Salvador Dalí

Autumnal Cannibalism

1936

On display at Tate Modern

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 651 x 651 mm
frame: 898 x 899 x 85 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1975
Reference
T01978

Display caption

Painted just after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, this work shows a couple locked in a cannibalistic embrace. They are pictured on a table-top, which merges into the earthy tones of a Spanish landscape in the background. The conflict between countrymen is symbolised by the apple balanced on the head of the male figure, which refers to the legend of William Tell, in which a father is forced to shoot at his son.

Gallery label, November 2015

Catalogue entry

Salvador Dalí 1904–1989

Autumnal Cannibalism
1936
Oil paint on canvas
650 x 650mm
Purchased from the Edward James Foundation (Grant-in-Aid) in 1975
T01978

Ownership history:
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.

Exhibition history:

1936
Salvador Dalí, Julien Levy Gallery, New York, December 1936–January 1937, no.4.
1937
1937 Exhibition – Unity of Artists for Peace, Democracy and Cultural Development, Artists International Association, London, April–May 1937, no.222.
1937
Origines et Développement de l'Art International Indépendant, Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris, July–October 1937, no.88.
1938
Realism and Surrealism, Guildhall, Gloucester, May–June 1938, no.27.
1938
Autumn Exhibition, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, October 1938–January 1939, no.477.
1964
Salvador Dalí, Tokyo Prince Hotel Gallery, 8 September–18 October 1964; Nagoya Prefectural Museum of Art, 23–30 October 1964; Kyoto Municipal Art Gallery, 3–29 November 1964, no.136.
1965
Salvador Dalí 1910–65, Gallery of Modern Art, New York, December 1965–September 1966, no.73.
1970
Dalí, Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, November 1970–January 1971, no.53.
1971
Salvador Dalí, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden Baden, January–April 1971, no.42.
1971
Dalí: Art-in-Jewels Exhibition and Paintings, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, June–July 1971, painting no.7.
1979
Salvador Dalí. Rétrospective, 1920–1980, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 18 December 1979–21 April 1980, no.244.
1980
Salvador Dalí, Tate Gallery, London, 14 May–29 June 1980, no.158.
1989
Salvador Dalí: 1904–1989, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 13 May–23 July 1989; Kunsthaus, Zürich, 18 August–22 October 1989, no.149.
1994
El Surrealismo en España, Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, 11 February–17 April 1994, no.46.
1996
Salvador Dalí: Autumn Cannibalism, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, March–April 1996; Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, April–June 1996; City Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, June–July 1996, no number.
1999
Surrealism: The Untamed Eye, Norwich, Castle Museum, July-November 1999, catalogue no. 7, reproduced in colour, p.13.
2001
Surrealism, Desire Unbound, Tate Modern, London, 20 September 2001–1 January 2002; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 6 February–12 May 2002, no.255.
2004
Dalí, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 12 September 2004–16 January 2005; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 16 February–15 May 2005, no.165.
2007
Dalí & Film, Tate Modern, London, 1 June–9 September 2007; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 14 October 2007–6 January 2008; The Salvador Dalí Museum, St Petersburg, Florida, 1 February–1 June 2008; Museum of Modern Art, New York, 29 June–15 September 2008, no.1.

References:

