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I Sing the Steady Aim of Your Arrows

I Sing the Steady Aim of Your Arrows

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Published by Steve Cox
Looks at the passionate relationship between the artist Salvador Dali and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the coded references each made to this in drawings, letters and poems.
Looks at the passionate relationship between the artist Salvador Dali and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the coded references each made to this in drawings, letters and poems.

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Steve Cox on Mar 25, 2012
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Steve Cox, 2012

Fig. 1 Salvador Dalí and Federico Garcia Lorca at an amusement park, 1925.

I sing the steady aim of your arrows

In 1923, Salvador Dalí met Federico Garcia Lorca at the university hostel, the Residencia de Estudiantes, in Madrid, where they were students. Lorca was gay and twenty-five, the shy, virginal Dalí was twenty-one; they soon came to refer to each other, correctly as it turned out, as geniuses. Their intense relationship lasted until they fell out in 1929, when the film Un Chien Andalou, a collaboration between Dalí and Luis Buñuel, was released; Lorca thought the film was about him and was most likely also jealous of the alliance between Dalí and Buñuel, who was known to have been disgusted by Lorca’s sexuality. There has been recently renewed interest in the intense relationship between Lorca and Dalí. From their letters to one another there is no question that Lorca was in love with Dalí, and it seems also clear that Dalí reciprocated this love, at least on an emotional level. He included Lorca’s face in at least five canvases in the early years of their relationship, such as Honey is Sweeter Than Blood, which, as well as Dalí’s own disembodied profile, features Lorca’s lifeless face superimposed onto the landscape in the lower-left section.1 And even many years after Lorca’s execution, his face appears superimposed on several Dalí landscapes. Dalí wrote to Lorca: ‘Don't fail to write to me - you, the only interesting man I've ever known.’ He ‘referred to himself repeatedly as Lorca's “little son” and sent him drawings, collages, photographs, postcards, and even a florid valentine… stamped “My Beloved Darling.”’2 On another occasion he sent Lorca a postcard of that enduring phallic emblem, the Eiffel Tower, with the inscription, ‘Another hug.’ In March, 1926, Dalí confessed to Lorca that he had spent the whole day re-reading the letters he had sent him; a week later he asked ‘Do you love me?’ For his part, Lorca told a friend that Dalí inspired in him the same pure emotion he felt in the presence of the baby Jesus; a hard act to follow, to be sure! Once, when he had to unexpectedly cut short a holiday the pair was spending together, Lorca recalled, ‘I was on the verge of throwing myself out of the car in order to stay with you (little you) in Cadaques.’ In 1926, Lorca wrote his poignant poem ‘Ode to Salvador Dalí’, which runs, in part:
Oh Salvador Dalí, of the olive-coloured voice! I speak of what your person and your paintings tell me. I do not praise your halting adolescent brush, but I sing the steady aim of your arrows. I sing your fair struggle of Catalan lights, your love of what might be made clear. I sing your astronomical and tender heart, a never-wounded deck of French cards. I sing your restless longing for the statue, your fear of the feelings that await you in the street. I sing the small sea-siren who sings to you, riding her bicycle of corals and conches.
1 This was undoubtedly a reference to Lorca’s habit of assuming the role of his own corpse. At the Residencia, Dalí had often heard Lorca refer to his own death. He had also witnessed the poet throw himself onto the floor or onto a bed, feigning rigor mortis and saying, ‘Hey everyone, this is how I‘ll look when I die!’ – described in Stainton. 2 Leslie Stainton, Lorca: A Dream of Life, Bloomsbury, 1998, p.138

But above all I sing a common thought that joins us in the dark and golden hours. The light that blinds our eyes is not art. Rather it is love, friendship, crossed swords.

Lorca was well aware of the dangers of declaring his homosexuality. He knew of Oscar Wilde’s destruction; he had read Wilde’s De Profundis and his copy of the article was heavily annotated with his own thoughts on the tragedy. He was also aware of Spain’s severe views on homosexuality: ‘The Arabs who had settled in Andalusia had sanctioned it. But the Inquisition had persecuted homosexuals, and the Catholic Church continued to regard them as deviants of the worst sort’.3 Both Lorca and Dalí would also have been aware of the fervently homophobic stance of the burgeoning Surrealist movement, to which Dalí, at least, was keen to be associated.4 Conscious of his homosexuality since early childhood, Lorca recalled, ‘When I eventually realized my preference I came to understand that what I liked, others thought perverse.’5
To Lorca, [Dalí’s] extravagant, adoring letters were a godsend. But Lorca wanted more. In the summer of 1925, in the weeks following his visit [with the artist] to Cadaques, he talked anxiously of his desire to see Dalí, and in letters to their mutual friend Benjamin Palencia, a painter, he hinted at the depth of his attachment to ‘Salvadorcito’...Through Palencia, Dalí had promised to send him a pair of his paintings. ‘They will live in my house next to my heart,’ Lorca said.6

