Dalí Atomicus: la storia, i protagonisti, i retroscena

Dalí Atomicus: the story, the protagonists, the background

The most famous photograph by photographer Philippe Halsman is certainly the one that portrays the painter Salvador Dalí in a room hovering in the air while he paints a picture on a suspended easel; at the same time, three cats and a jet of water fly in front of him. On the left of the scene you can also see a suspended chair missing a leg, while on the right the painting Leda Atomica appears, also suspended. Probably the most impressive aspect of this photo lies in the use of "artisanal" techniques to obtain an innovative result, that of suspended objects and people, which today would be worthy of Photoshop .

Dali Atmicus photo

The protagonists of the photo

Philippe Halsman was born in 1906 in Riga , Latvia to a Jewish family and studied electrical engineering in Dresden . In 1928, Halsman was traveling on foot with his father Morduch towards the Austrian Alps, when the latter suddenly died from head injuries. The young Halsman, just twenty-two years old, was blamed for this mysterious death and sentenced to 4 years in prison. The accusation of parricide was easily exploited by anti-Jewish propaganda. After three years they released the future photographer , forcing the young Philippe to leave Austria . He moved to France where he began working as a fashion photographer.

In 1940, while France was being invaded by the Nazis, Halsman managed to obtain a visa for the United States thanks to Albert Einstein who had previously intervened on his behalf during the trial, and he moved there. The following year he met Salvador Dalí, with whom he began a fruitful thirty-year collaboration.

As a photographer for the weekly «Life» , the photojournalism magazine of «Time» magazine, he published numerous shots , among which we can remember, in addition to the one covered by this article, also that of John Fitzgerald Kennedy . He was the inventor of the jumping style technique , by which famous people were portrayed performing a high jump. He died in 1979.

Philipp Halsman Philippe Halsman

Salvador Dalí was born in 1904 in Figueres , a town in Catalonia. Little Salvador was very troubled, as a child, by his parents' belief that he was the reincarnation of his brother, his namesake and who died nine months before his conception. His mother, who mitigated the rigidity of his father, a lawyer and notary, pushed the boy to attend art school. Having enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid in 1922, Dalí initially approached Cubism and Dadaism and formed a strong friendship with the director Luis Buñuel and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca .

After being expelled from the Academy shortly before the final exam, accused of fomenting student unrest, he traveled to Paris, where he met Pablo Picasso , and began to exhibit in Barcelona . In the same period he grew a moustache, inspired by the seventeenth-century poet Diego Velázquez , which became one of his most obvious and famous features. Between the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s Dalí joined the Montparnasse Surrealists group , met his future wife Gala and was disinherited by his father, who disapproved of their relationship as the woman was already a mother and married to a friend of the eccentric painter.

In the meantime, Dalì had begun to exhibit at the most important international art exhibitions, including those in New York and London, often causing scandal for his "surrealist" and anti-conventional behavior. Removed from the group of Surrealists, who were close to left-wing political positions, for having affirmed the apolitical nature of art and for not having explicitly condemned fascism, he was forced by the outbreak of the war to move to the United States for eight years , a period in which he returned to Catholicism. Returning to Catalonia while the dictator Franco was still in power, and for this harshly criticized by many artists, he began to experiment with new artistic and media communication techniques , including holography and optical illusions.

Having been greatly impressed by the explosion of the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima , he began an artistic period that he himself defined as nuclear mysticism , to which the photograph Dalí Atomicus , created in 1948, also belongs. After having attempted suicide several times, probably due to the pain caused by the death of his wife and the end of his artistic abilities, Salvador Dalí died in 1989 of a heart attack.

How the Dalì Atomicus photo was born

The Dalí Atomicus shot is inspired by a famous painting by the painter, Leda Atomica , which represents the mythical queen of Sparta with a swan and various suspended objects (books, an egg) floating in space , against the background of a sea that also appears it suspended on the beach. And Leda Atomica is precisely the painting that appears suspended in the photo, on the right.

Thanks to an interview with Irene, daughter of the photographer Halsman , who contributed to the creation of the shot as a child, today it is possible to learn about the background from behind the scenes. Halsman believed that it was the photographer's job to find the “true essence” of the human being. Dalí had declared: «I am a man of the atomic age, and I must also be a painter of the atomic age» , which meant that everything had to be in suspension , so Halsman decided to also create the “atomic Dalí”.

The painter's initial idea was to photograph a duck exploding in the air; dissuaded by the photographer, he brought three cats and a bucket of water to the scene. Halsman hung an easel, the painting of Leda Atomica and a stool from the ceiling of the room with invisible ropes , while Halsman's wife maintained a chair, tilting it in the air. At a nod from the photographer, the assistants would throw the cats and the bucket of water onto the scene, while Dalí would jump up with the paint brushes in his hands . Irene Halsman's job was to collect the cats after each shot.

A method that today would certainly have caused a lot of problems for the photographer due to animal abuse. Halsman developed the photographs on the spot, so that he could see the result after just fifteen minutes . It took twenty-six attempts to obtain the desired result.

Finally, Dalí painted a miniature picture, which was glued onto the photograph: initially, in fact, the suspended easel was empty . Using painting techniques, a leg of the chair was also erased , as it was held by Halsman's wife (whose hands were perfectly visible in the original photograph), and the wires that held the suspended objects were eliminated . Through these techniques, worthy of a modern Photoshop, Halsman's photograph of a suspended Dalí entered history , immediately landing on the cover of the weekly «Life».

Dalì Atomicus detail Detail before the jump

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