Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters becomes a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

Published August 14, 2005

Squint. Suddenly, the nude woman gazing out a window becomes a portrait of . . . Abraham Lincoln! Salvador Dali loved pranks, and here he plays a trick on our eyes and minds. But why juxtapose a bare backside and a great American president? Read on.

Salvador Dali, Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters becomes a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 1976, oil on canvas, 75.5 by 99.25 inches+


Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was one of the most famous artists of the 20th century, making his mark in his 20s as a controversial surrealist and continuing to provoke, in his art and life, until he died. He was born in Spain but lived much of his adult life shuttling between Paris and New York. Still, the beaches, ports and rocky coast of Catalonia formed a constant presence in his work. In the late 1920s, Dali met his future wife, Gala, who would be his muse until she died in 1982. Dali mastered every medium, creating sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, even movies. But his greatest works are his paintings.


It's part of the permanent collection at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and is one of the last large-scale paintings Dali completed before his physical decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most of the time he worked in a studio, but this was painted, in part at least, in the St. Regis Hotel in New York in 1976. It was first exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York that same year and was owned by private collectors for years. It was borrowed for an exhibition here in 1985 but the museum didn't acquire it until 2004. Many people believe Dali's famous "melting clocks" is his most reproduced painting. But, no, it's this one.


Dali loved complex titles and Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters becomes a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln is one of the longer ones, including its subtitle, Homage to Rothko. But it sums up the major feature for viewers, which is the spectacular double image Dali created. Though he took the work seriously, he was having some fun, making us work for that optical illusion. The best way to see it is from 20 meters (almost 66 feet). At the Dali Museum, it hangs at the end of the large back gallery so you can take a close look at it, then back up until you see Lincoln's image emerge.


You might think Dali was being irreverent, combining Lincoln and a naked woman. In fact, it was a sincere tribute. Dali empathized with the sacrifices and turmoil of the American Civil War, having lived through a brutal, bloody one in his own country. Dali was always grateful to America for welcoming him early in his career and giving him safe haven during World War II. Lincoln embodied all the qualities Dali admired about America. A little-known connection important to Dali was that the American volunteers who joined the Spanish freedom fighters were called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

The woman is Gala, whom Dali painted many times. Her pose here is also one Dali favored, facing away from us so we can't see her expression, looking at a harbor from a window. Like Lincoln, Gala represented an ideal to Dali. In truth, she was often greedy, vain and overbearing. But to him, she was the perfect muse, providing strength and inspiration, always in the end mysterious and unknowable. She appears again at the lower left as a shadowy, dreamlike figure. When he painted her here, she was well into her 70s, but she remains in his eyes a young, lissome woman.


Dali was a voracious learner, well versed in literature and science. He was also fascinated by popular culture. Long before the Pop Art movement, Dali was tweaking everyday images, collaging pictures torn from magazines and books onto his paintings. And he included pixilated figures that probably inspired painters such as Roy Lichtenstein, who made Benday dots famous in his comic strip paintings. Even though Dali deplored Pop Art, he gives it its due in the small Lincoln painting at lower left. It's collaged onto the canvas and based on Lincoln's picture on $5 bills. So Andy Warhol.


Dali, raised a Catholic, was not conventionally religious. Early on, Catholicism generated tortured guilt feelings in Dali. Later in life he embraced many aspects of Christianity. He used its iconography frequently in his later, large-scale paintings. At the top of the painting is a crucifixion scene, based on a 16th century drawing by a Carmelite friar. Notice the thick paint, called impasto, and its unusual bird's-eye perspective, so different from the rest of the painting. We look down at Christ's head, which is brilliantly illuminated by the sun, almost becoming the sun, which could be a reference to Jesus as the ultimate son.


Dali subtitled this painting Homage to Rothko. Though he was no fan of most modern art, he admired the abstract expressionist movement, based on the kind of psychological introversion Dali believed was vital to the creative process. Mark Rothko, one of the greatest painters of that school, committed suicide several years before Dali began this painting. The washes of color, subtly layered on the walls, are tributes to Rothko's beautiful "color field" paintings. And the dark tiles around the window, in the shape of a cross, are perhaps a reference to Rothko's famous chapel for the De Menil family in Houston and the somber colors of his last work.


It dates back to antiquity, the technique, usually called trompe l'oeil, of painting an object so it seems to leap from the flat canvas. The plaster sections peeling from the tiles on the right side are examples. Dali mastered the optical illusion early on and went further in creating double image paintings such as this one. He didn't use the effect just as a demonstration of virtuosity. For Dali, life was full of double meanings, ambiguity and inner workings that were as important as surface appearances.

- Source: Joan Kropf, curator of the collection at the Salvador Dali Museum