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The Great Masturbator by Salvador Dalí: An Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 5209 words Published: 7th May 2018

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Surrealism is defined as a 20th century art movement which represented the subconscious mind of the artist. This style of painting involved creating fantastic imagery and ideas that seemed to contradict each other. In a surrealistic work of art, the world of dream and the world of fantasy are joined in the everyday. Surrealistic work can have a very rational, along with an irrational style. The surrealistic movement was first founded by Andre Breton in his painting titled Manifesto of Surrealism. Along with Breton, many other artists who have used surrealism in their paintings have previously belonged to the Dada movement. Surrealism was practiced with the use of various forms of expression. Salvador Dali, for example, used dreamlike perceptions of space as well as dream inspired images in order to create surrealistic images. Such artists have been labeled by the name of “verists” because their paintings were perceived as transformations of the real world. Salvador Dali’s contribution to the surrealistic world was a “paranoiac-critical method.” As it is stated by Aaron Ross; “The paranoiac critical method provides a window into that unknown world of unconscious, and yet does not present the danger of psychic inundation”. This method was responsible for Dali’s famous double images. It required the artist to perceive and paint different images within a single shape. “Dali was capable of examining his own ‘paranoiac’ perceptions and interpretations” (Ross, 5). A perfect example which represents how many images are melted into one shape is Salvador Dali’s painting titled The Great Masturbator. Through the use of surrealism, Dali was able to incorporate more than one image into one shape.

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The Great Masturbator was painted by Salvador Dali after he has married Gala Eluard. Nathaniel Harris, an art critic has also states that “According to Dali, it [the painting] was inspired by a 19th-century picture of a woman smelling an arum lily” (15). At a first glance, the viewer might not realize how disturbing, but at the same time brilliant, the painting really is. It is very hard to interpret what The Great Masturbator is about without first taking a very close look at the painting per se. At the center of the painting, one is able to see an upside-down face. A lot of critics state that this face is that of Salvador Dali himself. From the back of the head, one is able to point out a woman’s head emerging. Once again, the woman is recognized as Dali’s wife, Gala. The woman’s mouth is painted to be facing a male crotch. In addition to that, the male figure is seen only from the waist to right below his knees. As if this image was not disturbing enough, the cuts on his legs appear to be fresh and they look as if they were still bleeding. In addition to those more obvious images displayed in The Great Masturbator, the viewer will eventually be able to point out the smaller, but also very essential images.

Right below the self portrait of Salvador Dali is a dead grasshopper. Just as all the other images mentioned above, the grasshopper represents Dali’s great fear of insects. The viewer is also able to point out the ants which are crawling all over the grasshopper’s belly. These ants are also moving upward on the upside down face. Concluding from the fact that Dali had a fear of insects, one may conclude that this represents Dali’s loss of control. Finally, the images of the white lily (which is painted right below the female body), and the lion’s head, are understood to be representations of fertility. Along with these images, there are other images which I was not able to find any representation for. For example, towards the bottom right of the painting, the viewer is able to notice a very small figure. I believe that this is the figure of Salvador Dali who is looking at his subconscious, which in this case represents his sexual frustrations. Along with the small figure, more to the middle bottom of the painting one is able to point out another small shape. In my opinion, this shape represents a small male figure that is making love to a rock shaped like a woman. In my research regarding The Great Masturbator by Salvador Dali, I was not able to find any interpretation of these images. The only explanation as to why Dali has placed this image of a small man in the painting is that this might possibly be Dali’s ex-best friend and Gala’s ex husband. Overall, the painting of The Great Masturbator is one in which Salvador Dali is able to let out his sexual frustrations as well as his inner fears. (Masters of Deception)

