Vision of the Atomic Age: Salvador Dalí’s Nuclear Mysticism

Salvador Dalí’s 1948 work Vision of the Atomic Age rests between figuration and abstraction, coherence and disintegration, and organic and technological forms. While the sketch retains the familiar hallmarks of Dalí’s practice – a long, angular plane receding into the distance, mountains atop an infinite horizon, and figures with long shadows – Vision of the Atomic Age also contains technological elements which are more in keeping with Dalí’s later aesthetic, developed after the Second World War when the artist became fascinated with technology.

Vision of the Atomic Age sees Dalí combine dream-like imagery with techno-biomorphic forms to create a surreal, liminal landscape. Heavily wrought, geometric shapes are suspended within the picture plane, and alien-like forms meet amorphous rocks to imbue the sketch with an element of science fiction. In Surrealism, Art and Modern Science, art historian Gavin Parkinson has explored the affinity between science and surrealist praxis, writing: ‘Dalí was fascinated by the theory of relativity because it offered the idea that reality could not be reduced to a single flow.’ Dalí saw an affinity between the invisible workings of the mind and the invisible mechanisms of subatomic particles, a comparison which was to become the foundation of his theory of nuclear mysticism outlined in the 1951 text, Mystical Manifesto.

Dalí’s fascination with the mechanisms of nuclear physics can also be understood to belie a deeper anxiety about the power of modern science. Of foremost interest to the artist was the deployment of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War. Speaking to his friend, the writer Andre Parinaud, Dalí explained: ‘the atomic explosion of 6 August 1945 seismically struck me. Since that time, the atom has become my favourite subject of reflection. […] I want to see and understand the power and hidden laws of things so as to gain control over them.’ Dalí’s use of watercolour in the upper right-hand of the sketch captures the castrated plumes of a mushroom cloud, exploiting this imagery for its creative potential whilst simultaneously sidestepping the destruction implicit in the form of the cloud.

Dalí’s focus on the fragmentation of form further resonates with contemporaneous discoveries in science. In Vision of the Atomic Age there is an omnipresence of fragmented rocks, edifices, and particles suspended in imaginary space. Whilst the inclusion of rock formations has long been a recognised trope in Dalí’s work, often read as gesturing to the artist’s formative years in Cadaqués, in Vision of the Atomic Age the motif takes on renewed significance. Dalí became interested in theories of nuclear fission – the splitting of a large atomic nucleus into smaller nuclei – and can be seen to capitalise on the creative potential of this process through his depiction of sediment. In particular, two figural depictions, seemingly comprised of fragmented rocks, dominate the centre of the work: their feet and lower limbs are easily discernible, whilst their torsos morph into organic forms, embodying the entropy of nuclear fission.

Testament to Dalí’s fascination with technology, Vision of the Atomic Age anticipates later works which more explicitly draw on science fiction – including The Hallucinogenic Toreador (circa 1968), and La Gare de Perpignan (1965) – and points to a wider affinity between science and surrealism.

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