‘When inspiration and even the purest subconscious have revealed our individual truths, an organic world full of significant attributions invades the artist’s figures...In these moments, the most stirring and disturbing facts, dormant at the deepest layers of our most intimate horrors and joys, acquire the highest taste of light.’
(Salvador Dalí, ‘Nous límits de la pintura’, L’Amic de les Arts, Stiges, 1928 quoted in Haim Finkelstein, The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, Cambridge, 1998, p. 88)
Throughout much of 1928 Salvador Dalí was greatly preoccupied with ideas about anti-art, the establishing of a new-objectivity and the exploration of what his new Catalan friend Joan Miró had recently defined as ‘the assassination of painting’. Pêcheurs au soleil is the finest of a unique, distinctive and very rare series of six relief-paintings made during this period in which Dali pioneered a completely new stylistic direction in his work; of these six paintings, four now reside in museums including the Fundación Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres and the Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Created in the hope of doing away with all the old ideas of painting while widening the revelatory potential of his art to speak directly to man’s unconscious mind, Dalí, in 1928, embarked on a unique series of works that made use of real, tactile, three-dimensional materials and reduced his already amorphous and anamorphic forms to two-dimensional semi-abstract cyphers that simultaneously suggested many different things at once. In so doing, as Pêcheurs au soleil clearly shows, Dalí forged a series of radically new psychic landscapes that, with their suggestions of an atemporal sandy plain of strange hallucinatory possibility stretching out beneath a strip of empty blue sky, lay the foundations for the dramatic, hyper-realist paintings that he began his Surrealist career with in 1929.
In 1928, after having worked through an automatic approach to painting that brought out into the open a myriad of strange, fragmented images derived from his many neurotic obsessions, Dalí was moving away from this ‘passive’ approach toward a more considered and concrete form of representation. In a manifesto he published in 1928, Dalí also said he was ‘distancing’ himself from Surrealism even though he was very much courting the Parisian group’s approval and stylistically moving his art in a direction that appeared in many ways to approach the contemporaneous formal explorations in the so-called anti-art of Surrealist-affiliated artists like Arp, Masson and Miró.
Recognising these artists’ radical contribution to a new form of expression, Dalí stated in an essay written in 1928 and appropriately entitled the ‘New Limits in Painting’ that he was now placing all his ‘good will on this complete assassination of painting... The Surrealists are people who devote themselves to this. My thought is quite far from identifying with theirs, but can you still doubt that only those who risk all for everything in this endeavor will know all the joy of the imminent intelligence’ (Salvador Dalí, ‘Nous límits de la pintura’, L’Amic de les Arts, Stiges, 1928, in Haim Finkelstein, The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, Cambridge, 1998, p. 46).
Responding to the example set by Arp and Miró’s most recent work, in 1928, Dalí embarked on a series of his own highly material works or ’anti-paintings’ that aimed to build upon Miró’s notion that ‘a rich, vigorous material is necessary…to give the viewer that smack full in the face that must hit him before reflection comes in. In this way, poetry, expressed plastically, [will] speak its own language’ (Joan Miró, quoted in Margit Rowell, ed., Joan Miro Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 151).
Pêcheurs au soleil belongs to a distinct and visually very similar group of 1928 paintings that all purport to represent fishermen and sometimes women on the beach in Dalí’s home town of Cadaqués and which mark a considered move away from Surrealist automatism, towards the establishing of a concrete structure of deliberately ambiguous and visually evocative forms. Each of these new, overtly material paintings makes repeated use of a distinctive red cypher-like shape that appears to have originated in Dalí’s untitled 1928 painting, sometimes known as Composition (Torso), now in the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí in Figueres. Deliberately vague in its fluid, perhaps soft, and distinctly two-dimensional form, this repeated red shape appears, in the context of the subject of fishermen on the beach, to take on multiple possibilities. It asserts itself simultaneously on the flat empty picture plane as a face, a pair of women’s breasts, a crab scuttling across the sand and the silhouette of a fishing boat out on the sea, alongside many other possibilities that may also include the strange visages and pairs of eyes that Mediterranean fisherman often paint on the prow of their boats.
Pêcheurs au soleil is by far the most densely worked and carefully composed of all these Cadaqués beach paintings, and in this work Dalí has adopted a distinctly systematic, almost classifying approach to the depiction of these evocative but isolated, silhouette-like forms. Collated against a flat white-painted ground that appears to hang like the sheet of a sail from a strip of sky-blue at the top of the picture, Dalí has set these cypher-like shapes into a series of groups starkly contrasted in black and red. In this way, these primitive-looking forms also begin to resemble herds of buffalo from a cave painting or a boat-painter’s rendering of ancient Mediterranean fleets.