I find the painting of The Great Masturbator to be a very disturbing, but at the same time very fascinating painting. When viewing this painting, one is able to see how graphic it really is. The feeling that this work of art gives off is that of sexual frustration and of fears which Dali held inside of him. This is clearly shown by the woman’s head leaning towards the male crotch. This painting also gives off a somewhat painful feeling. When the viewer is looking at the male crotch, they will automatically realize the cut off, bleeding legs. The viewer, just as Dali was, might also be disturbed by the image of the dead grasshopper as well as the ants. Because dead insects are not a pleasing sight, this image might come as a disturbance to many who view it. The Great Masturbator is a painting that is charged with energy. Even though everyone knows that there is no movement going on in the whole painting, the energy is greatly radiating. As a result, the viewer is able to imagine the woman moving closer and closer towards male’s crotch, as well as the ants crawling high and higher on Dali’s self portrait. Although the theme of The Great Masturbator is very essential, the mode of expression also plays a great role in the painting’s context.

The mode of expression in which The Great Masturbator was painted in is known as abstract. In a way, abstract art is one which resembles real form. Generally, abstract art is understood to mean art that does not depict objects in the natural world. Instead, it uses shapes and colors in a non-representational way. Abstract art may also be defined as one which has no reference to reality. The Great Masturbator can be classified as an abstract work of art because of the way that Salvador Dali played with its context. First off, the self portrait of Salvador Dali is an abstract work in itself. When the viewer first takes a look at it, it does not necessarily resemble a head. It is only after a while; however, that he or she will be able to recognize that it is in fact, Salvador Dali’s head. In addition to that, abstraction is also displayed through the woman (Dali’s wife). Although she looks very realistic in the painting, the way that she is melted into Dali’s head is a sign of abstraction. The same thing can be said for the male’s legs which also give off the illusion of being molded into the image. In addition to that, another abstract image that the viewer might point out while observing the painting are the hanging rocks on a wire right above Dali’s deformed head. I would say that this is the most abstract image because while writing this analysis, I was not able to determine what it represents. Aside from the abstraction which is obvious in The Great Masturbator, the painting is also said to be highly representational.

In order to understand the theme that is incorporated into The Great Masturbator, one may first take a closer look at the painting as a whole. When a work of art is said to be representational, it is a “…type of art in which the subject is presented through the visual art elements so that the observer is reminded of actual objects” (Art Fundamentals, 341). The Great Masturbator is a highly representational painting because the female’s hair looks like real hair, and her eyes as well as face also look like they were derived from reality. In addition to that, the male body resembles that of a real male body, and the grasshopper resembles a grasshopper that one would see in a natural environment. Those images mentioned above and other images which I had not mentioned, such as the ants, are ones that Dali painted to represent the natural environment. It is almost as if they were taken out of reality and placed in the panting and because of that it is classified as highly representational. In order to express himself in an abstract, as well as highly representational manner, Salvador Dali had to use various mediums.

The type of medium that Salvador Dali used while painting The Greta Masturbator was oil paints on a canvas. Concluding from my research on this type of medium, I am able to say that after Salvador Dali painted The Great Masturbator it must have taken a long time for it to dry, since oil paint tends to dry very slowly. Salvador Dali painted this work of art flat on a canvas. However, because oil paints have a thicker consistency, the whole painting has a feeling of texture. To begin painting, Dali first had to prepare the canvas. To do that, he first had to stretch the cotton fabric over a wooden frame which is also called the stretcher. Next, he had to apply gesso to make the surface more able to accept the paint. In order to paint The Great Masturbator, Dali used various types of materials. Most of the time, when an artists uses oil paints, they use a brush to apply the paint. To achieve the effect or realism combined with abstraction, Dali had to use different kinds of brushes. All those brushes must have varied in size and shape, as well as the texture that they possessed. Along with the medium used to paint The Great Masturbator, Salvador Dali used two techniques what were essential in creating his work of art.

