MUSING | Thoughts on Beauty, Surrealism and The Body, and the Jewels of Salvador Dali


“If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and observing, one physiological precondition is indispensable: rapture.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1888[1]

“Beauty is the agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder–by showing us something of which we may not approve in such a way that we cannot resist it,”[2] and often simultaneously, is “nothing but ugliness subdued.”[3] The paradox of beauty is in its relationship to ugliness, because it can be argued that each possesses one ingredient of the other. By consciously utilizing notions of beauty, the delicate dance of visual seduction and abstract repulsion, the intricately crafted works in Salvador Dali’s Jewel series present the beautiful in place of and with that which is not. “It is not portrayal that destabilizes, it is praise.”[4] It is in the act of depicting something differently, the body and its organs unexpectedly, that makes the work unique in both its aesthetic and intent.


Andre Breton, in the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 wrote: “The marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.” The Surrealist movement, which followed World War I in Europe, pushed the notion that though broken, the body could become whole again and attain perfection.[5] More importantly, in their presentation of the marvelous, the Surrealists established a kind of sculptural object that seemed to contain psychological qualities, often by impacting its surfaces with the imprint of sexuality or, more often, pain.[6] Mannequin Street from 1938, for example, was a quintessential Surrealist installation about the body as object, depicting the key to the concept of the marvelous as well as its subsequent dismemberment.[7]

central grotto.jpeg

At its crux, the meaning of surrealism is grounded in a double quality: it shares the temporary conditions of the world but is also shaped by an interior necessity.[8] Surrealist artists transcribed their search for convulsive beauty and “the marvelous” in terms of display[9], but also in the extravagance of surface. By enlarging the idea of space and using display as a tool for the spectacle, the Surrealists pushed the notion of the exhibition space as an important maker of meaning for modern art.[10] With Central Grotto in 1937, utilizing 1,200 sacks to induce the metaphorical suggestion of the interior as exterior, the Surrealists abandon “any attempt at neutrality of presentation in favor of a subjective environment that itself embodied a statement.”[11] Extravagant presentation and concealment through assertion demonstrated the Surrealists’ decision to engage with and utilize psychological time as a “medium” for sculpture.[12] Successful Surrealist work demonstrated the fluidity of “meaning,” where the concept is not a fixed entity breathed into the work by the artist at its inception, but is something infinitely variable, arising from the engagement with the work by a certain viewer at a certain moment.[13]

“Everything I do from now on will be devoted to the phenomenon of catastrophes. Now I am painting the meaning that derives from my existence, my illness or my vital memories.” —Salvador Dali, speaking on the last phase of his work.[14]

The emotionality and jewel-like presentation of Salvador Dali’s sculptures are mainly concerned with a strategy of confrontation involving fetishes. “With the ‘Surrealist objects’ one finds . . . the metaphor is produced on the surface of the objects, as though metaphor supplied a protective coating that can be grafted onto their bodies.”[15]


In particular, I am captivated by Dali’s precious Jewel series which integrates dense conceptual information into precisely constructed small objects composed primarily from specifically chosen jewels. In selecting materials grounded in efficacy, the objects become things of beauty – not the beautiful,[16] exposing the viewer to the iconography of desire shaped by the works of art. In using tactile materials, the work trusts that it will be touched, as I, recognizing beauty as the signature of grace and beneficence, want to be touched. The task of these works of beauty is to enfranchise the audience and acknowledge its power to designate a territory of shared values between the image and its beholder. Then, within this territory, the work must address the argument by valorizing the object’s problematic content. Because these objects delve into the realm of the interior—of the body—they are objects with no reason to exist, or, because of their ghastly implications, any reason to be beautiful. “Thus, the comfort of the familiar always bore with it the frisson of the exotic, and the effect of this conflation, ideally, was persuasive excitement—visual pleasure. As Baudelaire says, “the beautiful is always strange,” by which he means, of course, that it is always strangely familiar.[17]

The Royal Heart.jpg

His jewels almost interfere with the appearance of the body; yet clearly illuminate the parts of the body – as seen in Necklace with Entwined Limbs (Choreographic Necklace), 1964 (pictured above). His fiery interest in the distortion of parts of the figure becomes central to the seduction in the work. The jewel compositions entice me to feel and perceive something I had never experienced before as I studied these startling, disquieting, yet intensely absorbing works. The Royal Heart, 1953, relies on Dali’s use of the sparkling, golden surface and inherent qualities of the intense rubies to attract and sustain my gaze, the gloss of his ideas read onto their exteriors, the quirky complexity of the precision of their construction expressing the depth of his thought and art practice. Working forwards from my memories and experiences, the intense and traumatic nature of Dali’s visual imagery addresses directly the profound mental states where memories and ideas collide, actually pulsating and actively representing these eruptions in exquisite beauty.

