In that privileged place, reality and the sublime dimension almost come together. My mystical paradise begins in the plains of the Empordà, is surrounded by the Alberes hills, and reaches plenitude in the bay of Cadaqués. This land is my permanent inspiration. The only place in the world, too, where I feel loved. When I painted that rock that I entitled The Great Masturbator, I did nothing more than render homage to one of the promontories of my kingdom, and my painting was a hymn to one of the jewels of my crown.”
The Great Masturbator, Salvador Dalí, (1929). He painted it just before meeting Gala. His needs in Paris by that time became his grief. It’s a self-portrait where their sexual desires and fears are reflected. By then Dalí was still a virgin.
The center of the painting has a distorted human face in profile looking downwards, based on the shape of a natural rock formation at Cap de Creus along the sea-shore of Catalonia. A similar profile is seen in Dalí’s more famous painting of two years later, The Persistence of Memory and other works from that period.
Comparisons have been made to Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights. The Great Masturbator is similar to an image on the right side of the left panel of the The Garden of Earthly Delights composed of rocks, bushes and little animals resembling a face with a prominent nose and long eyelashes.
A nude female figure (resembling Dalí’s then new muse, Gala) rises from the back of the head; this may be the masturbatory fantasy suggested by the title. The woman’s mouth is near a thinly clad male crotch, a suggestion that fellatio may take place. The male figure seen only from the waist down has bleeding fresh cuts on his knees. Below the central profile head, on its mouth, is a locust, an insect of which Dalí had an irrational fear. (The insect has sometimes been misidentified as a grasshopper due to poor translations of Dalí’s early writings.) A swarm of ants (a popular motif in Dalí’s work) gather on the locust’s abdomen, as well as on the prone face. In the landscape below, three other figures are arranged, along with an egg (commonly used as a symbol of fertility) and sparse other features. Two of the characters in the landscape are arranged in such a way as to cast a long single shadow, while the other character is seen hurriedly walking into the distance on the peripheries of the canvas.
The painting represents Dalí’s severely conflicted attitudes towards sexual intercourse. In Dalí’s youth, his father had left out a book with explicit photos of people suffering from advanced untreated venereal diseases to “educate” the boy. The photos of grotesquely damaged diseased genitalia fascinated and horrified young Dalí, and he continued to associate sex with putrefaction and decay into his adulthood.