One of the major techniques applied while painting The Great Masturbator is expression. Expression is defined as “The manifestation through artistic form of a thought, emotion, or quality of meaning” (Art Fundamentals, 338). Just as previously mentioned, Salvador Dali painted The Great Masturbator as a self portrait. Everything that is included in this painting was in one way or another meaningful to him. For example, the reason that Dali painted a dead grasshopper with ants crawling up to his mouth was because as a child he was said to have a great fear of insects. In addition to that, the reason that he has painted a female leaning toward a male’s crotch was because he thought that painting such images would relieve all the sexual frustration which he held inside. Through expression Salvador Dali has figured out what he wanted to paint. His second step was to somehow make this painting a work of art. Aside from expressionism, shading is another technique of painting that Salvador Dali used while creating The Great Masturbator.

In the Art Fundamentals textbook, shading is defined as “the darker value on the surface of an object that gives the illusion that a portion of it is turned away from or obscured by some source of light.” A perfect example of shading would be represented by Salvador Dali’s self portrait. Although the whole side of Dali’s profile seems very well lit and bright, the top of his profile is significantly darker. Because his head as well as his forehead and nose are darker, the viewer is able to imagine where the source of light is coming from, in this case from the front of the painting. This casting of shadow (shading) is a technique which is very essential to a lot of artists. Salvador Dali used shading as one of his techniques in order to enhance the appearance of the painting.

The pictorial field is a shape that dominates all the other shapes in a painting. It is an image which always contributes to the structure as well as the expression of the painting. Most of the time, a picture plane is situated on viewer’s eye level. While observing The Great Masturbator, the viewer is able to see that there is only one surrealistic image which dominates the picture plane. This image is one of Dali’s self portrait, which includes the female as well as the male figure molded into it. In this painting, the picture plane seems to dominate the whole painting. Because it is so great in size, and because it is painted as only one shape, some viewers might have a more difficult time of studying the painting as a whole. Being that the picture plane is so large in size, it takes over the appearance of the whole painting. Speaking from my own experience, I was able to conclude that while studying this work of art; it was not till much later on that I realized what its background consisted of. Another method of painting that Salvador Dali used while creating The Great Masturbator was illusionism.

Illusionism is defined as the “…imitation of visual reality created on the flat surface of the picture by the use of perspective and light-and-dark shading” (Art fundamentals, 338). Illusionism, also known as the trompe l’oeil effect is a technique which in the case of this painting is intertwined with chiaroscuro. Just as chiaroscuro, illusionism gives an effect of reality. However, illusionism shows a sense of reality through not only the distribution, but also by the shading of light and dark. The Great Masturbator is a perfect example of an illusionary work of art. As I previously mentioned, in order to learn more about the painting, one must take their time to study it. This surrealistic work of art created by Salvador Dali is one which holds many hidden images. When the viewer first looks at this painting, he/she will most likely not know what it is about. To some who observe it, the painting at the first glance may give off an illusion of a woman. However, Dali’s self portrait, as well as all the other images in this painting, are so well intertwined with each other, that it is very hard to distinguish them without first taking a hard look at the whole piece. As a result, The Great Masturbator might fool the observer’s eye into thinking that it sees an object, which in reality is not there. In contrast to that, the image may also create an illusion of hidden images which are waiting to be discovered by the viewer. Push-pull color is another method used by Salvador Dali which can also create the illusion of fooling the eye.

The Push-pull effect is a method used by artists which represents two or more colors that alternate places with each other. For example, a person may see two images, green and orange. At first, the green image may look like it is closer than then the orange image. However, all of the sudden, the image fools the eye and the orange color appears closer, and vice versa. In The Great Masturbator, such a push-pull color effect is obvious. First off, the image in the picture plane is much brighter then the background of the painting. However, when one takes a closer look, he or she will realize that involuntarily, the two colors keep on changing place by moving back and forth. Because of the color synchronization, the viewer will be able to recognize that push-pull color effect. In addition to the push-pull color effect, the dominant areas in The Great Masturbator play a very symbolic role.

