CHRIST OF SAINT JOHN of the Cross is the most famous of Dalí’s controversial postwar paintings. In the 1940s, the artist abandoned the surrealist work for which he was known and touted instead a return to the classical techniques and craftsmanship of the Renaissance. This transformation included a conversion to Catholicism and public embrace of Franco’s regime in Spain — a double insult to Dalí’s ferociously anticlerical, antifascist colleagues in the surrealist movement, who promptly denounced their former friend as the dictator’s stooge. For this reason, Dalí’s later work, and his religious paintings in particular, have rarely commanded serious critical attention.
In September 2014, my sister Lydia and I saw the painting for ourselves in the Kelvingrove museum in Glasgow, where she was starting art school. Our fraught reactions to the painting that day surprised us both. Staring up at the huge cross, taking in its lurid details, I fought back the strange urge to punch or claw at the canvas. Afterward, Lydia described a similar experience — a vague nausea and dizziness.
A few days later, back in London, I got a call from Lydia. It’s not just us, she said. The painting had been physically attacked twice. In 1961, a 22-year-old man lunged at Christ of Saint John with a sharp stone. Puncturing the canvas at the base of the cross, he slashed at the human world below Christ’s feet, first in a lateral swipe, then downward at a right angle, almost with care, as if trying to excise a tumor. Then, with the operation proving too delicate, the man tugged at the canvas with both hands, ripping an eight-foot tear that took months of ensuing countersurgery to repair.
Two decades later, in the early 1980s, another man smuggled an air rifle into the Kelvingrove, took aim at the painting, and pulled the trigger. There was no damage this time thanks to a protective layer of acrylic glass, which the museum had installed precisely to thwart such attacks. Today, Christ of Saint John is watched over by four security cameras and no doubt a dozen other furtive eyes. Valued at $60 million, it’s a target for thieves as well as the mad.
To understand this reaction, to understand this urge to vandalize the painting, one must go back to how it was conceived. In search of God, Dalí went, quite naturally, to Los Angeles. His Jesus — whom he’d seen in a “cosmic dream” — would be muscular, majestic, impervious to injury. At Warner Bros., he found Russ Saunders, 32, an acrobat, stuntman, and all-around superhuman who doubled for Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. Saunders was a fixture at Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach, famous for his astonishing physical feats, such as somersaulting over a dozen people lined up on the boardwalk or strolling down the sand with two women on each shoulder. I wonder if Dalí sought him out after laying eyes on a particular image from 1950 in which Saunders stands balanced on a bodiless hand, arms outstretched in the form of a cross — poised, like the surrealist Christ, for impending flight. In 1951, Dalí invited Saunders to Port Lligat, the artist’s Catalan village, where for long intervals the stuntman strung himself up from the studio ceiling to model gravity’s effect on the body, a mock crucifixion for which he was paid $35 a day.
The theologian Paul Tillich wasn’t far off, then, when he described Dalí’s portrayal of Jesus — this time in a later painting — as resembling “a very good athlete on an American baseball team.” But why an Übermensch God? What effect was Dalí hoping to achieve by imbuing Christ with corporeal, quasi-erotic power? One answer might come from Ayn Rand, whose favorite painting was Dalí’s Corpus Hypercubus (1954), completed a few years after Christ of Saint John. Rand spent hours ogling it at the Met, repelled on the one hand by what she called its “revoltingly evil metaphysics” and entranced on the other by Jesus’s dignity in the face of death. In her eyes, Christ’s pain on the cross is proof not of God’s love for humanity but of individual man’s glorious triumph over suffering. Like John Galt, Rand’s protagonist in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged who fights a mass of bureaucratic functionaries intent on smothering his genius, Dalí’s Jesus rises above the collective mire to emerge bloodless, thornless, untouched by Pilate’s mob. In Corpus Hypercubus, as in her novel, Rand sees a cautionary parable — beware the little people who seek to tear greatness down. She imagines Christ resurrected as some sort of hyperindividualist prophet. Blessed are the strong, for they shall inherit the Earth. This radical revision of the crucifixion story turns a core tenet of Christian theology — the redemption of humanity through Christ’s death — completely on its head. Dalí’s Jesus is, for Rand, a self-interested rational man, not the all-loving shepherd. He saves, not the world from its sins, but himself from the sins of the world.
Is it this worship of the individual that bothers me so much about Christ of Saint John? Is it what nearly brought out the vandal in me at the Kelvingrove in Glasgow? I admit I thought myself above all this — getting riled up over ecclesiastical liberties. I’m not even a Christian: I usually enjoy a bit of cheap sacrilege; I generally relish even the most degenerate kitsch. And yet, as I take in Jesus’s crownless curls, as I fix my gaze on his conspicuously unscathed flesh, I find myself unsettled by the sterility of his supposed suffering. There is something unnerving in the way Dalí recasts Christ’s sacrifice as an act of defiance against us. I sense contempt in this performance of strength; I imagine, on Jesus’s hidden face, a recalcitrant smirk. Is the Son of God dying for our sins, or cursing the haters under his breath?
