"The Great Masturbator" was painted by Salvador Dali in the fall of 1929 and was kept in his Theater-Museum in Figueres until the artist's death. After Salvador Dali had died, bequeathing his entire fortune (money, houses, artwork) to the Spanish State, "The Great Masturbator" left for Madrid and is exhibited today at the Reina Sofia Center of Arts, where you can enjoy this marvellous painting "with your own eyes".
In this article we will talk about the history of the creation of this wonderful painting (110 X 150 cm; oil on canvas), as well as the secret and explicit symbolism of the "Great Masturbator" - Dali's undoubted masterpiece of the surrealist period.
For better understanding the painting "The Great Mastrubator", we will use our favorite method: we will revive in our memory the circumstances of Salvador Dali's life at the moment when this work was being painted.
Exhibitionism is in general a characteristic feature of modern art, and in this regard Salvador Dali could easily give odds to all other creators! It is this entire openness - to the end, to the very bottom, no matter how ambiguous the revealed secrets turn out to be - which makes Dali's paintings so captivating.
Dali not only willingly, but even enthusiastically dragged all his fears, phobias, complexes, resentments and experiences into art, managing to do it with great and inimitable talent.
"The Great Masturbator" was painted in the fall of 1929. Let's remember what had been happening at that time in Dali's life. And there were events of paramount importance: in August, Salvador Dali first saw his future wife - Gala. Saw, instantly lost his head and fell in love with that "salty and furious voman" as they called her in the Surrealist Circle.
Yes, it was real love at the first (at least, at the second) glance and, having lost his head once and forever, Dali began to flirt desperately - this, please, note, despite the fact that he was wide known for his extreme shyness in relationships with women.
Gala - a Russian-style Parisian, known, on the contrary, for her sophisticated and wide experience in sexual pleasures - responded to the ardent Catalan youth with a sudden reciprocity. In September, they finally declared their mutual love to each other, and Gala left for Paris: it was necessary to somehow prepare her unsuspecting husband, Paul Eluard, for the coming changes.
The Dali family not only did not accept the chosen of Salvador, but rebelled against Gala with all their might. Particularly indignant was the head of the family - the father of Salvador (also Salvador, but Salvador Sr.), who, as a sort of punishment for his dissolute son, even made a new will on September 2, according to which our Salvador son was actually deprived of his inheritance.
An ultimatum was delivered to the enamored young man: either a family that loves you, or this terrible "La Madame", as Dali's father used to call Gala. Dali, who was not going to retreat and foresaw the final expulsion from the family, worked those days as hard as he had never done before, hoping to sell his paintings in Paris and help out some small funds on which Gala and him had to start their life together.
At that time Salvador Dali was neither known nor financially independent. Ahead of the artist awaited a future full of fears and anxieties - but there, in this frightening unknown, was Gala: the woman of his whole life, the apple of his eye, and the very meaning of his future existence. This is the disposition that will help us understand the painting in the right way.
The entire central space of the painting "The Great Masturbator" is occupied by a huge head with closed (in a dream) eyes, dejectedly or bashfully burying its nose in the ground. This is, of course, Dali himself, before the described events, during them, and afterwards actively practicing masturbation, which filled him with a hot sense of shame, and which, in fact, determined the name of the picture.
The prototype of this original selfportrait was a boulder named La Roca Cavellera at Cape Creus, where, by the way, a decisive explanation between Dali and Gala took place. Cape Creus, which we have written about many times, is Dali's endless source of inspiration, an amazing natural workshop, from where the artist borrowed many of his images.
We can observe the same nosy head in other paintings by Dali: "The Dark Game", "Portrait of Paul Eluard", "The Persistence of Memory", etc. Masturbation had been a habitual practice for him for years. In the few weeks that Dali and Gala were together, sexual intimacy between them, according to Dali, did not happen, and after her departure, anticipating meeting her again, Dali, according to him, indulged in masturbation with sullen and frenzied rage.
Anyway, every time he masturbated he couldn't get rid of striking sense of guilt, because "the sperm was poured into nowhere every time, and I felt that I was wasting it."
A woman's head reaching out to the male genitals covered with thin pants undoubtedly reflects the erotic fantasies of Salvador, who anticipated of meeting Gala, and at the same time was afraid of that meeting.
The basis for this female image, according to Dali, was an old postcard with the image of a woman tasting the scent of a lily - so you shouldn't be surprised that her appearance has a very distant resemblance to the "original" - that is, Gala. Photographically accurate portraits of the future wife were still to come.
The flower is also present in the painting - rather, not a lily, but a calla, which, in general, does not change the essence: both the lily and the calla, as you know, symbolize purity and innocence. This, most likely, contains the justification for masturbation - as the most "pure" form of sexual life.
The calla pistil, however, has a pronounced phallic shape - like the tongue of a lion with a bared mouth. Like the body of one of Dali's main phobias - locusts. As we have already said, Dali was both afraid and wanted sex with Gala at the same time.
The grinning jaws of a lion, in the artist's own words, are his inner fear that when "it comes down to business" he will do something wrong, or erection let him down at the most inopportune moment - and everything will be ruined! The same fear of impending intercourse is evidenced by the ants crawling along the belly of the locust. Ants in Dali's works symbolize death and decay and refer us to the origin of Dali's sexual phobias.
Dali's father, as you know, trying to protect his little son from sexual excesses in the future, specially kept on the piano a book about venereal diseases, disclosed on a page with a picture of genitals mutilated by syphilis. Such sexual education, as we can see, gave its "fruits", forever instilling fear of sexual relations in the susceptible Dali. The first and only woman to free him from this fear was Gala.
The hugged man and woman in the painting are Dali and Gala, who confessed their feelings for each other and tied their destinies forever (for 53 years, to be exact, until Gala's death in 1982). The lone figure in the lower left, wandering into the distance - this is Dali again, who foresaw his final expulsion from the family - which soon really happened.
Let's pay attention to the egg, which is so often present in Dali's works - a universal symbol that the artist at different times endowed with different meanings. Here, without a doubt, this means a completely new life that awaits Dali with his beloved, and which is about to begin - that is, "will hatch from an egg."
The flat stones (pebbles) scattered here and there are the remnants of the past, from which both have to get rid one way or another.
However, the most important thing in this picture is the amazing skill that Dali demonstrates while still beeing a very young man (at the time "The Great Masturbator was painted Dali was only 25). Did you know that Dali's works can be looked at for hours, studying all these almost invisible little things carefully painted by the Catalan and admiring his amazing technique? (read the original text in Russian)
The author of the article is Sergei Zakharov, a writer and tour guide. When reprinting materials, please indicate the active link to the source. 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!