The areas in The Great Masturbator that play a dominant role are the same areas which the viewer is able to see in the picture plane. First and foremost, the most obvious area that plays a dominant role in the painting is the upper body of the female. The factors that contribute to the dominance of this specific area, is that when a viewer looks at this painting, they will automatically see the female. This is because she is the most recognizable shape in the painting. In addition to that, her hair color also stands out, and automatically brings the reader’s attention. Another dominant area in the painting would be Salvador Dali’s self portrait. The reason for this image not to be the most dominant is because it is not as clearly identified as the woman. Another reason is that Dali’s self portrait is upside down, and it takes a while for the viewer to recognize it. In addition to that, the third dominant image in this painting is the grasshopper, which is followed by the image of a male’s lower body. On the other hand, the negative areas painted in The Great Masturbator are the horizon, as well as the two tiny male figures in the background. They are classified as negative space in the painting because they are just there in order to fill the space between the subject and the rest of the canvas. The negative and the positive spaces are combined by the shading and brightening up of the canvas where it was appropriate.

The Great Masturbator is painted with approximate symmetry. Stated in the Art Fundamentals book is that approximate symmetry is the “…use of similar imagery on either side of a central axis. The visual material on one side may resemble that on the other but is varied to prevent visual monotony”. The Great Masturbator is a great example of a work of art which employs approximate symmetry. First off, Salvador Dali’s self portrait shows his profile; however, the face is upside down and as a result, his nose is pointing toward the floor. Also, on the same side of the canvas, right above Dali’s head, one is able to notice the rocks that are hanging on a wire. On the other side of the canvas, however, the viewer is able to see the upper-half of the woman’s body leaning towards the male crotch. In conclusion, one is able to realize that Dali’s self portrait (which is painted with his nose down), balances out with the female on the other side of the canvas leaning toward the male. Also, if one were to draw a vertical line down the middle of the canvas, the grasshopper would be split on both sides of the line. In addition to that, the two small figures in the back are also situated so that they will keep the symmetry on both sides of the canvas. Although the whole painting may not have been painted exactly symmetrical, every shape and image balances one another, and because of that approximate symmetry is achieved.

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Obviously, The Great Masturbator would not exist today if it were not for the line which has made it. A person’s eyes see boundaries of objects in terms of lines. Also, we have been taught to draw using line, shape and form. Lines are a very essential part of creating a good work of art. When used correctly, lines can symbolize various feelings. The first type of line which is visible in The Great Masturbator is the contour line. A contour line is the “…line that defines the outermost limits of an object or a drawn or painted shape. It indicates an edge that also may be defined by the extremities of darks, lights, textures, and colors” (Art Fundamentals, 76). Such lines are shown through the whole painting. Contour lines are also present in Dali’s self portrait’s wrinkles, as well as in the stand that the male figure is painted on. Another form of lines which are present in the painting are the cross contour lines. Those lines are defined as “lines that cross and define the surface between the edges of shapes or objects. An example of cross contour lines is shown on the grasshopper’s wings. Another example of a type of line that one can point out from the painting is the implied line. An implied line is a line that “…dims, fades, stops, and/or disappears” (Art Fundamentals, 76). Implied lines can be seen in Dali’s hair on eyelashes as well as on his whole self portrait. Implied lines can also be seen disappearing after they have outlined the woman’s shoulder, as well as from the stem of the calla lily. In addition to line, shape also plays a very important part in the representation of a work of art.

