Salvador Dali’s Hallucinogenic Toreador Meaning in Symbols

Art Reviews, Symbolism

This is a piece I wrote in college. I cited where appropriate. Please use this page as a reference if you are quoting any of my work.

Hallucinogenic Toreador’s symbolism

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, an art movement called Surrealism began that would shape an entirely different view of the world of art. Taking on dream-like images and transferring them onto canvas was mastered by Spanish artist Salvador Dali. While the artist painted literally hundreds of surreal paintings during his lifetime, it was during the height of his career that Dali painted The Hallucinogenic Toreador in 1969-70. The painting itself reveals images tied to the artist’s childhood, his culture, and other aspects related to his life. Perhaps one of Dali’s most complicated pieces of work, The Hallucinogenic Toreador is a double-image painting, truly worthy of praise for its genius quality. Incorporating the grandiosity of past masters, such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, the dream symbolism of Freud, and a talent unlike no other, The Hallucinogenic Toreador is considered one of Dali’s most successful pieces.

While staring at The Hallucinogenic Toreador, the viewer may not even notice the double-image quality in the work at first. The painting is so cleverly finished that even those of the highest impressions may “look through” the work without even noticing the double-image at first glance. Most likely, the eye of the viewer would probably first see the repeated images of the Venus de Milo, being that it is the largest icon within the painting. The famous Greek goddess statue made by Alexandros of the Hellenistic period is included in the foreground, background, and middle ground, each time standing in her modest pose. Even spread throughout the painting are heads of the Venus. According to The Salvador Dali Museum, the Venus image is “one of the many statues found in the Greco-Roman ruins of Ampurias near Dali’s home.”

In the upper left-hand corner of the painting stands a figure with raised arms, outlined in yellow, apparently of Dali dedicating his act to Gala, his wife, whose frowned face sits above, also hi-lighted in yellow. It is said that Gala is painted as unhappy “because she disliked bullfights” (DaliWeb). In the right foreground of the painting, plainly seen, stands a boy “holding a hoop and fossil bone [and] is Dali himself in a familiar outfit from childhood – a sailor suit” (Daliweb) on a beach. In front of the boy, diagonally crossing the painting, is a row of flies that lead to a “rocky terrain of Cape Creus” (Daliweb) which also makes up the head of a bull, one of its eyes being a fly. Below the bull’s head is a body of water in which a woman in a yellow raft is floating. Not only is this an apparent body of water, but also the blood shed from the bull. According to the Dali Museum, this is a scene from Cape Creus, where tourists are likely to flock. Surrounding Venus in the background is an arena with carefully aligned flies. The “flies suggest the small black balls of thread that were once sewn to the hair nets worn by toreadors in the time of Goya” (DaliWeb). There is also a legendary story related to the flies. It was said that from the tomb of Saint Narciso came flies to keep away foreigners (DaliWeb). This is another example of Dali’s reference to his native country within the painting.

Made up of water reflections at the center foreground is a Dalmation. The image was taken “from a photo that appeared in Life magazine in the 1960s, of a Dalmation in a spotted room, which illustrated the visual game ‘find the hidden image’” (DaliWeb). The dog image also demonstrates Dali’s fascination with visual illusions, tricking the eye of the viewer by taking one common image and incorporating it into another image so that the entire area appears to be a separate image altogether.

Another example of optical illusion in this painting are the colorful dots painted just above the bull’s head, read as a 3-D cube, and perhaps taken from the “spheres of the cathedral Sagrada Familia by Antonio Gaudi” (DaliWeb). Also in the painting are roses, almost centered on the right-hand side. While two of the images are actual roses, probably symbolic of Dali’s love for Gala, one of the other images is a faint head of Venus. The other images near the roses, though faint, appear to be self-portraits of the artist himself. Undetermined whether the moon is waxing or waning, its crecent appears on the left-hand center of the painting, and its symbolism probably refers to cycles and femininity, as the painting is littered with feminine qualities.

Once the specifics of the painting and its contents are realized, the viewer must step back to look “through” the entire piece in order to see one of the most brilliant double-image illusions probably ever made. The face of the toreador appears within the larger images of the Venus de Milo. Looking carefully, the viewer can see a nose made from the left breast of the second Venus, a mouth in the torso area, and a chin in the abdomen. Venus’s white draping makes up the toreador’s shirt; the red draping of the first Venus is his red cape. The arena and rows of flies make up the bullfighter’s hat, and according to the Dali Museum, the toreador sheds a tear just below the neck of the second Venus, symbolic of the bull’s death. In the first large Venus figure, the image of the toreador is repeated, as it is again in the multiplied Venus at the lower left-hand corner of the painting with added geometric shapes. Each of the toreador’s heads is slightly tilted, signifying the gracefulness and mastery of the bullfighter’s career, as well as the artist’s.

Salvador Dali got the idea for The Hallucinogenic Toreador while he was shopping in an art supply store. He saw a box of pencils with the brand name “Venus”, and within it, he saw the face of the toreador. Only Dali could come up with a masterpiece such as this from a box of pencils. The Hallucinogenic Toreador measures an incredible 157×118 inches, much larger than any textbook picture could do justice for. The full scale of the painting is magnificent, standing over two people in height, with its carefully chosen images towering above. A painting this size is sure to not only gain attention, but to also entice the viewer to get both near and away from the picture in order to view the images as the artist planned. In order to fully appreciate the true quality of this painting, the viewer must see it in person.

The psychology and dream analysis of Sigmund Freud had great influence on most of what Dali painted throughout his career as an artist. Freud’s view of dreams included that the purpose of dreams was to satisfy the repressed urges and fantasies of the waking day which are unacceptable to society’s standards. Symbolism in dreams, to Frued, is the use of different symbols that replace the repressed urge. Dali’s dream-like paintings are all composed of symbols meaningful to the artist. “It was said that Dali used to go so far as to purposefully ‘induce’ his own dreams by falling asleep in a chair, chin propped in the cup of his hand. He would jerk awake just as he entered the dream state and capture the surreal imagery in his own art.” (Lewis 20)

Also influencing Dali’s work are master artists of the past, especially those who painted grandiose works, such as Caravaggio of the Baroque period. Like Caravaggio, Dali’s grandiosity conveys the message that the viewer is almost in the painting, along with the toreador and Venus images. Another of Caravaggio’s features in this Dali work is the chiaroscuro used on the right-hand side of the painting. Just as Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin has only a faint light source, the dark and shadowy features of Hallucinogenic Toreador help to lure the viewer closer to the painting, giving the feeling that the viewer is participating in what is going on in the picture. Although maybe not actually participating in the painting, the viewer is sure relate to the dream state.

Rembrandt van Rijn of the 1600s was another of the masters to influence Dali’s works of art. Just as in Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, Dali’s Hallucinogenic Toreador, even with the many things happening within the painting, contains a spiritual stillness and psychological contemplation. Like Return of the Prodigal Son, The Hallucinogenic Toreador shows the chiaroscuro slowly merging together on the left-hand side of the painting, leaving a tranquil feeling.

Salvador Dali is a certain master of the twentieth century. His dreamy works were a first to the art world, making a mark in the world of painting. Like his master predecessors Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Dali took a chance at creating something new, something unfamiliar, and something most certainly unspoken of during his time and made it into what we refer to today as Surrealism. Unlike other surrealists, it was Dali who broke the mold and started a new phenomenon with the symbolism of reknowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The Hallucinogenic Toreador is only one of the hundreds of fine works produced by Dali, but is one of the few paintings ever with a double-image.

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