A vision has hit me as I write — the Virgin Mary lifting up her son’s chin to plant one last kiss on his pale cheek, only to come face to face with that silly pencil moustache. Hola! It’s me, Salvador! I chuckle at the thought, but the idea isn’t so far-fetched. That Dalí saw himself in Jesus — that Dalí was Jesus — is less an implication of the painting than its explicit claim. After all, Christ of Saint John suffers his crucifixion not in the hills outside Jerusalem but in the sky above the Bay of Port Lligat. Similarly, in Corpus Hypercubus, the devotional figure at Christ’s feet is neither his mother nor Mary Magdalene but the artist’s own wife, Gala. Predictable stuff from an egoist like Dalí, perhaps; the man’s given name, lest we forget, is Salvador. That said, there is one example of irreverence in the painting that astounds me every time I see it. Consider the unusual perspective in Christ of Saint John, which invites us to witness the crucifixion from above. It’s a heavenly view, God’s view. What could be more profane than looking down on Jesus? And with the Good Lord’s eyes to boot? Dalí borrowed the idea from a 16th-century Carmelite mystic (the eponymous Saint John), whose ingenious sketch depicts Christ’s ordeal from a similar vantage point. But Dalí improves on the 400-year-old vision. When looking at Christ of Saint John of the Cross, not only are we somewhere above the sky in Port Lligat, but we are beneath it too, on Earth with the Catalan peasants, far below the pitch-black firmament. This duplicity of perspective is the painting’s central achievement. Jesus looks down on us looking down on him — or is it up? In that confusion there is room for dissent; we are able to challenge God’s power. Now that’s my kind of heresy.
In 1944, George Orwell wrote “Benefit of Clergy,” a relatively obscure essay on the subject of Dalí’s work. It’s a curious piece of writing — clumsy by Orwell’s high standards (for reasons I’ll make clear) but powerful all the same. I like the essay for its anger, which helps me parse my own fraught ambivalence to Christ of Saint John.
In what is ostensibly a review of Dalí’s recently published book The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), Orwell denounces the painter as a “diseased intelligence” in whom the “bedrock decency of a human being does not exist.” Dalí’s fantastical autobiography — which describes the homicidal and necrophiliac inclinations of his boyhood — is, to a repulsed Orwell, “a book that stinks. If it were possible for a book to give a physical stink off its pages, this one would.” Orwell’s revulsion makes for great entertainment, even as the essay seems to veer (at least to contemporary readers versed in the notion of “problematic” heroes) toward a familiar conclusion — that the artist, though not exempt from society’s laws and mores, “must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility,” and that one “ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.” Orwell insists on this nuance; he sees himself neither among the outraged philistines nor with the fashionable sophisticates of the capitalist class, who, impressed by scandal for scandal’s sake, conflate Dalí’s dead donkeys with genius.
A closer reading of “Benefit of Clergy,” however, further complicates this nuance — to the point of contradiction. While suggesting it is “doubtful policy to suppress anything,” Orwell maintains his right to say, “This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.” He mocks the very idea that one need only “pronounce the magic word ‘Art’ and everything is OK.” Or that “[s]o long as you can paint well enough to pass the test, all shall be forgiven you.” For Orwell, the artist, like the clergyman, has no special benefit; we all submit — painter, pauper, priest — to the same moral jurisdiction.
I can’t tell whether Orwell, or at least the Orwell who wrote “Benefit of Clergy,” would approve of vandalism toward Christ of Saint John of the Cross. The message is confused. He seems to be saying: “Separate the art from the artist, but don’t.” Burn the paintings, but don’t. Like Orwell, I’m fascinated and appalled by Dalí’s shamelessness. The essay’s underlying charge is clear — Dalí “scuttle[d] off like a rat” when the going got tough, first to France to avoid the war in Spain, then to the United States to avoid the war in France, and finally back to Spain again, the republic in ruins, where he got on his knees to kiss Franco’s ring and swear eternal fealty to the Roman Catholic Church. As Orwell says, “There is always one escape: into wickedness.”
Over the years, on my intermittent trips to see my sister in Glasgow, I invariably went to the Kelvingrove to look at Christ of Saint John again. I’m not sure what purpose these visits served; I always left the museum in a bad mood afterward, irritated by the Catholics I saw crossing themselves at the sight of the canvas, as though there were anything holy in it. But what about my own fraught ritual? To what power did I surrender by coming, again and again, to this strange altar?
On my last visit to Glasgow, I found Christ of Saint John missing from its usual alcove. For the briefest moment I was convinced someone had attacked it again, this time injuring it beyond repair. In reality, as a nearby sign made clear, the painting was on loan to the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was disappointed — though I couldn’t tell whether I was sorry to have missed it or hoping to hear it had been destroyed.
Kasra Lang is an English-Iranian writer from London. His work has been published in Roads & Kingdoms and Lodestars Anthology, and on Zócalo Public Square. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he is a PhD candidate in USC’s Creative Writing and Literature program.