Shape is a two dimensional space which is usually defined by a line, or another. Artists may decide to use basic shapes, or they may want to choose to use a different type of shape. The shapes they use may be representational, or nonrepresentational. The shapes that play a key role in The Great Masturbator are known as biomorphic shapes. Biomorphic shapes are ones that “…resemble the freely developed curves found in live organisms. Such shape is apparent in almost the whole painting. Starting from Salvador Dali’s profile, and including the stand on which the male is standing as well as the two small people figures. He reason that these shapes classify as biomorphic is because although they do not represent anything in real life, when painted as something, they will morph and transform into an object or a person figure which one would see in everyday life. In addition to the biomorphic shape, objective shape is also present in this painting. An objective shape is one that is “…based as nearly as possible, on physical actuality or optical perception” (Art Fundamentals, 76). Objective shapes tend to appear very natural or real. An example of an objective shape would be the female as well as the male figure present in the painting. In addition to that, the grasshopper would also qualify as an objective shape. Through those shapes Dali was able to create an illusion of wonder, but at the same time, reality and consciousness.

Value is related to the degree of light and dark. One may experience the feeling of value when they get to see a solar eclipse or the sunset. Through value, one is able to distinguish many shapes as well as sizes. One example of value that the viewer may notice in The Great Masturbator would be chiaroscuro. The Great Masturbator is known for the rich chiaroscuro incorporated in the painting. In simpler terms, chiaroscuro can be defined as “…the distribution of light and dark in a picture” (Art Fundamentals, 327). Through this technique Dali was able to create an illusion of three dimensionality. In addition to that, chiaroscuro makes all the images, as well as the painting as a whole, look alive. Although the images are painted on a flat canvas using shading done by chiaroscuro, they seem to look alive. While observing the painting, the viewer will have the illusion of the objects being in motion. Because most of the painting is melted together to form one image, the viewer might only glance at that image and realize how “alive” it appears. This perception of movement and liveliness can be created through chiaroscuro. Value also serves a great role while speaking about texture and volume. While looking at the painting, one may conclude that the darker texture (the negative space), is the one which exhibits a rough and deep texture. The observer may conclude that the lighter texture (positive space), appears to be softer to the touch; therefore shallower. One may conclude this by taking a looking at the value of the positive and negative space. The negative space is darker, and therefore seems rougher and deeper. The positive space, on the other hand, seems to have lighter value in it; therefore, one may conclude that it may by softer and shallower.

Texture is the tactile quality of visual expression. Texture can qualified as real or implied. It is created by using other elements such as value, line, and color. One type of texture which one the observer will be able to point out in The Great Masturbator is accent. Accent is a “…texture which places an emphasis to elements of composition that makes them attract more attention then other features that surround or are close to them. (Art Fundamentals, 134). Accent texture may be achieved by a adding a brighter color, a darker tone, or by any other means in which a difference is exposed. In other words, Salvador Dali’s self portrait is an example of accent. It distinguishes itself with a brighter color then any other image on the painting. Accent texture serves as a great addition to the overall painting. First off, it makes the whole painting very shiny and bright. In addition to that, the bright color in contrast wit the dark color, gives off a very smooth (light) versus rough (dark) feeling.

Color is “the most universally appreciated element” (Art Fundamentals, 149). Color surrounds everyone. Everywhere we go, we are always in contact with color, and from time to time, we are being introduced to new colors. The Great Masturbator, for example, is a work of art that is very rich with many different colors. This painting by Salvador Dali contains a mixture of warm and cool colors. For example, the head which symbolizes a self portrait of Dali is yellow; a warm color. Same thing can be said for the female, she is also painted in warm colors. However, it is hard to tell whether or not the male is painted with worm or cool colors. A part of him can be perceived as if it was painted with warm colors. Another half, on the other hand, looks as if it was painted in cool colors. The background of The Great Masturbator, however, is a mixture of warm as well as cool colors. From the horizon, and a little more to the top, the viewer is able to see the yellow, warm, color. However, from the yellow color, and more to the top, one is able to see all the dark hues, and as a result, the hue here is classified as cool. In my opinion, the overall tonality of The Great Masturbator is tranquil and peaceful (not paying attention to the images, only color). I am able to say that because even though it is a lighter color, the yellow is overpowering the green.

