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Salvador Dalí’s mastery of illusionistic representation fuelled his objectives as a Surrealistic painter.



Swans Reflecting Elephants Salvador Dalí (1904–1989)

1937 Oil on canvas 51 x 77 cm (20.08 x 30.31 in) Private Collection

His ability to manipulate form and perspective allowed him to present what he described as ‘the world of delirium unknown to rational experience’. Dalí’s unsettling visions challenged the concept of a concrete physical reality. For example, in Swans Reflecting Elephants, a trio of graceful swans appear to be seen twice: perched on the shore and reflected in the mirror-like surface of the water. But with a slight shift in focus those shimmering reflections transform into images of elephants; the swans’ lithe necks become trunks, their feathered breasts faces and their spread wings ears. Dalí painted this evocative work after nearly a decade of developing a theory he called the paranoiac-critical-method, through which the repetitive, obsessional thinking associated with the mental disorder paranoia disrupts conventional perception. Everything that one sees has the potential to be something else.

Collaboration with Luis Buñuel on the film Un Chien Andalou (1929) brought Dalí into the Parisian Surrealist circle. In 1930 he wrote an essay on his new theory; ‘L’ani pourri’ appeared in Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, the journal founded by the movement’s principle theorist André Breton. Dalí intended his theory as a counterpoint to Breton’s own emphasis on automatic expression as the best means to unleash the unconscious; he also exchanged ideas about paranoiac perceptions with French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Dalí promoted his method through lectures and articles, most notably ‘La Conquête de l’irrationel’ (1935). He even planned to publish a journal, but that did not materialize. The fullest and most enticing demonstration of his theories can be found in his paintings of the 1930s, which employ the motifs of doubling, metamorphosis and reflection as a visual equivalent of the obsessional misreading of the external world associated with paranoiac disorders.

In contrast to many of his paranoiac-critical paintings, Dalí gave Swans Reflecting Elephants a straightforward, descriptive title. The vista is serene, yet disquieting, reminiscent of the deeply recessional landscapes of Northern Renaissance paintings. In the same year that he painted Swans Reflecting Elephants, Dalí explored the myth of Narcissus, most notably in his painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus for which he wrote an accompanying poem. But here Dalí invokes neither a myth nor a narrative; the destabilizing possibility of irrational perception is the content of the painting. The swans maintain their physical presence on shore while their reflections transform. In Swans and Elephants Dalí asserts a lyrical yet disturbing concept: forms are ever in flux and a multitude of deviations reside even in the most recognizable imagery.


To fool the eye and trick the mind, Dalí often included evocative forms in his paintings. Here the clouds take on zoomorphic (left) and anthropomorphic (right) forms, but there is no rational explanation for the suggestion of a crouching dragon or struggling human figures in the sky



Dalí did not identify the man on the left who turns away from the swans. One possibility is that it is a portrait of the British poet Edward W.F. James. A Surrealist patron, he was particularly generous to Dalí, collecting and promoting his work, paying his expenses and commissioning the original design for the Mae West sofa.



Mae West’s Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment Salvador Dalí 1934–1935 Gouache with graphite on a commercially printed magazine page 28.3 x 17.8 cm (11.1 x 7 in)


Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Fascinated with her flamboyant beauty, Dalí transformed Mae West’s face into a luxurious sitting room. He turned the lower half into the floor with tiles that delineate one-point perspective. He framed her sultry eyes and hung them on a red wall. Her platinum waves became curtain swags, and her plump red lips a cushioned sofa. In 1974, he recreated the image as a three-dimensional installation. In each iteration – film star, painting, sculpture – West existed as an optical illusion.




In transforming the swan’s image into that of an elephant, Dalí drew upon a highly conventional form of optical illusion: one form literally reading as another. Seen upside down, the extended neck and opening wings of the swan appear to be the head of the elephant. The mirrored image of rough-barked trees provides the pachyderm with legs.


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