As in a painting like 1927’s Little Ashes, there is also, here, a sense of motion, of flowing development and even of a state of evolution going on between the many different forms that Dalí presents; as if the scene depicts a sequence of events either caught in motion or seen collectively through a passage of time. With the exception of some of the decidedly phallic-looking black forms that appear also to derive from the obsessive and fetishistic iconography of Dalí’s 1927 paintings, many of these red-shapes find a visual echo in the black groupings and vice-versa. This fluid sense of morphic change and development between the forms is augmented by a sharp sense of steep perspective that underpins the whole. Created largely by the long, thin, black crutch-like figure pulling at a piece of the sky to the left of the painting - in a manner that Dalí would later repeat in paintings such as The First Days of Spring of 1929 and Fish-Woman of 1930 - this lends the white plane of the painting’s background a persuasive sense of it being a vast beach stretching upwards towards a far horizon.
Indeed, many of the elements of this picture seem to anticipate, in flat, silhouette-form, the strange but evocative paranoiac-critical images that would characterise Dalí’s later paintings of the Ampurdan plain in the 1930s. At the centre of the painting, for example, a crutch-like form - anticipating Dalí’s crutches/giraffes - is represented, seeming to grab at a piece of rope that has been threaded through from the also heavily painted and almost completely abstract verso of the painting. This, like several of the black forms in the work and one of the red ones, has been painted over a thick ground of white paint laid onto the wooden ground, as if in the manner of a torn paper collage-assemblage.
The painting therefore combines a strong material sense of presence with a bold and simplified iconography that appears to lay a special emphasis on these elemental shapes as important codifiers of meaning. From the elongated strip of red that appears like a bloody gash cut into the white sheet of the background, to the curiously phallic black forms that recall the disembodied fingers and genitals of earlier Dalí paintings like Little Ashes or Symbiotic Woman-Animal, Dalí appears to have translated the outlines of some of his earlier fetishised obsessions into a suggestive graphic language of ciphers. Reminiscent, in some respects, of Hans Arp’s wood reliefs and Miró’s blue and white-ground paintings of this same period, Dalí’s inspiration for this move may also - as it had been for Miró - have lain in the realm of poetry.
Dalí, whose aesthetic ideas had been, for many years, worked out in collaboration with his close friend, the legendary poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, was, at the time he painted Pêcheurs au soleil, beginning to move away from what he now considered to be the more conventional and established realm of Lorca’s poetics. ‘This winter I invite you to throw ourselves into the void, I’ve already been there for sometime; I’ve never felt so secure,’ Dalí wrote Lorca at the beginning of 1928, as he embarked on this series of works in which, like Miró, he appeared to be attempting to invent an entirely new visual poetics by means of symbol and cypher-like forms that could suggest multiple interpretations while collectively building a cohesive single image (Salvador Dalí, ‘Letter to Federico Garcia Lorca’, early 1928, quoted in exh. cat., Salvador Dalí The Early Years, London, 1994, pp. 37-8).
In a work such as Pêcheurs au soleil, Dalí appears to have been trying to create a painting in which the strong material impact of the work disrupted all conventional painterly language and aesthetic and yet, at the same time, would evoke a sense of a hidden language of unconscious imagination running throughout. The ambiguous and evocative nature of Dalí’s new cypher-like forms was central to this conveying of what Dalí quoted André Breton at this time as describing as ‘a communicating vessel between the container and the contained’ (André Breton, quoted by Salvador Dalí in Salvador Dalí, ‘Nous límits de la pintura’, L’Amic de les Arts, Stiges, 1928, quoted in Haim Finkelstein, The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, Cambridge, 1998, p. 90). Interestingly too, it would be precisely the same format of a semi-abstract painting like this, that in the following years Dalí would hyper-realise; turning its ambiguous forms into super-realistically rendered paranoiac-critical objects that conveyed a photographic sense of an hallucinatory reality wherein an object could visually suggest the concept of multiple, inner and outer worlds simultaneously existing.
‘Everything I love,’ Breton had written, ‘everything that I think and feel, inclines me toward a special philosophy of immanence according to which surreality would be embodied in the very reality and would not be superior or exterior to it. And reciprocally, for the container would also be the contents. My concern is with what is close to a communicating vessel between the container and the contained’ (André Breton, quoted by Salvador Dalí in Salvador Dalí, ‘Nous límits de la pintura’, L’Amic de les Arts, Stiges, 1928, quoted by Haim Finkelstein, The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, Cambridge, 1998, p. 90).