Simultaneous contrast happens when two different colors come into direct contact. As a result, the contrast intensifies the difference between them. Simultaneous contrast means that when a person makes a couple of white holes in a red sweater, and then lays it down on white table, we will perceive the table color different then the white hole color, even though it is the same thing. I believe that this happens because people are not used to experimenting with color. We are used to perceive color for what it is, whether it is yellow, blue or red. However, when someone puts us through a test such as the one I mentioned above, we cannot believe that it is not the white that changed, but the background which was laid on to make us think that the color has changed. .

Local color is something that we see every day. Local colors brighten our day and make us feel good. Colors are classified into three properties: Value, Hue, and Intensity. Value can be defined as the quantity of light reflected by a color. Value can be classified as chromatic value, which distinguishes the lightness and darkness of colors. The high key colors are the colors that are above middle gray. Low key colors, on the other hand, are all the colors below the middle gray. Hue is only the real name for “color.” In reality, it is not the “color” red, the “color” blue; it is a red hue, a blue hue and so on. Every hue exists in many other variations. Many reds have different shades; many blues have different shades, and so on. Intensity, on the other hand, refers to the quality of light in a color. Intensity distinguishes the brighter colors from the duller colors. As a matter of fact, color can actually loose its intensity. After its whole intensity has been lost, the color stays gray. However, there are a couple of ways to change a color’s intensity. In order to increase a color’s intensity, one must place the dull color right next to its complement. In order to decrease a color’s intensity, it is required to mix the color pigments. People very often mistaken value for intensity, however, it is not the same.

Symbolic color plays a great role in painting various subject matters. Symbolic color is used by an artist to represent a mood or a feeling in a given painting. Depending on a person and their origin, colors may have many different symbolic meanings. For example, the color gold is often associated with royalty. The color red, on the other hand, may have many different symbolic meanings such as alert, blood, love etc. Through the use of symbolic color, the viewer may develop a greater understanding of a certain painting. The Great Masturbator does not consist of any symbolic color that would help the viewer determine the mood or feeling of the painting. However, the colors used by Dali in painting have to be symbolic in one way or another. Just as color is needed to describe the mood or feeling of a painting, unity and harmony are essential.

Unity is defined as the “…result of bringing the elements of art into the appropriate ratio to achieve a sense of oneness” (Art Fundamentals, 324). Harmony, on the other hand, is the “…quality of relating the visual elements of a composition” (Art Fundamentals, 32). Harmony is achieved by repetition of characteristics that are the same or similar. Harmony is one of the principles of organization which helps to produce balance. There are many ways that harmony can be incorporated in a work of art. Repetition uses the same visual effects, such as color or shading, in order to produce one dominating visual idea. Through repetition, the viewer may start to feel a harmonious relationship with the work of art that is viewed. Rhythm, on the other hand, is achieved when many of the same shapes or images are repeated. Lastly, economy distills an image to the basic essentials for its clarification or presentation. In the painting of The Great Masturbator, Salvador Dali uses the technique of rhythm. In my opinion this is a rhythmic painting because of its soft flow. When taking into consideration the foreground of the painting, the whole image consists of a continuous flow. Very soft and almost “musical” lines connect the images together. There is no sharp breaking or snatching of lines; they all have a perfectly finished ending.

After my analysis of The Great Masturbator, I am able to state that this is one of the most brilliant works of art that I have ever studied. While taking the time to look at the painting, one cannot forget the great artist himself, Salvador Dali. His magnificent talent and imagination have awakened in me the need to learn more about him as well as his other works. Salvador Dali knew what to paint in order to make his art as well as his intelligence well known. It fascinates me how he used his life as well as feelings to paint a painting, such as The Great Masturbator, that can be so personal, but at the same time so open to interpretation. His brilliant use of abstraction, color, value, shape, as well as all the other techniques, take the breath of anyone who has ever looked at his artwork. I am also convinced that The Great Masturbator is one of his classic works by which he will always be remembered.


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