Images (from top to bottom): Salvador Dali, Ruby Lips, 1949, 18 karat yellow gold, Natural rubies, mixed cut (round and oval), of 2.0 to 4.0 mm, approximately, Pearls (13) of 4.0 to 6.0 mm in diameter approximately, 3.20 x 4.80 x 1.50 cm, © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2014; (L) André Breton, Chest with Legs and (R) Sonia Mossé, Altered Mannequin, Mannequin Street, 1938, Paris; Marcel Duchamp, Central Grotto, 1937; Salvador Dali, Necklace with Entwined Limbs (Choreographic Necklace), 1964, 18 karat yellow gold (on the figure and on the untied ring), 16 karat yellow gold (on the pieces of the necklace), Natural Amethyst (1) fantasy cut (oval) of 50.7 x 46.0 x 26.0 mm approximately; Natural green sapphire (70) mixed cut (oval) of 5 to 9 mm approximately, Diamonds, diamond cut (round, oval and marquise) of 2 to 6 mm approximately, © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2014; and Salvador Dali, The Royal Heart, 1953, 18 karat yellow gold, Natural rubies mixed cut (round and oval), of 3.0 to 5.0 mm, approximately, small stones on the crown: Natural rubies (8), Natural sapphires (4), Natural emeralds (4), Aquamarines (4), Peridots (2), Hessonite garnets (2), Amethyst (1), Diamonds, Pearls, and moving mechanism and reducer which makes the heart beat: Synchron motor-Model 610, 110V, 60 CY, 3W, 75 RPM, 13.20 x 7.80 x 2.70 cm, © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2014

Footnotes: [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Ed. Michael J. Tanner. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale (NY: Penguin, 1990); [2] Dave Hickey, quoted in Olga M. Viso in Regarding Beauty, 97.; [3] Jean Rostard, quoted by Olga M. Viso, “Beauty and its Dilemmas.” Regarding Beauty (Washington, DC: Hirshhorn Museum and Hatje Cantz, 1999) 97.; [4] Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993) 24.; [5] Salvador Dali, Jewels — Joyas (Turin: Umberto Allemandi & Co., 2001) 8.; [6] Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981) 131.; [7] Lewis Kachur, Displaying the Marvelous (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001) 38.; [8] Krauss, 114.; [9] Kachur, 23.; [10] Ibid., xv.; [11] Ibid., xiii.; [12] Krauss, 124.; [13] Robert Radford, Dali (London: Phaidon Press, 1997) 218.; [14] Radford, 332.; [15] Krauss, 124.; [16] Hickey, 11.;[17] Ibid., 18.

Bibliography: Baker, Malcolm. “Some Object Histories and the Materiality of the Sculptural Object.” The Lure of the Object. Ed. Stephen Melville. Williamstown, MA: Clark Art Institute, 2005. 119–134.; Benezra, Neal, and Olga M. Viso, eds. Regarding Beauty. Washington, DC: Hirschorn Museum and Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999.; Benezra, Neal. “The Misadventures of Beauty.” Regarding Beauty. Ed. Neal Benezra, and Olga M. Viso. Washington, DC: Hirschorn Museum and Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999.; Dali, Salvador. Jewels – Joyas. Turin: Umberto Allemandi, 2001.; Danto, Arthur C. “Beauty for Ashes.” Regarding Beauty. Ed. Neal Benezra, and Olga M. Viso. Washington, DC: Hirschorn Museum and Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999.; Hickey, Dave. The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty. Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993.; Kachur, Lewis. Displaying the Marvelous. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.; Krauss, Rosalind E. Passages in Modern Sculpture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981.; Lang, Karen. “Encountering the Object.” The Lure of the Object. Ed. Stephen Melville. Williamstown, MA: Clark Art Institute, 2005. 185.; Radford, Robert. Dali. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.; Viso, Olga M. “Beauty and its Dilemmas.” Regarding Beauty. Ed. Neal Benezra, and Olga M. Viso. Washington, DC: Hirschorn Museum and Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999.

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