Salvador Dali is one of the great and mercurial figures in art history. The surrealistic Spanish painter was influenced heavily by the tumultuous period of history in which he lived and by the haunting images in his own psyche. Both are on dramatic display in the 1936 piece, "Autumn Cannibalism." Here, Dali paints a depiction of the military conflict tearing his motherland apart from within, offering us this terrifying rendering of civil war as seen through the eyes of one consumed by it.
In the confrontation between the social commentary and the internal reflection that comprise this piece, Dali creates a piece that is decidedly representative of the surrealist movement both in aesthetic and motif. In spite of Dali's incredible influence, surrealism was ultimately a short-lived movement, leaving its impression on the art world through a peak lasting from the mid-twenties until just prior to World War II. At a time when the Great Depression left the world with very little external inspiration, artists were finding more than enough ideas in the murky depths of their own anxieties, as such, painters like Dali would find the artistic philosophies of his Dadaist forebears to be of great use. The deconstruction of formalities forged by the Dada movement allowed surrealists such as Dali to explore unencumbered by rules of form, function and aesthetic appeal.
As the Civil War in Spain, an early warning of the European continent's eventual and total unraveling, Dali's work would carry the unmistakable tone of critical resistance. With Autumn Cannibalism, the disturbing depiction of a man and woman consuming one another at the head, with a city burning in lava behind them and lengths of desert between, connects the individual human experience with the terrible civic realities of war. In an ironic sense, this monstrous image brings a decidedly humanizing dimension to the discourse over war. Here, the beholder can observe Dali unflinchingly peering through the eye of his own psyche, facing the horrible realities of the world and their effect on him with devastating honesty.
In this regard, Dali would accomplish, with this piece, a feat for which he was most often celebrated. His willingness to splash the most bizarre and terrifying images from his subconscious onto a canvas, to speak nothing of his stunning technical mastery, would allow Dali to create highly personal and revealing works that nonetheless made as their primary subject matter such sweeping and encompassing things as the carnage of World War II. This may indeed be the reason that Dali stands above many of his contemporaries in influence and popular appreciation. Surrealists, as a general rule of the milieu, used painting as a medium for symbolic expression of the subconscious. And at a time in history when the psychoanalytic revelations offered by Freud and Jung elicited a variant of interpretations, so too did they elicit a wide variance of surrealistic visual expressions. Here, the surrealist movement found itself divided into two distinctive camps. Some surrealists were most driven by a desire to interpret the elusive, mysterious and disturbing qualities of the subconscious. And perhaps most famously, Salvador Dali would undergo constant and intense self-scrutiny with the interest of producing meaningful and relatable expressions of his own psyche.
For Dali, this was a driven by a twofold interest in performing an act of mental hygiene not unlike the discursive sessions being pioneered by Freud and an act of social catharsis in which a produced work might help others to experience this same mental hygiene. Autumn Cannibalism accomplishes both with the exhibition of a remarkably evocative moment of human indignity punctuated by a backdrop of devastation. In the way that Dali's nightmares revealed this connection between war and human indignity, so too does this painting illustrate the connection for the appreciation of others. This makes it a powerful statement regarding war and an indelible figment of the human condition. Here and through his whole body of work, Dali would demonstrate that much of the most powerful moral dissention will come not from the imposition of society but from within the deepest reaches of one's own psyche.