The powerful spell of Dalí’s Christ

The powerful spell of Dalí’s Christ
The powerful spell of Dalí’s Christ

It’s only been a week since the spell was broken and I’m still hallucinating. It must be a surreal thing. For the last six months, one of Salvador Dalí’s masterpieces has been on display in Figueres. He painted it in 1951 but, when he sold it still fresh to Scotland for the then astronomical figure of £8,200, no one could admire it in Spain for 73 years. He has just been among us, yes, but his visit has been like a dream.

The Christ of Saint John of the Cross (or “Christ of Port Lligat” as they now call him) is not just another painting by Dalí. His day marked his departure from the nihilistic postulates of André Breton, leading him to an interpretation of art in which the dreamlike and the psychic could coexist in peace with the realistic. That canvas also confirmed him as a sort of new Leonardo, making it clear to us that the great theme that underlay all of his work – whether the most naturalistic or surrealist – was none other than the variety of forms of death and his obsession with beat them.

I have come to say goodbye to Christ on the eve of his departure. I saw him in October when he arrived, but that day, surrounded by cameras and journalists, the painting and I had no chance to talk. They had hung it in a velvet-dressed room of the Figueres Theater-Museum, plunging it into a sacred darkness desecrated by an incessant carousel of admirers. Luckily, this time everything was different. I have seen nothing in him of Russ Saunders, the film stuntman from Oklahoma who posed as a model for the crucified man, nor of the visit that Dalí made to the Carmelite convent of Ávila in December 1948, when he stumbled upon the drawing of “Christ aerial» made by Saint John of the Cross that inspired his project.

On this second visit the painting seemed different to me. I have had the fortune of revisiting it with the bishop of Girona, Octavi Vilà, and the director of the National Classical Theater Company, Lluís Homar. In the background, between broken silences, the three of us listened to the voice of Montse Aguer, the director of the museum, explaining to us that the master had copied the clouds that can be seen in Christ of the first photograph of the Earth seen from space. The detail shocks me. Dalí always had a ying-yang soul. He drew from classical sources of art as well as from the American efforts to adapt the Nazi V2s for his space race. And those horizontal clouds, in fact, seem to be copied from that image from the fall of 1946 that dazzled us with the curvature of the Earth.

However, one senses that there is something more there. That crucified man without wounds of the Passion, without blood or nails, arches his arms and his feet as if he were performing a ballet pirouette. “He is a soubresau“t,” I hear whisper behind me. The Cistercian Vilà and the actor Homar do not blink. Me neither. We come across a family of Parisians who wonder why there is no crown of thorns in the scene, while we comment that the hidden face of the prisoner invites us to imagine what God’s face must be like.

“You’re very strange,” I blurt out to Christ when no one sees me.

Lluís Homar, by the way, is not there by chance. In a while he will recite a selection of mystical poems – by Juan de la Cruz but also by Raimundo Lulio, Mosén Jacinto Verdaguer, Maestro Eckhart or Teresa of Ávila – with his deep and lilting voice. I am impressed by his repertoire. Each chosen text has an invisible link with Dalí’s obsession with killing death. “I entered where I did not know / and I remained not knowing, / all science transcending,” wrote Saint John in an ecstasy that the painter himself could have signed, peering into the dawn of the nuclear age but also intrigued by alchemy, which he saw as a preatomic effort to decompose matter and recompose it at will.

“I didn’t know where I was coming in, / but when I saw myself there / without knowing where I was / I understood great things / I won’t say what I felt / that I was left not knowing / all science transcending.”

For an hour Homar has us in suspense declaiming over the painter’s tomb in the town’s old municipal stage. Sitting in the audience I have the impression that Dalí is enjoying the evening. And he returns the idea that Christ It was not just another painting for him. When the flash of his overhead perspective came upon him, he sensed that in another life he was the Juan de la Cruz in Ávila’s drawing. He maintained this in the interviews he gave in those years, but not as a boutade of his but with that surreal conviction that often possessed him, knowing that with that painting he had managed to connect to the sublime. And it is precisely that “connecting force”, invisible and electrifying, that even today galvanizes me inside and refuses to abandon me. The spell is such – I swear – that I am already considering the possibility of flying to Rome, where he will now hang out for a few months to announce the Vatican Jubilee of 2025. It’s strange, I know, but I need to continue our conversation. I want to question the painting. Harass him. Make him reveal his secrets to me.

Is there greater surrealism than that? Is there perhaps a greater fascination with art than wanting to talk to a canvas?

Javier Sierrajust published Why, Dali? (Planeta), along with Antonio López and Montse Aguer.

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