Bread, prayer, work and all they imply

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As I researched this series on Salvador Dalí, I tried to get my hands on as many books about his work and life as possible. Some were quite critical in exploring the tormented inner psychology, frustration, superficiality, and petty cruelty of the man who transformed from a technically talented artist to what one reviewer called “the first art star, and the first of any note to work in advertising — a form that still relies heavily on discount Surrealism.”

After paging through many hundreds of pages of Dalí’s art, writings and commentaries in recent months, two disconnected but formative themes kept presenting themselves to me.

The first: bread. As anyone who has spent time in Europe or the Mediterranean world will know, “daily bread” plays an outsized role in dining there. The Italians even have a phrase for the action of dipping your bread into the leftover sauce on the plate: “fare la scarpetta” (“making the little shoe,” where your finger is imagined as the leg and the bread acts as the “footware” sliding through to sop up the remaining culinary delights). My mother-in-law in Spain calls the last piece of bread on the table “el de la vergüenza,” the “bite of shame,” implying that someone will indeed overcome that awkward moment of etiquette by helping themselves to it.

Time and time again, I saw in the eminently European Dalí’s work allusions to, or images of, bread. Whether realistic or surreal, they appear constantly in his work. His early 1926 painting of “Basket of Bread” is a masterpiece of technical excellence, resonant of the attention to detail present in tablescapes by Vermeer and Velasquez. The woven basket and cloth are incredibly lifelike, as is the crusty bread with its inner airy “flesh.”  He returns to the theme again almost 20 years later, where Caravaggio’s influence is apparent with the basket this time perched on the edge of the table and about to tip off into the darkness below, as in so many of the Renaissance artist’s pieces. The surrealist “Catalan Bread” is overtly biological, to put it delicately, and the Teatro-Museo Dalí in Figueres, Spain, where he is entombed is covered with replicas of small three-sided dinner rolls (and topped with enormous eggs).  His “Eucharistic Still Life” is one of the most striking images that I have ever seen, with the fish and bread appearing in geometric patterns against stunning displays of light and shadow; at once utterly simple and yet astonishingly captivating.

But art is not made from bread alone. A second theme that re-appears consistently is Jean-François Millet’s “The Angelus.” The famous painting of the couple pausing from their labors in the fields to pray the Angleus somehow never left Dalí’s psyche. It appears in an astounding variety of forms. Sometimes he creates silhouettes of decaying architectural structures obviously modeled on the pair. In other places, the peasants appear in the positions or clothes of characters in tiny details of his works, or in the amorphous blobs in his surrealist period. More than once, the painting appears fully, with his wife Gala sitting in front of or beneath it. He was, as many recognized, absolutely obsessed with the image.

Dalí commented that he sensed a tremendous hidden grief in the posture of the peasants. To the surprise of many experts, when the Louvre studied the image with x-ray technology, it became apparent that his premonition was correct and the scene was likely originally a burial of a child’s coffin, painted over by Millet with the basket between their feet. The steeple in the background was also a later addition.

As Nathan Schneider once put it so beautifully in America magazine: “We don’t know why Millet replaced a burial with the Angelus; perhaps, simply, it would make the canvas more sellable to the pious. But Dalí’s insight, and the revelation that followed, implies a certain continuity between ordinary mortality and the prayer, which thwarts the work-day’s ruse to either mechanize or aggrandize us. [Praying the Angelus] announces that the worker is still, and will insist on remaining, human.”

Bread, Prayer, and Work. Maybe Dalí’s bizarre and fanciful landscapes are not really so far off from ours, or from the Nazarene carpenter’s, after all.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, PhD., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.