Details are sketchy, but at some point Lorca tried to physically consummate the intense relationship he and Dalí had. This was not successful; as Dalí tells it, nearly fifty years later:
He was homosexual, as everyone knows, and crazily in love with me. He tried to screw me twice... I was extremely annoyed, because I wasn’t homosexual, and I wasn’t interested in giving in. Besides, it hurt. So nothing came of it. But I felt awfully flattered vis-à-vis the prestige. Deep down, I felt that he was a great poet and that I did owe him a tiny bit of the Divine Dalí’s asshole.7

A distance of half a century is certainly time enough to re-order the truth, and one senses that Dalí is rather glossing over the incident in order to re-establish hetero-cred. The lurid picture of poor, put-upon, Dalí reluctantly giving in to the rapacious, love-struck Lorca seems too narrow and one-sided an explanation, particularly given the evidence of the correspondence between these two very close young men. But whatever the circumstances, the event proved to be a creative catalyst for both of them; and the focus of this creativity, with its subtext of martyrdom and (homosexual) suffering was, naturally enough, Saint Sebastian. It is a happy coincidence that Sebastian was also the patron saint of
Stainton, p.139 Andre Breton, for instance, was obsessively homophobic and he banned discussion of homosexuality at any Surrealist meetings, accusing homosexuals of ‘mental and moral deficiency,’ guilty of ‘paralysing all enterprises that I respect.’ For a detailed analysis of the deeply entrenched homophobia within the movement, see Richard Easton’s ‘Canonical Criminalizations: Homosexuality Art History, Surrealism and Abjection’ in Differences, Vol. 4, 1992. 5 Quoted in Staunton, p.139. 6 Staunton, p.138 7 Alain Bosquet, Conversations with Dalí, Translated from the French by Joachim Neugroschel, Ubu Classics, 2003, pp.19 (Original publication was by E.P. Dutton & Co, NY, 1969).
4 3

Cadaqués, the quaint fishing village on the Costa Brava, with which Dalí had fallen in love as a child, and where he and Lorca had spent idyllic summer holidays. Edward Hirsch writes:
The correspondence between Lorca and Dalí suggests a nervous awareness of the homoerotic and sadomasochistic aspects underlying Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom, which was somehow mixed up in their own…relationship to each other. Much was at stake both personally and aesthetically when they fenced over their competing images of the saint pierced by arrows.8

We may feel that the rather timid ‘nervous awareness’ suggested by Hirsch seems too coy (not to mention heterocentric) a description, conjuring as it does the image of trembling ingénues, out of their depth in the murky waters of homosexuality. From what the pair wrote to each other about the subject, and from the works they created on this theme, their agenda seems to have been more knowing and cathartically directed, as each tried to plead the case for and against homosexual consummation. The saint became an equally identifiable icon for both of the young men, one that could easily be imbued with the idea of their own particular suffering: for Dalí, the physical pain of being penetrated by a friend he needed emotionally but not physically; for Lorca the emotional pain of a longing that he stoically endured. Dalí sometimes signed letters to Lorca, ‘Your Saint Sebastian,’ and in a letter to Dalí, Lorca makes a coded reference to sodomy: ‘Saint Sebastian’s arrows are made of steel,’ he wrote, ‘but the difference between you and me is that you see them as firmly fixed and robust, short arrows that can’t come undone, and I see them as long…at the moment of the wound. Your Saint Sebastian of ivory [sometimes translated as ‘marble’] contrasts with mine of flesh who is dying all the time, and that’s how it must be.’9 Dalí wrote a long prose-poem about the saint, which he published in the Catalan journal, L’Amic de les Art, and which he dedicated to Lorca; Dalí told him, ‘In my “Saint Sebastian” I remember you, and sometimes I think he is you...we’ll see if Saint Sebastian turns out to be you.’ Even Dalí’s younger sister, Ana Marie, was in on the pair’s secret, exhorting Lorca not to show the postcard she had sent him to ‘Saint Sebastian.’

8 Edward Hirsch, The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003, p.21 9 Staunton, p.170.

Figure 2. Federico Garcia Lorca, San Sebastian, india ink on paper, 1927.

Consider the drawing that Lorca made in 1927 (fig. 2). The stylised, Cocteauesque image of the beleaguered saint has been reduced to its most elemental parts, mainly due to the fact that, unlike Dalí, Lorca was not a natural draughtsman: six actual arrows, six more-simplified arrows, a single eye and a central target shape. Here, I want to focus on this central motif, which has three possible readings. First, it has an undoubted visual reference to a target. Secondly, it appears in the position of a pursed, kissing mouth under Sebastian’s eye, framed by the dark entry-points of the arrows (made by bleeding the penpoint into the paper), which suggest something of a jaw-line. But the third, oblique, reference is its resemblance to an anus; and this is the most appropriate given specific taunting comments that Dalí had made in letters to Lorca about the unattainable Sebastian’s, and by extension, his own. Consider the following: ‘[how well] tied he was to the column and how solid his back was. Didn’t you ever think how strange it is that his ass doesn’t have a single wound?’10 There are twelve arrows altogether in the drawing, but only the arrows pointing upwards are accorded feathers; the upper arrows represent a more generalised idea of ‘arrow’. Seemingly free-standing and erect, the lower six, phallic arrows retain their functionality, each pointing up towards the target/anus and each coming close, but missing its mark. Reading only Sebastian’s face in the image, Cecilia Cavanaugh writes that ‘the simplicity of the eye/mouth configuration is as

