Ants. Pebbles. Bread crumbs. Hairs on the back of the neck. Sewing needles. Record needles. Blackheads. Subatomic particles. Strands of DNA. Salvador Dalí loved tiny things. He loved them in the twenties, when he was living in Barcelona and searching for an artistic direction that would be his own. He loved them in the thirties, when he was living in Paris among the surrealist painters and poets. And he loved them in the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties, when he was living in New York as an artist of international fame. Indeed, if there was one constant in Dalí’s career it was the love of the tiny. Throughout the many years of his career, Dalí embraced a wide range of sometimes contradictory orientations and perspectives: Federico García Lorca’s poetic of the folk, Le Corbusier’s modernism of the machine, André Breton’s surrealism of the marvelous.
These, however, were short-lived identifications (even the last one). His love of little things, on the other hand — of things that exist at the boundary of perception and on the edge of cognition — was a love Dali never abandoned.
Dalí’s identification with things small was to influence almost every aspect of the painter’s art and writing. It shaped his conception of modernism, of the avant-garde, and above all, of Sigmund Freud and his significance. Of course, all of the surrealists were influenced by Freud; in this regard, Dalí was no different. What distinguished him from his contemporaries was that, in his mind, Freud was most properly understood as a theorist of the tiny. For at the core of Dalí’s most significant and lasting contribution to surrealism’s psychoanalytic discourse — the concept of “paranoia-criticism”— was a belief in the power of little things to dig deep within our mind and then to resurface anew to wreak havoc on reality.
Of all his early writings on the subject of the small, the most evocative is a poem that Dalí first wrote in Spanish in the fall of 1927 and then published in Catalan in the August 31, 1928, issue of the journal L’Amic de les Arts (Friend of the arts). Titled “Poema de les cosetes” (Poem of little things), this brief, ten-line
verse articulated Dalí’s universe of the tiny as a realm of infinite transformation in which soft flesh turns sharp and spiky, solids become gas, and “little charms prick”:
“There’s a tiny little thing in a spot up high.
I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy.
The sewing needles plunge into sweet and tender little bits of nickel.
My girlfriend’s hand is made of cork full of thumbtacks.
One of my girlfriend’s breasts is a calm sea urchin, the other a swarming
My girlfriend has a knee of smoke.
The little charms, the little charms, the little charms, the little charms, the
little charms, the little charms, the little charms, the little charms. . .
the little charms prick.
The partridge’s eye is red.
Little things, little things, little things, little things, little things, little
things, little things, little things, little things, little things, little things,
little things . . .
there are little things as still as a loaf of bread.