- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 651 x 651 mm
frame: 898 x 899 x 85 mm
- Purchased 1975
Salvador Dalí 1904–1989
Oil paint on canvas
650 x 650mm
Purchased from the Edward James Foundation (Grant-in-Aid) in 1975
Purchased from the artist by Edward James, Chichester in 1936; Edward James Foundation, on loan to the Tate Gallery from 1958 until acquired in 1975.
Autumnal Cannibalism depicts two interconnected figures within a scenic landscape, delicately devouring one another with disconcerting civility. The setting for the scene is the plain of Empordà, the region of Catalonia where the artist was born. Although the characters lack any distinguishable facial features, they are nonetheless sexualised: the male (on the right) dips his spoon into his partner’s right breast, while the woman (on the left) gracefully reaches around her companion to cut the flesh that is actually her own elongated left breast thrown over the male’s shoulder. Dalí positions the two beings on top of a chest of drawers littered with cutlery and foodstuffs. A cut of (presumably raw) meat rests on the masculine figure’s head, providing a precarious pedestal for a conspicuous golden apple – a sure reference to the legend of the Swiss patriot William Tell, whose story of having to shoot an arrow at an apple on his own son’s head moved Dalí to read it in Freudian terms as a son being ‘castrated’ by a dominant father-figure. Dalí executed a handful of paintings prior to 1936 that also referenced autumn in their titles, including Materialisation of Autumn (… at Seven it’s Already Dark) [Materialització de la tardor (… a les set ja és fosc)] c.1934 (whereabouts unknown) and Autumn Puzzle 1935 (The Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida). Perhaps he was attracted to autumn’s poetic suggestion of melancholy, though as Jennifer Mundy has written, ‘autumnal’ may simply denote the season in which the pictures were painted: Autumnal Cannibalism, for instance, was not listed among the works shown in Dalí’s solo exhibition at Alex Reid & Lefevre Gallery, London during the summer of 1936, but was exhibited for the first time at the Julien Levy Gallery, New York that December, suggesting it may indeed have been painted during the autumn.1
It has been widely speculated that Autumnal Cannibalism reflects Dalí’s views on the Spanish Civil War, which had erupted in July 1936, the year the painting was executed. Whereas his other great war work, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans – Premonition of Civil War 1936 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), presents a figure horrifically tearing itself apart as a powerful metaphor for civil war, Autumnal Cannibalism is far more delicate, offering an almost amorous situation of consensual consumption. Its relative tranquillity suggests that Dalí’s position on the Spanish Civil War was not one of condemnation, or even partiality. Unlike Picasso or even his fellow Catalan Joan Miró, Dalí adopted a very passive attitude towards the conflict, following its events from the safety of London. Here, he claimed publically to be more or less indifferent to its outcome: the Nationalists assassinated his dear friend Federico Garcia Lorca, he admitted, but the Republicans had murdered nearly every bourgeois citizen in his hometown of Cadaqués (and would later imprison his sister, Ana María). Both factions were committing atrocities, and so Dalí refused to take sides – neutrality that disgusted the other Surrealists, who had been following the plight of the Frente Popular since 1931 and zealously supported the Republican Left.
Given Dalí’s self-imposed distance from the Civil War, it is perhaps unsurprising that Autumnal Cannibalism appears cold towards the conflict; Dalí later illuminated this perspective in conversation with Robert Descharnes during their collaboration on the book Dalí de Gala, saying of Autumnal Cannibalism, ‘Ces êtres ibériques, s’entre-dévorant en automne, expriment le pathos de la guerre civile considéree comme un phénomène d’histoire naturelle’ (These Iberian creatures, devouring each other in autumn, symbolise the pathos of civil war seen as a phenomenon of natural history).2 In fact, this is a slightly abbreviated version of a lengthier statement, later published in Descharnes’ Dalí, l'oeuvre et l'homme, in which the artist added provocatively that his view of the Spanish Civil War as a ‘phenomenon of natural history’ was opposed to Picasso, ‘who considered it a political phenomenon’.3
Even taking into account Dalí’s view of warfare as ‘natural history’, there is remarkably little in Autumnal Cannibalism that firmly connects it to a war narrative beyond, perchance, the inclusion of boiled beans, which also figure prominently in Soft Construction with Boiled Beans – Premonition of Civil War. Indeed, the non sequitur golden apple suggests less warfare than Dalí’s own personal mythology: he frequently identified himself with William Tell’s son and with other episodes of a son being ‘conquered’ by his father (e.g. Saturn devouring his children, God the Father sacrificing Jesus Christ, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac).4 It is for this reason that more attention should perhaps be given to an alternative interpretation for the painting that Dalí advanced in Max Gérard’s book, Dalí de Draeger, published in 1968. Here, Dalí omitted any reference to politics, insinuating instead that the figures’ anthropophagy was more romantic than hostile: ‘Devant ce paysage, des personages s’entredévorent, s’avaident pour s’identifier totalement et de la façon la plus absolue à l’être aimé’ (In the foreground of this landscape, the figures devour one another, swallow each other in order to become totally and completely identified with the loved one).5 Provocatively, Max Gérard infers from this that the masculine and feminine figures in Autumnal Cannibalism represent Dalí himself and his wife Gala, and their ravenous courtship as reported in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942):
And this first kiss, mixed with tears and saliva, punctuated by the audible contact of our teeth and furiously working tongues, touched only the fringe of the libidinous famine that made us bite and eat everything to the last! Meanwhile I was eating that mouth, whose blood already mingled with mine.6
Gérard adds significantly that according to The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, Dalí and Gala first consummated their love in the autumn of 1929. According to this interpretation, therefore, Autumnal Cannibalism can be read as an anthropophagous portrait of the artist and his wife/muse. Pierre Roumeguère’s 1974 essay, ‘Cannibalisme et esthetique’, published as the preface to Gérard’s subsequent book Dalí … Dalí … Dalí … would later support this interpretation. A trained psychoanalyst, Roumeguère theorised that cannibalism was the by-product of Dalí’s subconscious urge to ingest whatever – or whomever – he desired.7 Noting that, in 1971, Dalí had expressed his enthusiasm for holography because he said it would allow him to accomplish one of his heart’s ‘plus chers désirs: manger l’être adoré Gala’ (dearest desires: to eat the adored being Gala),8 and that the tenth chapter of his 1973 book, Les Dîners de Gala, was titled ‘Je mange Gala’ (I eat Gala),9 Roumeguère concluded that the artist’s ‘cannibalistic tendency [...] both to eat and to be eaten’ was strongest with his ‘companion spouse’, Gala.10
As there do not appear to be any statements from Dalí contemporaneous with the execution of Autumnal Cannibalism, it is unclear which of these post-facto interpretations – reading the painting as a metaphor for mutually-consuming love or as a detached comment on the Spanish Civil War – was truest to his original idea. Indeed, both may be only reflections of his later preoccupations and his unending propensity to mythologise himself and his intentions.
Elliott H. King
Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.
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