'The atomic explosion of the 6 August 1945 shook me seismically. Thenceforth, the atom was my favourite food for thought... I applied my paranoiac-critical method to exploring the world. I want to see and understand the forces and hidden laws of things, obviously so as to master them. To penetrate to the heart of things, I know by intuitive genius that I have an exceptional means: mysticism - that is to say, the profound intuitive knowledge of what is, direct communication with the all, absolute vision by the grace of Truth, by the grace of God. More powerful than cyclotrons and cybernetic calculators, I can penetrate to the mysteries of the real in a moment... Mine the ecstasy! I cry. The ecstasy of God and Man. Mine the perfection, the beauty that I might gaze into its eyes! Death to academicism, to the bureaucratic rules of art, to decorative plagiarism, to the witless incoherence of African art ! Mine, St Teresa of Avila!... In this state of intense prophesy it became clear to me that means of pictorial expression achieved their greatest perfection and effectiveness in the Renaissance, and that the decadence of modern painting was a consequence of scepticism and lack of faith, the result of mechanistic materialism. By reviving Spanish mysticism, I, Dalí shall use my work to demonstrate the unity of the universe by showing the spirituality of all substance' (Salvador Dalí quoted in Robert Descharnes & Giles Néret, Dalí 1904-1989, Cologne, 1994, p. 407).
The explosion of the atom bomb in 1945 awoke Dalí to a realization to what he described as the innate 'spirituality of all matter'. In response to this, over the next few years, he developed a theory and a new style of painting which he called 'Nuclear Mysticism'. Nuclear Mysticism was his own unique, pseudo-scientific fusion of this Heraclitan concept of matter with his own burgeoning Catholicism, and was defined in his work by an imagery of matter's disintegration into particles.
'What distinguishes our age from the Renaissance', Dalí commented, 'is that now for the first time we realize that matter, instead of being something continuous, is discontinuousIf one wanted to give an accurate representation of a table, instead of being compact the table should resemble something like a swarm of flies' (Salvador Dalí, op . cit. p. 358).
In 1952 Dalí gave formal expression to his 'Nuclear Mystical' beliefs in a series of highly important paintings, such as Nuclear Cross, Corpus Hypercubicus, and The Distintegration of the Persistence of Memory, in which earlier motifs such as his St John of the Cross or his soft watches were visibly shown to be disintegrating into particles. Among his first pictorial expressions of his Nuclear Mystical idea of fracturing imagery into a coalescing group of 'paranoiac' particles are Study for the 'Head of the Virgin' and Rapahelesque Head Exploding now in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Dalí described this latter work as an 'interpretation of the creation, destruction and reintegration of the Universe as conceived by the 'Eternal Mind', adding that whereas his earlier Surrealism had been 'disintegration', these new paintings 'now show the spirit of reintegration.' (Salvador Dalí quoted in op. cit., p. 358)
Taking its cue from this work, Study for the 'Head of the Virgin' is an exquisite gouache work depicting a similar disintegrated/reintegrating head at the heart of which, in contrast to the earlier picture's ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, is a golden ear of wheat. Shedding a similar divine light and seemingly exploding or coalescing at the centre of the Virgin's head, this perennial symbol of birth and regeneration is an appropriate one, especially given Dalí's utopian hopes for his new 'scientific' method. Dalí would later revisit the theme of the Virgin's head and the ear of wheat in the painting entitled Head Bombarded with Grains of Wheat (Particle Head Over the Village of Cadaqus) of 1954.
This picture was a gift from Arturo López-Willshaw to his wife and has remained in the family's hand since then. López-Willshaw was a wealthy socialite and tastemaker who knew Dalí personally and often entertained him in his celebrated hotel particulier in Neuilly.