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Tuesday, 20 January 2015

the centre cannot hold....

Salvador Dalí. The Virgin of Port Lligat. Oil painting, 1950.

After World War II, Salvador Dalí became fascinated with particle physics: the idea that all matter is immaterial. That things we had always taken to be solid or liquid, were in fact just dense gases. That all substance is made up of infinitesimally small particles, held in suspension in the void. And held together by what? The almost imperceptibly small gravitational pull of the next particle? The minute magnetism of protons? 

I’m no scientist, so I defer humbly to scientific journalist Robert Kunzig, who writes:

“You do not know what stuff is, you who hold it in your hands. Atoms? Yes, stuff is made of atoms. And every atom is a nucleus orbited by electrons. Every nucleus is built of protons. Every proton is - but there you reach the end of the line. Inside the proton lies the deep, unsettling truth: Stuff is made of nothing, or almost nothing, held together by glue, lots of glue.”

And even that glue is “massless and evanescent.”


This new understanding shattered Dalí’s world. In The Madonna of Port Lligat, he depicted the Virgin and her child contained within a fragmented architecture, pieces floating away, outward from the central figures. Chunks of stone suspended in the void above the same kind of empty landscape seen in The Persistence of Memory, or Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion. Seemingly permanent structures rendered weightless. Rendered immaterial.

The Virgin herself has the same void in her torso as does the Venus de Milo in Dalí’s later work, Le Desir Hyperrationel; and so does her son. Her head is split open, presaging the absence of the head in Le Desir. Calling to mind the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus. Calling to mind the rent in the veil: a seismic shift. A new order. 

The disintegration of everything once held to be solid.


As Yeats says: “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.”

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