The Portrait of Madame Isabel Styler-Tas shows Dalì's method
The Portrait of Madame Isabel Styler-Tas shows Dalì's method

The Portrait of Madame Isabel Styler-Tas shows Dalì's method

Posted on 14 September, 2020




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Oil on canvas

Surrealism wouldn’t exist without Sigmund Freud. Thanks to his founder André Breton and his fascination with Freud’s studies, Surrealism began in 1920. The existence of a subconscious, an intimate world within its own, full of symbolic fantasies, captured all the Surrealists, and the investigation of this inner world is a cornerstone of their art.

Salvador Dalì is the Surrealist par excellence: “The only difference between the Surrealists and me is that I am a Surrealist,” he used to say. From the 1930s onwards, Dalì developed a unique technique to create works through the subconscious’s stimulation: the so-called paranoiac-critical method.

The paranoiac-critical process

An example of this technique is the Portrait of Madame Isabel Styler-Tas. Dalì, next to the realistic portrait of the woman which stands out on a desolate wasteland, proposes a second one on the left.
This first oeuvre is a realistic composition of landscape elements that play with the human eye and reveal an emotional background of the portrayed Madame. For this reason, the other title of the painting is Melancholy. The second portrait consists of a spur of rock, crossed by an arid uphill road that culminates in a dark cave that appears behind cypress trees clinging to the ground.

The technique might appear similar to Giuseppe Arcimboldo‘s portrait production, but what changes here is the method that originates it. In fact, in the paranoiac-critical process, the artist focuses on the paranoid pathology that induces to fall chronically into conscious delirium states, even using reason to justify beliefs and interpretations that spring from an inner reality. 

Dalì’s take on the portrait

In The Portrait of Madame Isabel Styler-Tas, Dalì starts from a distinction between hallucinations and paranoid delirium. The hallucinating phenomenon of pareidolia, for instance, is an optical illusion that reflects inner and unconscious interpretation patterns of a random reality.

Even Leonardo da Vinci recommended a careful observation of wall-stains or marble veins before creating landscapes, faces, and objects, using the materials’ natural structure to express the inner interpretation. But hallucinations are always personal, triggered by a rational reading of an accident. The paranoid delirium, Dalì’s favorite creative process, starts from a clear and evident reality but then elaborates subtle visions and connections that instill doubts even in healthy observers.

Starting from these ideas, Dalì generates the paranoiac-critical process. The painter immerges himself in the paranoid phase, a delirium state during the creative act, to create rationalized images, forms, and associations in the subsequent critical phase. Some remarkable Dalì’s works created with the paranoiac-critical method are The Persistence of Memory and Metamorphosis of Narcissus.

Oops, the image’s gone.
Waiting for its return, we can see this photo of Dalì with his big cat.

Image courtesy of Roger Higgins, World Telegram staff photographer / Public domain.


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