1948
A. Oriol Anguera, Mentira y verdad de Salvador Dalí, Barcelona 1948, no.XXII.
1950
J. A. Gaya Nuño, Salvador Dalí, Barcelona 1950, fig.24.
1962
Robert Descharnes, Dalí de Gala, Lausanne 1962, p.169.
1968
Max Gérard (ed.), Dalí de Draeger, Paris 1968, pl.26.
1969
Robert Lebel, ‘Le Dalí de tout le monde ou la psychopathologie commericalisée’, L’Oeil, no.169, January 1969, p.31.
1973
Robert Descharnes, Salvador Dalí, Paris 1973, p.34.
1973
David Larkin (ed.), with introduction by J.G. Ballard, Dalí, Paris 1973, pp.35–6.
1974
T. Ogura and Robert Descharnes, L’Art moderne du monde, Tokyo 1974, p.111, pl.41.
1975
Simon Wilson, Surrealist Painting, London 1975, p.13, pl.31.
1975
Luis Romero, Todo Dalí en un rostro, Barcelona 1975, p.133.
1977
Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Dalí, Madrid 1977, p.110.
1979
Conroy Maddox, Dalí, New York 1979, p.52.
1981
Josep Pla, with an introduction by Salvador Dalí, Obres de museu, Figueres 1981, p.98.   
1981
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.137–8.
1982
Ignacio Gómez de Liaño, Dalí, Barcelona 1982, p.81.
1983
J. Socias, Dalí, Barcelona 1983, p.23.
1984
Robert Descharnes, Dalí, l’oeuvre et l’homme, Lausanne 1984, p.223.
1985
R. Rom, Salvador Dalí, The Surrealistic Angel, San Francisco 1985, p.108.
1986
T. Okada, Dalí, Tokyo 1986, p.52.
1989
G. Cortenova, Salvador Dalí, fusioni veronesi, exhibition catalogue, Galleria d´Arte Moderna e Contemporanea/Palazzo Forti, Verona 1989, p.16.
1989
R. Schiebler, Salvador Dalí, Meisterwerke der dreissiger Jahre, Munich 1989, fig.26.
1990
Karen von Maur, ‘De Eros al cosmos’, in Los Dalís de Dalí, exhibition catalogue, Centro cultural/Arte contemporaneo, Mexico City, Mexico 1990, p.29.
1990
L. Azcue Brea, Salvador Dalí, Salamanca 1990, p.48.
1991
E. Shanes, Dalí, Madrid 1991, p.77.
1993
J. Brihuega, Miró y Dalí: los grandes surrealistas, Madrid 1993, p.68.
1993
Oscar Tusquets Blanca, Dalí, el pa, exhibition catalogue, Teatre-Museu Dalí, Figueres 1993, p.42.
1993
Robert Descharnes with Gilles Néret, Salvador Dalí, 1904–1989; L'Oeuvre peint, Cologne 1993, p.283.
1994
Marco Di Capua, Dalí, New York 1994, p.189.
1994
Jessica Hodge, Salvador Dalí, London 1994, p.82.
1994
Nathaniel Harris, The Life and Works of Dalí, Bath 1994, p.43.
1994
Salvador Dalí, Barcelona 1994, fig.60.
1994
Dalí, Paris 1994, fig.60.
1995
Dawn Ades, Dalí, London 1995, pp.110–13.
1996
Ralf Schiebler, Dalí: Genius, Obsession and Lust, Munich and New York 1996, pp.59–61.
1996
C. Masters, Dalí, London 1996, p.89.
1996
Jennifer Mundy, Salvador Dalí: Autumn Cannibalism, exhibition catalogue, Bath 1996, reproduced cover.
1997
Fiona Bradley, Surrealism, London 1997, pp.36–7, reproduced fig.24, p.37.
1997
Robert Radford, Dalí, London 1997, pp.187, 189.
1998
Pascal Bonafoux and Christophe Valentin, La Beauté comestible : à propos de Dalí et les aliments, Paris 1998, p.146.
1998
A Surreal Life: Edward James 1907–1984, exhibition catalogue, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery 1998, p.78.
1998
R. Goff, Salvador Dalí, Paris 1998, p.68.
1999
Augustín Sánchez Vidal, Salvador Dalí, Madrid 1999, p.44.
2000
David Lomas, The Haunted Self, New Haven 2000, p.157.
2002
H. Kliczkowski Asppan, Gaudí-Dalí, Madrid 2002, p.38.
2002
Juan Antonio Ramírez, Dalí: lo crudo y lo podrido, Madrid 2002, p.67.
2002
Llorenç Bonet, Antoni Gaudí / Salvador Dalí, Barcelona 2002, p.38.
2002
R. Anderson, Salvador Dalí, London 2002, pp.26–7.
2003
X. Barral i Altet, Les Indigestions de Dalí, Barcelona 2003, p.114.
2003
J.Pérez Andújar, Salvador Dalí: a la conquista de lo irracional, Madrid 2003, n. p.
2003
Robert Hughes, Les Essentiels de l´art Dalí, Amsterdam 2003, p.168.
2004
Obra completa. Álbum Dalí, Barcelona Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí; Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones Culturales 2004, p.113.
2004
Jennifer Mundy in Dawn Ades (ed.), Dalí, The Centenary Retrospective, London 2004, p.266–8.
2004
T. Raquejo, Dalí: metamorphosis, Madrid 2004, p.17.
2005
L. Garcia de Carpi, Salvador Dalí, Salamanca 2005, pp.97, 131 (detail).
2005
Jordana Mendelson, Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition Culture and the Modern Nation 1929–1939, Pennsylvania 2005, p.214.
2006
Salvador Dali: La gare de Perpignan – Pop, Op, Yes-yes, Pompier, exhibition catalogue, Museum Ludwig, Cologne 2006, p.154.   
2007
William Jeffett, ‘Dalí et la politique’, in Astrid Ruffa, Philippe Kaenel, and Danielle Chaperon, Salvador Dalí à la croissée des savoirs, Paris 2007, p.123.
2007
Matthew Gale (ed.), Dalí & Film, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007, p.10.

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
December 2007

Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.

Notes:

1 Jennifer Mundy in Dawn Ades (ed.), Dalí, Milan 2004, p.266–8. However, Mundy points out that the idea for the painting likely came to Dalí prior to the autumn, as a related drawing, ‘dated 1936 and showing two figures made up of curvilinear shapes (or “omelettes,” as Dalí sometimes called them), seated on two drawers, was sold in the summer of that year’ (p.268).
2 Salvador Dalí in Robert Descharnes, Dalí de Gala, Lausanne 1962, p.169.
3 Robert Descharnes, Dalí, l'oeuvre et l'homme, Lausanne 1984, p.223.
4 See Dawn Ades, ‘Dalí and the Myth of William Tell’, in Salvador Dalí: A Mythology, London 1998.
5 Max Gérard (ed.), Dalí de Draeger, Paris 1968, n.p.
6 Salvador Dalí, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, New York 1942, p.243.
7 Pierre Roumeguère, ‘Cannibalisme et esthetique’, preface to Max Gérard, Dalí … Dalí … Dalí …, Paris 1974, n.p.
8 Salvador Dalí with André Parinaud, Comment on devient Dalí, Paris 1973, p.351.
9 Salvador Dalí, Les Dîners de Gala, Paris 1973.
10 Ibid.