The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Gallery: Episode 5

Beaverbrook Art GalleryFebruary 1, 20180 Comments

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Gallery: Episode 5


So far in this blog series we have talked about different strategies that can be used when you visit an art gallery. Many visitors – whether it is their first or fifteenth visit – may find themselves standing in front of an artwork, unsure of what make of it. Using the different strategies discussed so far, we are able to look at the techniques used, the elements of art, and can immerse ourselves into the story of the work.

Strategy #0: Don’t panic! Galleries and museums are places to enjoy yourself. Don’t feel that there is only one right way to experience art; wandering through and stopping for things that catch your eye is a perfectly good way to start!

Strategy #1: looking at the technical approach. Read more here.

Strategy #2: Influence and Inspiration. Read more here.

Strategy #3: Imagery immersion. Read more here.

Strategy #4: Elements of Art. Read more here.

Strategy #5: Symbolism within artworks

These strategies have helped with many of the works we’ve seen so far. In some artworks, artists may include details that reference ideas which aren’t immediately obvious. In these cases, we can take a look at the symbolism in these works to give us a clearer understanding. When artists use symbols in their work, think of them as a code or secret language. Often, artists will use recognizable images (plants, animals, objects) to represent an idea or to tell a story.

One of the Gallery’s most famous examples of the use of symbolism in an artwork is also one of our collection’s biggest works: Santiago El Grande by Salvador Dalí.

A visit to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery’s newly expanded wing will give you a revitalized space to experience this towering artwork. When you first stand (or lay down!) in front of it, you’ll see St. James, the patron saint of Spain, upon a white stallion and appearing to rise up from the sea. He carries an oversized crucifix in his hand (instead of the sword often shown in depictions). It’s clear to see that Dalí wanted to pay homage to the patron saint of Spain, and he uses many Christian symbols in this beloved work. The backdrop of the work appears to be inspired by the arches and ceiling of a cathedral. Angels are seen rising up from the horse’s neck up towards the top of the work (perhaps towards heaven); and the figure in the bottom right of the work appears shrouded similarly to the Virgin Mary.

All of these features appear at first glance of the work, and give it an obvious religious tone. But if we look deeper at what other symbols are present, we can see even more of a story.

Within the cathedral-like ceiling of the work, we can see scallop shells inset into each beam. The scallop shell is the traditional emblem of St. James the Great (Santiago El Grande, in Spanish) and is popular with pilgrims returning from the Way of St. James pilgrimage in Spain. The scallop shell is said to be a metaphor, its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travel from all over the world, all walking trails leading to one point: the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.

Another less-obvious symbol in this work is the atomic explosion cloud and jasmine flower petals over the center of the horse. This cloud is said to reflect Dalí's interest in then-new discoveries in nuclear physics. Interest in scientific progress was highly popular in the late 1950s, and the World Fair Expo 58 in Brussels was where the famous building ‘the Atomium’ was revealed—and where Dalí first exhibited Santiago El Grande, in the Spanish Pavilion of the Fair.

At the center of this cloud representing nuclear scientific discoveries, we see the four petals of a jasmine flower. The jasmine flower is a symbol of purity and harmony, and a favorite of Dalí, which he'd sometimes place behind his ears or upon the tips of his mustache. When you first see it in Santiago El Grande, it may appear just as a visual feature of the scene. But, when you know this ‘secret language’ of the symbols used, the meaning of each feature further deepens the meaning of the artwork as a whole. Perhaps Dalí was representing his belief in both scientific and religious knowledge, and hoping for harmony between the two?

The last detail from this artwork that we’ll look at (but certainly not the last symbolic detail of the painting!) is the cloaked figure of Gala in the bottom right of the painting. Gala was Salvador Dalí’s wife and is often referred to as his muse. In this work, among others, Dalí in fact didn’t even sign his name. Instead he opted to use the figure of Gala in a way in place of his signature. It is also interesting that her gaze directly engages with the viewer of the work – as if Dalí uses Gala in this artwork to connect the viewer through Christian symbolism to the image of St. James.

Next time you visit the Gallery, make sure to take some time to visit the Santiago El Grande. By studying the symbols it becomes clear that this painting includes many different stories, and each decision made by the artist seems much more deliberate. Use this strategy with other works on display in the galleries as well, and read not just the initial image of artworks, but the ‘coded language’ as well.

What story or message do you think Dalí is trying to tell with this famous work?

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