Employing a wealth of Dalí's own strange personal symbolism Chevauchée céleste (Celestial Ride) is a portrait of a bizarre triumphal celestial march. With its unforgettable image of a tame rhinoceros travelling through the clouds on vast and fragile elongated legs, while carrying a young naked virgin holding aloft a symbolic crutch, the painting is a powerful icon of the central erotic theme of Dalí's art - his belief in the creative power of impotence.
For Dalí the rhinoceros was a ‘cosmic’ animal that belonged in the heavens - even more than the elephants of his famous painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony. The rhino's hide, Dalí asserted, had ‘plenty of divine granulations‘, and its horns, he had been delighted to discover, were ‘the only ones in the animal kingdom constructed in accordance with a perfect logarithmic spiral’.
Dalí had first been given a rhino horn by the poet Emmanuel Looten around 1950 and throughout the decade the rhinoceros horn became an obsessive icon in his work. In much Eastern mythology the rhino horn is widely believed to be a source of sexual potency. For Dalí too, the rhinoceros was an image of strength and virility that ultimately manifested itself in the phallic projection of its horn. Its complimentary symbol was the virgin, whom Dalí regarded as being the target and receptacle of the rhino's virility.
The crutch which the virgin brandishes like a sceptre is one of Dalí's most repeated images and was for the artist a perennial symbol of impotency that had comforted and inspired him since his childhood. By the 1950s Dalí openly celebrated his own sexual difficulty in this respect, claiming that ‘all the great people who realise sensational achievements are impotent, Napoleon, everybody. The people who are not impotent make children, embryos, and nothing more. But immediately that sex works only with extreme difficulty, you create fantastic music, architecture, visions, imperial invasions’ (quoted in I. Gibson, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí, London, 1997, p. 546).
The rhinoceros and the virgin are therefore symbolic opposites that in this work have been harmoniously united in a celestial union or hieros gamos. This strange marriage that has resulted in the virile beast being tamed by the virgin, is echoed in the background of the painting where two sexually complimentary but wholly amorphic shapes deriving from Dalí's childhood obsession with Millet's Angelus surround a phallic skyscraper that also rises above the clouds. In addition to this, the TV-like window in the side of the rhinoceros depicting a game of baseball also asserts the same sense of a dynamic sexual union of opposites. For, according to the animator John Hench, with whom Dalí worked on the film project Destino in the late 1940s, Dalí interpreted the great American game along largely sexual lines as a dance between a female dancer who was also the ball and the male batter who was also the bat (see exh. cat. Salvador Dalí, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1980).
Dominated by the seeming visual impossibility of the rhino's delicate elongated legs to bear the weight of such a robust and heavy creature, Chevauchée céleste is a parade of opposites. Opposites that are all harmoniously united in the celestial domain of the soft-clock, that timeless and magical dream-world of Dalí's evidently fertile imagination.