10 Christopher Maurer, ed. and trans., Sebastian’s Arrows: Letters and Mementos of Salvador Dalí and Federico Garcia Lorca, Swan Isle Press, Chicago, 2004, p.22

gripping and eloquent as any other painting of this suffering victim.’11 But much more eloquent is the image of Lorca’s and Dalí’s own personal suffering, embodied here in this sparse psychosexual drawing.

Figure 3. Federico Garcia Lorca, Ecce Homo, 1927.

Another drawing, Ecce Homo (fig. 3), which Lorca made in the same year, continues the theme. Traditionally, works of art entitled Ecce Homo have depicted a tethered Christ standing before Pontius Pilate, but here Lorca has swapped one martyr for another. Again he has focussed on the head, which we see fractured and in profile. It appears to be wearing a hat or, more likely, a halo, tilted back at a jaunty angle. Tears fall from the eye, which are matched by the scattered blotches of ink/blood. As in the previous image, there are both ‘functional’ arrows and ‘suggestive’ arrows: a small pictogram arrow sits at shoulder level, pointing diagonally upwards to a blotch; another arrow is picked out in dots and points towards the ear, which is intriguingly marked with the measures one-to-six inches, like a curled ruler. The most important arrow, complete with feathers, dominates the drawing. It is positioned obliquely, at the top of the drawing, and has found its mark; an open wound. But, situated as it is, well above the head, this is a thought-arrow of longing.

11 Cecilia J. Cavanaugh, Lorca's Drawings and Poems: Forming the Eye of the Reader, Bucknell University Press, 1995, p.59

Figure 4. Salvador Dalí, San Sebastian, newspaper collage on a letter to Lorca, 1926.

On page one of a several-page letter to Lorca (fig. 4), Dalí included a newspaper collage. The illustration had originally advertised ‘Sor Virginia’ poultices and featured a moustachioed, bare-chested, he-man type with rolled up trouser legs, swathed in the product.12 Dalí drew a halo about the figure’s head and wrote ‘San Sebastian’ next to his right thigh; and with these additions, the once-nonchalant, arms-behind-the-back, pose now had the sinister reading of his being tethered to a post. The medicinal intention of the original image imbued Dalí’s new version with a promise/threat of wellness/sickness and neatly encapsulated the physical and psychological predicament in which he found himself.


The surrealist in Dalí was undoubtedly attracted to the bizarre conjoining of the varying signifiers within the image because he recycled it a number of times within his paintings over the years, and it also appeared on the invitation to his exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery, New York, in 1934.

Figure 5. Salvador Dalí, Project for a Theatre Setting based on the Myth of San Sebastian, 1939.

For Dalí, the enduring image of Sebastian recurred at intervals throughout his career, as did images of Lorca himself, as thoughts of his relationship with the poet resurfaced. In Project for a Theatre Setting based on the Myth of San Sebastian, from 1939 (fig. 5), we see a seven-tier tower of boxes, upon which is superimposed a double image of naked Sebastian, one on each visible side of the stack. Broken arrows stud the sides of the boxes and blood trickles down the sides to pool on the ground. Each box has a lock and key, signifying the secretive nature of the image for Dalí as well as an indication of how he had grappled with its personalised meaning. A faceless figure turns a key in one of the locks, but it is unclear whether he is revealing the secret or locking it securely away. Dalí made two ink sketches of the saint in the 1940s. In the later picture (fig. 7), Dalí has allowed a runnel of ink to describe the left side of the saint’s body; it is suggestive of the martyr’s blood as it runs down the centre of the paper. In the earlier image (fig.6), Sebastian is depicted as an attenuated, androgyne; the extravagantly plumed arrows emphasise the general louche

Figure 6. Salvador Dalí, Saint Sebastian, 1942. Figure 7. Salvador Dalí, Saint Sebastian Pierced by Arrows, 1946.

effect of the picture. In this image, which we may read as self-referential, Dalí encapsulates his heterosexual anxiety about Lorca’s sexual advances. For Dalí, with his Spanish machismo, the once male figure (now penetrated) exists as neither male nor female; even the identifying, engendering facial features have been blotted out with ink. Lorca was arrested in 1936, and shot by members of Spain’s fascist Falange movement, whose black and red flag, in an example of dark synchronicity, featured a brace of arrows (fig 8).

Figure 8. Flag of Spain’s fascist Falange movement

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