Fresh Experience: Salvador Dali Art Exhibit

Image of Dali that I edited.

This week, I had the wonderful privilege to visit an exhibit of Salvador Dali’s Aliyah at SMU’s Meadow Museum. I adore Salvador Dali’s art, and this experience exceeded my best expectations. I should mention that when it comes to art, I have a deep appreciation for it, but I am entirely a novice. Take everything I say with many grains of salt.

Background on the Exhibit

The word ‘Aliyah’ is a Hebrew verb meaning ‘to ascend.’ Dali was commissioned to create these paintings in 1966 by the head of Shorewood Publishers in New York. They paintings were meant to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Israel receiving her own state and to remember the atrocities and suffering endured by the Jewish people (especially during the 20th century). The theme of ascending from tragedy and hopelessness permeates most of the paintings. Dali used “gouache, watercolor, and Indian ink on paper.”

(For the record, Dali was not Jewish. He was a blend of mystic and Catholic.)

I had glanced these pictures online before, but seeing them in person was truly breathtaking. Additionally, I got to sit in on a lecture presented by Nancy Cohen Israel, who explained the deep symbolism and methodology behind each painting. It was incredible to hear how much Dali researched.

My Favorite Paintings

What follows is a selection of my favorite paintings from the exhibit. I’m using the actual picture I took at the exhibit, which is — admittedly — lesser quality, but I wanted the pictures to have the authenticity from my own experience. The ordering is simply which pictures I took first, and not from best-to-worst or anything like that.

1. Valley of the Shadow of Death

This painting is inspired by the famous scripture verse in Psalm 23:4. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, / I shall fear no evil; / for you are with me; / your rod and staff comfort me.”

As Nancy Israel pointed out in her lecture, the people in the bottom right corner are not walking (as in the Psalm) but are running. Perhaps this symbolizes the depth of anxiety and severity of atrocity that the Jewish people faced during WWII-era and in ancient history (e.g., Babylonian exile). It conveys a sense of intensity.

The large, red figure intimidating the people is ambiguous (as is often the case with Dali). It could be Dali’s own head — a way of putting himself into the picture with his typical self-aggrandizement. Or, as Ms. Israel pointed out, it could be from a story in the Midrash about God convincing the Israelites to agree to the Mosaic covenant by literally picking up Mount Sinai.

(For those of you who don’t know, the Midrash is a collection of interpretations and stories about the Hebrew Bible written by Jewish scholars a long time ago in history. As Israel aptly described it, the Midrash is “biblical fan-fiction.”)

2. Out of the Depths

This painting, titled Out of the Depths, is typically thought to be influenced by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Buber wrote a commentary on the biblical Psalms, and a statement from that book — “Out of the depths, I have called out to you, O Lord” — became a rallying cry for Jews experiencing persecution and suffering.

This painting is filled with such raw emotion and horrific depiction of the suffering endured by the Jewish people during the holocaust (symbolized by the barbed wire). I especially like how Dali does not paint the figures with faces because (at least in my perspective) it displays the dehumanization that they went through.

3. Deuteronomy 30:19

As Nancy Israel noted, if one were to look at this picture out of context, one would think it was a depiction of the ascension of the Virgin Mary. However, given the Jewish nature of these works, that is not the case. The ascension notion, however, is correct because that is the predominant theme of these works.

We see here a beautiful figure rising from shadows, ashes, and darkness into a heavenly light. The title chosen for this piece is Deuteronomy 30:19, which reads: “[…] I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live […].” According to Nancy Israel, the painting illustrates these alternatives with light (life) and darkness (death). This is symbolism for the ongoing act of choosing life in a post-holocaust world, and how such a choice cannot be taken for granted. Others, contrarily, believe this picture contains zionist imagery.

This was one of my favorite paintings. The figure is beautiful. I also love the bees, birds, and other flying creatures. The small figure is additionally fantastic, and it’s amazing how the humanoid shape seemingly emerges from the lines. However, I don’t know what he is supposed to be — perhaps a type of soldier.

4. Psalm 88:7

Holy crap. This picture gave me chills. It’s a work of utter genius. The title comes from a Psalm of lamentation/mourning, which reads: “Thou hast laid me in the nethermost pit, in dark places, in the deeps.”

