Correspondence

Nature 423, 917 (26 June 2003) | doi:10.1038/423917a

Dalí and the double helix

Elena Guardiola1,2 & Josep-E. Baños2

  1. Unit of Medical Information and Documentation, R&D Department, Q F Bayer, Calabria 268, 08029 Barcelona, Spain
  2. Department of Experimental and Health Sciences. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Dr Aiguader 80, 08003 Barcelona, Spain

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Science fascinated the great surrealist, who combined it with angels and allegories.

Sir

Some of the recent articles on the influence of DNA molecule structure and genetics on contemporary art (see, for example, http://www.nature.com/nature/DNA50) refer to Salvador Dalí, the renowned Catalonian surrealist artist, and to one of his paintings in particular: Butterfly Landscape, the Great Masturbator in Surrealist Landscape with DNA.

Dalí (1904–1989) was highly interested in science. In the 1930s, his interest focused on dual images and illusions; in 1940 he turned to Planck's quantum theory; and in 1945 the nuclear, or atomic, period of his work began. In the 1950s, 'corpuscular' painting led Dalí to nuclear mysticism. Between 1955 and 1978, his work was deeply influenced by genetics in particular, and especially by DNA and its structure.

When Dalí read Watson and Crick's 1953 Nature article, he said: "It is the real proof of the existence of God." After that, DNA influenced his paintings and many other activities. DNA was present in at least nine paintings from 1956 to 1976: Still Life, Fast Moving (1956), "the decomposition of a fruit dish", metaphorically summarized man's post-atomic understanding of nature. Dalí suggested that there is still a cosmic order in the Universe by incorporating spirals into the composition; he felt that the spiral was the basic form of life, an idea that was confirmed by Crick and Watson in 1953.

Butterfly Landscape, the Great Masturbator in Surrealist Landscape with DNA (1957–1958) locates a prettified evocation of a space-filling model in one of Dalí's typically barren landscapes inhabited by sub-Freudian enigmas. The title of the painting Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid (1963) combines DNA with Dalí's own name and that of his wife, Gala. It represents the three parts of existence: life (DNA structure), death (represented by men with rifles) and life after death (represented by God).

Dalí's fascination with the subject influenced a series of other paintings, some of them reworking similar themes and using similar titles. Desoxyribonucleic Acid Arabs was painted around 1963. Hommage à Crick et Watson (1963) — a name that was also given as a sub-title for the tongue-twisting Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid — includes a picture of the scientists and the legends "Watson: a model builder" and "Crick: Life is a three-letter word". DNA Representation (Jacob's Ladder) (1971) was part of the tribute to F. Duran Reynals held at the 1971 National Conference of the Spanish Society of Biochemistry. The structure of DNA is mixed together with angels in Jacob's ladder. Deoxyribonucleic Acid and Jacob's Ladder (1975) is a surrealistic representation of the DNA structure, with angels ascending and descending the ladder. Two paintings called The Structure of DNA (1975–1976), represent DNA structures with different coloured backgrounds.

Dalí was fascinated by DNA: "Every half of a shoot is exactly linked to its matching half, just as Gala was linked to me ... It all opens and closes and interlinks with amazing precision. Heredity depends on a sovereign mechanism, and life is the product of absolute rule of deoxyribonucleic acid".