Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)
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Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)

Rhinocéros en désintégration

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)
Rhinocéros en désintégration
signed and dated 'Dalí 1950' (lower centre)
watercolour, pen and ink on paper
29 3/4 x 39 7/8 in. (76 x 101.7 cm.)
Executed in 1950
Carstairs Gallery, New York.
Donald & Phyllis Sterling, Toronto, by whom acquired in 1981; sale, Sotheby's, New York, 5 November 2014, lot 130.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
R. Santos Torroella, Salvador Dalí, Madrid, 1952, n.p. (illustrated).
R. Descharnes & G. Néret, Salvador Dalí, 1904-1989: The Paintings, vol. II, 1946-1989, Cologne, 2004, pp. 436 & 764 (illustrated fig. 965, p. 437).
Barcelona, Museo de Arte Moderno, I Bienal Hispanoamericana de Arte, January - February 1952, p. 9.
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.


Rhinocéros en désintégration is a remarkable watercolour painted by Salvador Dalí in 1950 that invokes several of the key themes in the artist’s work of the immediate post-war era. Centring on the image of a rhinoceros suspended in space and in the process of disintegrating under the mystical spell of a divine, heavenly being, the work is an invocation of the new personal form of mysticism that Dalí was to outline one year later in his ‘Mystical Manifesto’ of 1951.

Particle physics, the Atomic Bomb and scientific concepts of matter and anti-matter had awoken in Dalí a new concern with the nature of being in the post-war era. The dawning of a new Nuclear age had prompted in him an appreciation of the innate immateriality of matter and an understanding of how, as Heraclitus had once explained, matter existed in a constant and mysterious state of flux and disintegration. This revelation, for Dalí, affirmed what he subsequently declared to be ‘the spirituality of all matter,’ and led to his embracing of an innate mysticism at the heart of existence – a mysticism which in turn began to manifest itself in his paintings through predominantly Roman Catholic imagery.

Embroiled also in these concerns, was Dalí’s obsession throughout the early 1950s with the rhinoceros. For Dalí the rhinoceros was a ‘cosmic’ animal that belonged in the heavens - even more than the elephants of his famous painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony. The rhino’s hide, Dalí asserted, had ‘plenty of divine granulations’, and its horns, he had been delighted to discover, were ‘the only ones in the animal kingdom constructed in accordance with a perfect logarithmic spiral’ (Dalí quoted in H. Finkelstein, The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, Cambridge, 1998, p. 433).

It had been around the time that Dalí painted Rhinocéros en désintégration in 1950 that Dalí had first been given a rhino horn by the poet Emmanuel Looten. Following this it was, in the early part of the decade at least, to become an obsessive icon in his work. In much Eastern mythology the rhino horn is widely believed to be a source of sexual potency. For Dalí too, the rhinoceros was an image of strength and virility that ultimately manifested itself in the phallic projection of its horn. Its complimentary symbol, however, was the Virgin whom Dalí regarded as being both the target and the receptacle of the rhino’s virility.

In many images of the rhinoceros, therefore, the mighty armoured creature is accompanied by the figure of a virgin brandishing either a cross or a crutch. The crutch is one of the most repeated images in Dalí’s work and was, for the artist, a perennial symbol of impotency that had comforted and inspired him since his childhood. By the 1950s Dalí openly celebrated his own sexual difficulty in this respect, claiming that ‘all the great people who realise sensational achievements are impotent, Napoleon, everybody. The people who are not impotent make children, embryos, and nothing more. But immediately that sex works only with extreme difficulty, you create fantastic music, architecture, visions, imperial invasions’ (Dalí quoted in I. Gibson, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí, London, 1997, p. 546).

Like matter and anti-matter therefore, the rhinoceros and the Virgin are symbolic opposites that collectively form a whole. Something of this mystical sense of union and division is being expressed here in Rhinocéros en désintégration where an archangel is shattering a rhinoceros into particles amidst a heavenly light.

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