Everyone has fantasies, from sexual preoccupations to daydreams to intrusive anxieties. Few people share these fantasies with the world, and even fewer in the vivid, detailed, full-color medium of painting. But Salvador Dalí did. Dalí shared everything.
Enter La Visage du Grand Masturbateur, or ‘The Face of the Great Masturbator.’ Backed by a low, blank horizon and soft gradient into a dark blue sky, the canvas is dominated by a single drooping, fleshy form. Its gigantic nose gently touches the ground casting a dark shadow, a huge closed eye with long delicate lashes below an arching eyebrow and a thin cap of perfectly parted fine blond hair. Beyond the gargantuan features the flesh twists into a grab-bag of surrealist iconography. Balanced stones, a pit full of seashells, a grasshopper, ants, a fish hook lancing the skin, a gold lion’s head with a pink, phallic tongue, and most arresting—a woman’s head and shoulders craning toward the aluminum-clad genitals of a standing male figure.
Dalí had a lot of phobias, and he put all of them into his work. Dalí’s diverse fears started young. He suffered from ereuthophobia, a fear of blushing. His acrididophobia, fear of grasshoppers, was so strong that neighbor kids tormented the young boy by throwing grasshoppers at him. Delusional parasitosis, the feeling of non-existent insects infesting the skin, would appear in Dalí’s artworks throughout his life as swarms of ants.
But the phobia that in many ways defined the artist’s career likely appeared when Dali’s father left out a book illustrating the male and female genitalia in advanced states of venereal disease—ostensibly to educate the boy. The lesson backfired. For Dalí, sex and sex organs became a subject of simultaneous horror and fascination. Revolting, yet all the more compelling for their nightmarish corruption. While it’s often easy to over-sexualize interpretations of art, with Dalí, sex is threaded into almost everything. The egg sitting in the sand near the bottom of thee canvas? Obsession with reproduction. The white lily? Symbolic of le petit morte, the ‘little death’ of orgasm. Even the golden lion with jaws opened wide was a reoccurring motif for Dalí, representing the mythic vagina dentata or ‘toothed vagina.'
The magic of surrealist artworks is that amongst the dense symbolism these dreamlike scenes are often populated by real-world objects and people. They may be distorted or juxtaposed, but they're recognizable. In The Great Masturbator, the central figure is the woman. Though she’s emerging from a hideous skin-mountain, her shoulders, neck, and face are rendered with incredible care. She’s beautiful, her delicate features traced with blue veins.
And of course, she was a real person. In August 1929, Dalí was visited by the surrealist poet Paul Éluard and his wife Gala. Gala was a hugely influential muse among the male surrealists, whose sexual liberation led to a years-long ménage à trois with her husband and German surrealist Max Ernst, a string of notable lovers, and the ire of André Breton, who claimed she destroyed every artist she touched.
It’s theorized that Dali, whose fascination with sex was matched only by his revultion for it, was a virgin when he met Gala that summer in the seaside town of Cadaqués. Dalí was twenty-five, a known weirdo in the already eccentric world of the avant-garde for his maniacal laugh and grotesque humor. Gala was ten years his senior, wife to one of Paris’s greatest poets, yet she dived into an affair with the young artist that clearly rocked his world like an atomic bomb.
Identifying the woman in The Great Masturbator snaps the whole piece together. All the bugs and holes and sexual anxiety, the doughy knees locked in apprehension as the woman approaches, the bulbous head afraid to open its eyes lest the dream vanishes. It’s messy, it’s gross, its sexually icky. But it is honest. When Dalí shared a fantasy, he shared it all.
In his typical grandiosity, Dalí’s described The Great Masturbator as a landscape. In Unspeakable Confessions, one of many autobiographical writings, Dali claims his inspiration was a rock formation off the coast of the Cap de Creus peninsula in Catalonia:
“In that privileged place, reality and the sublime dimension almost come together. My mystical paradise begins in the plains of the Empordà, is surrounded by the Alberes hills, and reaches plenitude in the bay of Cadaqués. This land is my permanent inspiration. The only place in the world, too, where I feel loved. When I painted that rock that I entitled The Great Masturbator, I did nothing more than render homage to one of the promontories of my kingdom, and my painting was a hymn to one of the jewels of my crown.”
At first, Dalí’s insistence on landscape seems like evasion, but in the world of the surrealist, a landscape is just as much a mental location as a physical one. In The Great Masturbator, Dalí has mapped a moment of sexual transformation onto a landmark from the place he experienced.
To the surprise of nearly everyone, Dalí and Gala stayed together, collaborating and inspiring each other for more than forty years. Dalí’s persona was built on ego, on the unwavering assertion of his own genius, yet of Gala he said, “Without Gala, I would be nothing, she is my oxygen, she is the one who discovers and brings me all the essences which I transform into honey in the hive of my mind.” And despite its onanistic title, The Great Masturbator must have represented an important moment of their relationship, because Dalí never sold it, keeping it in his studio until his death.
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Reed Enger, "The Great Masturbator," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 20, 2017; last modified August 30, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/salvador-dali/the-great-masturbator/.