The painting is primarily covered in dark colors — the darkest of which is the figure sitting in lamentation. Warning, no scholar mentioned mentioned what about to say, so this is my own novice, unprofessional thought. The dark figure reminds me of several paintings I’ve seen of Job, the biblical character known for enduring tremendous amounts of suffering. Dali was an ardent scholar, and most definitely several famous paintings depicting the suffering of Job. Perhaps those paintings had an influence on this work.

The white figure is a ghostly character — perhaps a corpse. He/she lies in blood soaked land of fascist tyranny and oppression — depicted by the haunting swastikas. However, despite all the despair and grief, in the top left corner, we see hope in a cluster of stars breaking through the darkness, the biggest of which is the Jewish Star of David.

5. Land of Milk and Honey

This is probably my favorite painting in the set — at least visually speaking. The colors are breathtaking, and the figure on the left hand side looks phenomenal. I’d love to own a print of this for my room. I spent a good amount of time simply looking at her, and how the various colors and styles helped create her figure.

The bright blue color is symbolic of water. Though the title is “The Land of Milk Honey” — which borrows from the biblical phrase to describe the Promised Land — what the people actually needed to survive was water. In fact, according to Nancy Israel, this is what the people would pray for every day. Perhaps the ‘ascending’ nature of the colors is representative of their prayers going to heaven.

6. The Land Come to Life

This is a visual depiction of a ‘comfort prophecy’ from the book of Isaiah: “Indeed, you will go forth in joy and you will be accompanied in peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth in your presence in singing and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (55:12).

The desert areas of Israel are here transformed into a beautiful garden, which was the hope of many Jewish people. In her lecture, Israel mentioned that Dali was most likely inspired by The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch. Seen here:

There are tons of naked people and fruit, which could also be reference to the Garden of Eden. It is often the hope of many people who follow the Bible (e.g., Jews and Christians) that God will act once again within history to re-create a New Eden and bring the world to a state of harmony and peace. Perhaps Dali’s painting also includes some of those elements.

7. A Voice is Heard in Ramah

Unfortunately, I didn’t get an actual picture of this one at the museum (or perhaps fortunately for you because I downloaded a higher-quality picture). Nonetheless, this painting really captivated me.

It’s name comes from Jeremiah 31:15, which says: “”A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children; she refuseth to be comforted for her children, because they are not.” It is a lamentation of the ancient Babylonian exile.

We know that the painting is meant to depict Rachel, but we are not certain which figure is actually her. But the ambiguity is fine, and it allows for a couple of meaningful interpretations. First, Rachel could be the feminine ‘lighter’ figure, looking at the ground — perhaps mourning her children, which might be symbolized by the shattered shapes at the bottom. The monolith of darkness could portray the crushing amount of grief that she bears. Or, Rachel could be the monolith itself, and she is so full of grief that we can see nothing but her sadness and sense of darkness.

8. On the Shores of Freedom

I didn’t get a photo of this one either. Oh well.

This painting symbolizes the tragic event in which Jewish refugees and immigrants (kicked out of their country by the Nazis) travel on the MS St. Louis in hope of finding refuge. America and Canada notoriously refused to help. Around 28% of these refugees eventually were captured by Nazis and died in concentration camps.

Dali painted two ladders with no masts. The ladders were a common motif throughout the Aliyah paintings. Dali loved psychoanalysis and the interpretation of dreams. Thus, one of his favorite biblical stories is of Jacob dreaming of a giant ladder connecting heaven and earth, upon which angels are ascending and descending (Genesis 28). Perhaps in the painting, this ladder is meant to show that the people are not truly abandoned, and are still within reach of the divine. Or, perhaps Dali wanted to include more of his favorite imagery into his paintings.

According to Israel’s lecture, the fire is a type of phoenix imagery: through the fire, one is not destroyed but rather reborn. Though they were denied help during their struggles, this did not bring them to extinction. Instead, they were eventually reborn and made new.

Other Art in the Museum

Here are some notable paintings from the museum’s permanent collection:

Concluding Thoughts

I hope you didn’t mind my rambling about art for this blog entry. I love Dali, and this was an exciting experience to see this master’s original work in person. Hopefully, this was ‘churchwave’ enough for you.

Also, I picked up the coolest coffee mug ever at the gift shop:


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