Arts and Design

A surreal encounter between Salvador Dalí and Sigmund Freud is the topic of a new Viennese show


When the Spanish artist Salvador Dalí and the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud met, it proved, not surprisingly, to be a memorable occasion. The encounter took place in London on 19 July 1938, a year before Europe was torn apart by war. This meeting between the master Surrealist and the inventor of psychoanalysis is to be explored this month in an exhibition at the Lower Belvedere in Vienna.

Stella Rollig, the museum’s director, points out that the two men “were separated by an age difference of 48 years, and a language barrier, but also by their controversial concepts of art”. What they shared was their “great interest in the human psyche and its hidden aspects and depths”.

“We devoured each other with our eyes”

Salvador Dalí

As a young man, Dalí had read The Interpretation of Dreams and Freud, along with Pablo Picasso, was a father figure. He had longed to meet the great Austrian neurologist. Freud fled Vienna after the Nazi takeover of Austria in March 1938 and then moved to Primrose Hill in north London. Dalí heard about Freud’s abrupt departure while dining on snails. He apparently shouted out in the restaurant: “Freud’s cranium is a snail!”

Dalí, who had come over to London from Paris, arranged to see the great man through his English patron (and probable lover) Edward James and the exiled Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. When he arrived at Freud’s London home, Dalí spotted a bicycle in the courtyard. On the saddle was a hot-water bottle with a live snail on it.

Dalí was carrying one of his recent paintings, Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), to show to the psychoanalyst. At the long-awaited meeting, they had to converse in French and found little to say. As Dalí later recalled: “Contrary to my hopes, we spoke little, but we devoured each other with our eyes.” The artist devoted his efforts to drawing a portrait of Freud with a snail-like skull.

Salvador Dalí’s Cisnes Reflejando Elefantes (swans reflecting elephants) (1937), which is on show at the Belvedere as part of a group of 20 Dalí works Photo: Robert Bayer © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí/Bildrecht, Vienna 2021

Edward James, who attended, found it a “very moving experience”. Aged 82, Freud was “adorable” and “full of sparkle, though a little baffled at moments by having newly become a bit deaf”. As for Dalí, he looked “so inspired, his eyes were so blazing with excitement while he sketched the inventor of psychoanalysis”. This portrait drawing will be coming to the Belvedere from London’s Freud Museum.

Freud whispered to James while Dalí was engrossed in sketching: “That boy looks like a fanatic. Small wonder they have civil war in Spain if they look like that.” On seeing Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Freud felt it would be “very interesting to investigate analytically how a picture like this came to be painted”. Sadly, the Vienna show will not include the painting, which now belongs to Tate, as the work is being lent to Oslo’s Munch museum for an exhibition exploring the links between Surrealism and Symbolism (The Savage Eye, 12 February-8 May).

Nevertheless, the Belvedere has succeeded in assembling a fine group of 20 Dalí paintings, including Dark Game (1929) and Swans Reflecting Elephants (1937). There will also be an important collection of works on paper and documentary material, revealing the full story of what lay behind the legendary Dalí-Freud meeting.

Dalí-Freud: an Obsession, Lower Belvedere, Vienna, 28 January-29 May



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