Art of Decoding

As a museum goer and art viewer, I always wonder about which artworks that collectors decide to purchase after looking at them, forming an opinion, most likely, I assume, a positive one, and deciding to spend a particular amount of money on them. And these collectors may be like your mom, dad, uncle, and aunt and or like mine. They may be ordinary people. I wonder what they see in these paintings that they find valuable enough to spend so much money on. I also wonder whether some collectors truly know a great deal about the work of art. While I understand that everyone’s experience with art is different I find it imperative to have a full interpretation of the art work and a full grasp of what value the artwork offers before making any decision to purchase. That is, I believe there is a way to prevent the world’s most significant works being undervalued amidst the spider web of the ecology of the art market. And the reality is that artworks may not be given a reasonable depth of interpretation or understanding.

A way to search for this great value is that all paintings to be acknowledged by being decoded. As writers and critics the responsibility lies in our hands to decode the images, including paintings, photographs and illustrations which all carry messages in a form of representation. This idea is also well described by the Czech philosopher and writer, Vilem Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography in which he clearly states that “photographs are concepts encoded such as those that have been programmed into the camera.”[1] In this book he refers to a specific kind of image, photographs, but today, it applies to all images that pervade the world. The statement can be reworded as it relates to painting as: “Images are concepts encoded such as those that have been programmed into the brushes and paints of the artist’s deliberate choices.” Flusser also suggests that “if critics do not succeed in this task, photographs remain encoded and appear to be [utterly] representations of states of things in the world out there.”[2] Decoding an artwork is more than providing an interpretation. It is a process of searching for connection between the observation in reference to the artist’s historical context, the metiere and the contemporary world or the personal state the viewer is in at the moment. Without being decoded, the paintings, craftworks, and illustrations are lost in the world of other images. True value and the artwork’s role remain collapsed and hidden to oblivious consumers.

This process of decoding images requires various functions of our perception needing them not only to see the seen but also to see the unseen. And by doing so we start to understand the ununderstandable. Salvador Dali was also aware of this ocular function approximately 100 years ago during which the Surrealist movement permeated the art scene. As optical illusion being one of the major themes explored by him, along with the workings of our subconscious behaviors, desires, and dreams, it appears that there may be a visceral need for paintings to be decoded.

Dali’s Documentation and Portrait of Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud, who heavily influenced Salvador Dali, suggests the idea of “dynamic unconscious” in which the preconscious is actively working to take effect on people’s behaviors unconsciously. Therefore, in Dali’s paintings, we are able to find unconscious or subconscious messages of his emotions and senses of 100 years ago.

Salvador Dali Skull of Zurbaran (1956)

For instance, Dali’s Skull of Zurbaran (1956) shows his exploration of an ocular vision. He paints this work for the subject to be seen depending on how the eyes of the viewer perceive it. In the big picture, it appears to be a huge skull made of blocks of cubes with a hooded figure making up its teeth. Or it appears to be six hooded figures praying at a dome-shaped temple. However, the work is perceived by the eye, it can be read as Dali’s message of his reverence for the Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbaran(1598–1664). Dali’s paintings with references of Zurbaran such as the hooded figures and skulls which were Zubaran’s own frequent subjects[3] reflect Dali’s subliminal appreciation and respect for the classic artist. Dali shares his fear of death in a direct manner through the religious gestures provided by Zubaran’s context of the hooded figures of religion. The easily dismissible images acting as symbols add up to represent Dali’s amenable manner to death. Or perhaps he sought a form of immortality or reincarnation through the act of religious rituals, and he might also be thinking of the continuation of an artist’s presence, including his own, after his death through his work. Dali places these signs of his inner thoughts inside a larger image utilizing religious motifs making them inaccessible to most people. But once this is read, the spell is broken and the magic of the wondrous context for the images creates an even more fascinating story.

The Persistence of Memory (1931)

Dali’s encounter with death is much more embracing and complex in his first surrealist painting, The Persistence of Memory. In this painting, he depicts the state of his dream in which the memories are distorted, and a sense of time melts away.[4] The painting suggests, in dreams, the passing of time as arbitrary and disfigured. It is Dali’s own reception of time which drives all human beings to only come closer to a complete “stopping” — Dali’s contemplation of the human body working every day for its sole destination towards death through this “dream state.” Observing the background of the cliff and the horizon of water, known to be similar to the landscape near Dali’s childhood hometown,[5] I associate his perception of time in relation to his childhood. Therefore, I came to an interpretation of my own. Dali’s fear or phobia of death over the passing of time is escaped by rendering his childhood. Looking at this painting, viewers may pass by it as just a surreal image with somnambulant looking clocks. But it is Dali’s confession of his attentiveness towards death and his means to cope with it. Dali created an enigmatic overtone which makes death itself feel phantasmagorical through building a cocoon of childhood memorabilia — a safe house — around the concept. Faculties constituting the image, including its title, together, with context become a language. Dali’s Persistence of Memory has a language that speaks loudly of a phobia about death as do the bizarre melting clocks.

Salvador Dali, with his great oeuvre, leaves behind a larger sign that seems to have marked a lead to the development of Op Art in the 1960s. All of his works involve utilizing his own method of the “paranoiac-critical” which is the ability to “perceive multiple images within the same configuration.”[6] Dali called it “irrational knowledge”[7] based on a “delirium of interpretation.”[8] In the 1960s, there was a development of Op Art in which images are in movement along with the viewers. Dali’s life-long study of visuality appears to have been continued with the growth of Op Art which came only during the final few years of his life. Perhaps, he already was an early anticipator of the manipulation or trickery of our sight as a set form of art would be possible in the future. His art was able to excite the paranoid feeling of viewers who were disturbed by art that seemed to look back at them as they looked at it.

The two paintings of Dali mentioned are distinctively contrasting in depth and the way they function as images to deliver his perception of time, memory, and death as it was felt in his unconsciousness and expressed in the imagery. But both of them nourish our vision to work beyond its ability to see. His play with vision — the way we see things not only with our eyes but also with our minds and hearts — enables a message to be hidden under the surface of an image. Even today, contemporary artists continue to spur their observation “[to] find new and unique ways to view the world around them”[9] to create images that represent themselves. When the symbols and motifs in those images are decoded, it may be possible that they represent subliminal decisions, or set plans which can lead to predicting the artists’ next step in their thinking process or the direction of their art. Searching for what lies in the abyss of the image and the artist, we may find a sign that alludes to events of the future. The future which perhaps, will be a guide in life when we get lost. Artists are observers and thinkers. But they are also oracles who cast spells to conceal the language inside them. When we decode this language we do not rob the image or the artist of their magic, but we may deepen our experience and that of others as they respond to the work.

[1] Flusser, V. (2000). Towards a philosophy of photography. London: Reaktion Books. p.48

[2] Ibid.

[3] Skull of Zurbaran. (2020). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from http://salvadordaliprints.org/skull-of-zurbaran/

[4] Shabi, K. (2013, May 30). Salvador Dali Persistence of Memory: Meaning of the Melting Clocks. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://legomenon.com/salvador-dali-persistence-of-memory-melting-clocks-meaning.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://library.humboldt.edu/about/art/artists/daliPCTM.html.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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Anne Bae

[Restart] Writing about things that inspire me in life. For anyone who enjoys exploring different topics and open to discovering new perspectives and ideas.