THR Web Features   /   February 13, 2015

Harlequin as Hammer

Leann Davis Alspaugh

Harlequin, 1927, by Salvador Dalí; Museo d’Arte Contemporanea; Art Resource, NY; © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2015.

Lobster telephones, melting watches, deviant behavior—such images could only come from Salvador Dalí (1904–1989). Over the course of his life, Dalí created a body of work that examined memory, visual perception, sexuality, religion, and identity against a backdrop of a host of twentieth-century dislocations. The critical reception of his work remains divided—was he a craven manipulator or a genius-dilettante?— but few would doubt his abilities as a draftsman, a colorist, and an exuberant explorer of psychosis.

Dalí’s stylistic experimentation—some have called it stylistic promiscuity—marked his entire career. In the upcoming spring issue of The Hedgehog Review, we include Dalí’s Harlequin (above), an example of synthetic cubism from 1927. We chose the image to illustrate an essay with a particularly thorny premise, a defense of prejudice by Adam Adatto Sandel. Perhaps surprisingly, Dalí’s depiction of the hoary commedia dell’arte character Harlequin has quite a bit in common with Heidegger’s hammer.

Dalí’s awareness of Harlequin came from two main sources: his love of the theater, where commedia characters have been mainstays of the stage for centuries, and the influence of fellow Spaniard Picasso. The latter painted many depictions of Harlequin and other circus performers during his Blue and Rose Periods and into his cubist period; Dalí perhaps saw some of these during his visit to Picasso’s Paris studio in 1926. In Barcelona, Dalí also encountered circus performers among his circle of acquaintances. (No doubt, their antics inspired some of his own.) In addition around this same time, Dalí designed the sets was Adrià Gual’s La familia de Arlequín (Harlequin’s Family) at the Teatro Intim in Barcelona. So Harlequin held a prominent place in Dalí’s aesthetics of the late 1920s.

Dalí’s Harlequin relies on a disturbed dualism. Its limited color palette is primarily black and white, with a bisected humanoid figure that seems to be half crumpled and half smooth. The left half of the figure has a white head covered in creases and is clothed in uninflected black garment; the right half has a smooth gray head and wears a dark red tunic with three dimensional strokes indicating the diamond pattern of Harlequin’s traditional costume. The misshapen head, vaguely crescent shaped, indicates Harlequin’s jester’s cap. In the background, an ornamental wall in bright yellow frames the left half while the background of the right half is the same wall in dark red. These neat binaries are offset by a slightly diagonal line that respects neither the background wall nor the foreground figure, bifurcating the picture plane and emphasizing the formal aspect of the composition. We want to read this as a portrait but the surface elements are constantly interfering, thwarting our natural instinct to see faces in everything—Dalí relished pushing the boundaries of art and kitsch by frequently incorporating faces into his paintings and photographs.

While there have been endless discussions of Dalí in the context of Freud—what artist could be more accommodating in this area?—let’s return to the idea of Harlequin and Heidegger’s hammer. As Sandel explains in his essay,

We relate to things, Heidegger points out, and come to know them, not primarily as observers but as participants. As a carpenter hammers at his bench, for example, he does not really perceive the hammer as if he were a disengaged observer of it. He does not relate to the hammer as a thing with properties or even as an object of conscious awareness. The more proficiently he presses the hammer into service, the more the hammer disappears from his perceptual range. The carpenter’s first-person perspective, the “I,” or “subject,” disappears into the work he carries out. Absorbed in the flow of work, the carpenter and his hammer vanish into the activity of hammering.

So Heidegger proposes a way of understanding the world distinct from Cartesian subject-object dualism. In the hammer analogy, absorption has a pragmatic purpose, one offering a practical and moral understanding of “being-in-the-world.” While the moral aspect of Dalí’s work is the subject for another discussion, we can arrive at an understanding, however brief, of his approach to “being-in-the-world” by examining this work. For Dalí, Harlequin carves out a space in which to examine how visual perception informs epistemology. Through an interaction of conscious and unconscious forces, Dalí delves into psychical operations—his own and ours.

First, he utilizes the cultural referents of the historical Harlequin, the commedia figure, as an object that makes meaning and constructs relationships. Not only does Harlequin have a meaning on stage within the rules of dramatic unity, he also serves to make meaning for the audience and viewers who recognize him and his attributes. At the same time, Dalí thwarts meaning by emphasizing the thingness of the character he depicts. Dalí’s interpretation of Harlequin is based primarily in its physical presentation, so much so that it tends toward what the linguists call misprision. Up to a point, we recognize certain signs of Harlequin—the hat, the costume, the artwork’s title—but the artist’s insistence on misleading visual cues prevents a full comprehension. We can’t even really be sure if the apparent three-dimensional aspects of certain parts of the work are trompe l’oeil painting or actual collage.

Cubism’s stylistic hegemony—the dislocated binaries, the tactile surfaces in a two-dimensional work, and the distortions—interferes with what we want to understand about what few clues we can decipher. Falling back on those familiar terms with which we confront the world, what Sandel refers to as our particular “life perspective,” we discover that perhaps the most salient point in our interpretation is anxiety about what we are seeing—is it Harlequin or not? Dalí has so skillfully reimagined the character of the Harlequin that like the carpenter wielding the hammer, he and his tools have disappeared into his work, absorbed in the purpose at hand: that of investigating conscious and the unconscious sources of identity, meaning, and self-knowledge. And we have become reluctant co-conspirators.