delusional phenomena to systematization and critical interpretation based on the principles of paranoia. Let us recall that paranoia is mutually explaining delusional associations that have a systematic structure.

Whether this "method" can be considered a method in the true sense of the word is a controversial issue, but it must be admitted that it worked for Dali. The so-called "double image" was an effective and, in fact, the main technique of this method - and Dali, as we all know, in creating double images was inimitable and very inventive.

The first and really beautiful work, created in accordance with the paranoid-critical method, was the painting "The Metamorphosis of Narcissus", which we will certainly talk about later. "Swans Reflecting Elephants" is also a striking masterpiece, created according to the principles of paranoia, skillfully transferred to canvas.

The painting depicts one of the bays of Cape Creus, in the center of which rises an islet with dead trees that have long been devoid of leaves. Broken trunks, dry twisted branches resembling snakes evoke feelings of coldness, danger and anxiety.

This is as it should be: a terrible fratricidal war is going on in Spain. Yesterday's neighbor, with whom you simply did not get along in peacetime, may, endowed with new power, easily come to your home and take your life. War, especially civil war, releases the most bloodthirsty and base instincts in people.

A piece of raw meat hanging from one of the branches eloquently testifies to the triumph of cruelty and lust for blood, which then reigned in Spain. The most peaceful people, close neighbors, who for decades lived in harmony with each other, became mortal enemies - and Dali was a witness to this. In Cadaques, on a denunciation, several fishermen, whom Dali knew well, were shot.

The artist himself, not wanting to get into a bloody meat grinder, considered that being in his native places was life-threatening, and prudently left Spain. This is why the commonly deified places look so dark and menacing in this painting.

However, the double image itself is good! Swans, coupled with tree trunks reflecting in the threateningly motionless surface of the water, turn into elephants. This is, in fact, not only a double image, but also an inverted image. Turn the picture upside down - nothing will change - unless the elephants turn into swans - and vice versa.

We can only admire the technical skill of Dali, who often contradicted himself, often tried to combine the incompatible - however, all these little things were more than redeemed by his undoubted and enormous talent!


Currently, the painting "Swans Reflecting in Elephants" is in a private collection. (Read the original text in Russian)

The authors of the article are Sergei Zakharov and his wife, colleague and comrad-in-arms, Tatiana - writers and tour guides. You can learn more about our books and buy them in the "Where and what to read" section. We invite you to our tours of the Dali museums in Catalonia. Revealing secrets, debunking myths, telling the truth - we promise full and deep immersion in the amazing Universe of Salvador Dali! 

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