Author: Marijke Peyser
The title of the painting, Impressions d’Afrique, was borrowed from a novel by Raymond Roussel published in 1910. His ideas were highly rated by the Surrealists, and Salvador Dalí also admired the author and his work. Roussel’s approach was similar to Dalí’s: the writer created double or multiple images in language by using homonyms, while the painter depicted scenes according to his ‘paranoiac-critical method’.
Impressions d’Afrique shows Dalí working on a painting of which we only see the back. Behind the painter’s head is the face of Gala, his muse. There are numerous double images in this work: Gala’s eye sockets coincide with the arcade of a building. The outline of the body of a priest is also the head of a donkey. The entrance to a cave at the same time suggests a tree. The long branches of a pine tree also represent a bird of prey. And in the background there are the tiny figures of a father figure and his little son; a motif that the painter frequently used after he was banished from his parent’s house in 1929.
Classical influences are also evident in this painting. In his autobiography La vie secrète de Salvador Dalí (1952) he described his interest in Classicism. Before the outbreak of the Second World War he stayed in Italy on three separate occasions for prolonged periods and saw the work of the architects Palladio and Bramante and paintings by Botticelli, Di Cosimo, Raphael and Uccello. This new orientation appears in Impressions d’Afrique. Dalí was inspired, for instance, by the foreshortening in the work of Caravaggio and others. In The Supper at Emmaus (1601) Caravaggio conveyed the emotions in the Bible story through the gestures of Jesus and the disciple Cleopas, who sits on his left. More important, though, is the artist’s foreshortening of the two men’s arms, which consequently seem to draw the viewer into the scene. Dalí used a similar gesture in Impressions d’Afrique. He had explored this foreshortening technique in the two preliminary studies (Self-portrait (study for 'Impressions d'Afrique' I) and Self-Portrait (study for 'Impressions d'Afrique' II)).
Las Meninas (1656) by the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez was a second connection with classical painting. Like Velázquez, Dalí portrayed himself painting and we see only the back of the canvas. In the seventeenth-century painting, the figures of King Philip IV and his second wife Maria Anna of Austria can be seen in a mirror on the back wall of the room. This puts the viewer in the same place as the royal couple so that the viewer sees what they see and forms part of the scene. This canvas was the ultimate achievement of Philip IV’s court painter, who self-confidently set about showing just what painting could do. The classical principles of ‘imitation’ and ‘emulation’ – imitating great predecessors and trying to surpass them – were also adopted by Dalí in the twentieth century.