Salvador Galo Anselmo Dalí i Domènech was born to Felipa Domènech i Ferrés and Salvador Dalí i Cusí on October 12, 1901, in the town of Figueres in Catalonia, Spain. The couple's firstborn child, he showed signs of great precociousness, but his potential was tragically cut short. Little Salvador fell sick with gastroenteritis and died just two months shy of his second birthday. His parents were devastated but, in their grief, conceived another child. On May 11, 1904, only nine months and 10 days after the death of their son, a second boy entered this world. His name? Also Salvador.
It was this Salvador—middle names, Felipe Jacinto—who would become one of the most important artists of the 20th century. In his mind, however, he was forever in the shadow of his sibling. The two Salvadors shared an uncanny likeness. “When my father looked at me, he was seeing my double as much as myself,” Dalí later reflected.
Not creeped out yet? Read on.
When Dalí was five years old, his parents took him to his brother's grave and told him that he was his reincarnation. The idea took hold and haunted Dalí's days. “[We] resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections,” he once wrote. “My brother was probably a first version of myself but conceived too much in the absolute.” This belief had a profound impact on his art. His paintings prominently feature doublings, as in his Portrait of My Dead Brother (1963) above, which features a composite of the artist and his sibling.
Dalí created many visual illusions by overlaying images made of sharp contours and small details—so-called high spatial frequencies—with images made of soft contours and bigger details—or low spatial frequencies—all in the same ambiguous scene. As a result, viewers perceive one or the other image, depending on how close they are to the painting. Up close, the details from the high spatial frequency image dominate. But when viewers squint their eyes or look at the painting from far away, the other picture appears. A detailed inspection of Dalí's Portrait of My Dead Brother, for instance, reveals that the larger face is made of what appear to be dark and light cherries, sometimes paired as twins. Step back, though, and the picture of a young man emerges, with a crow or vulture embedded in his forehead and doubling as hair.
Neuroscientist Aude Oliva and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have optimized this type of perceptual switch in several striking examples. One such image (opposite page at top) looks like two eagles up close but becomes a head and neck seen from afar.
Last year we served as scientific consultants for the Marvels of Illusion exhibit at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla. The collection of artwork showcased the role of illusions in Dalí's art and featured numerous examples of dual interpretations and doubling. “Dalí intuited that what we construe visually as reality is the product of the habits of the mind, more than of the eye,” says Hank Hine, the museum's executive director. “By creating accessible double images, Dalí asks us to reconsider on a fundamental scale our constructs of reality.”
Here we present a few of Dalí's double paintings included in the exhibit to discuss their perceptual mechanisms.