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Salvador Dali and the Art of Bread

Basket of Bread – Rather Death than Shame by Salvador Dali, 1945. It resides at the Teater-Museu Dali, Figueres, Spain – http://art-dali.com

What is this painting, but a simple piece of bread in a bread basket?

Well, yes, it looks precarious sitting a little too close to the edge of the wood table. And it’s bathed in a light that is almost harsh, like a spotlight. There is nothing else to see, just the bread, basket and table. And a background of darkness.

Why is this image, so stripped away of detail, being presented to us? That’s what the artist, Salvador Dali, wants you to think.

What’s going on here?

Salvador Dali created this image,  Basket of Bread — Rather Death than Shame, 1945 in Monterey, California.

The Persistence of Memory by Dali

Dali was the great Spanish surrealist painter who famously painted melted clock faces draped over tree branches and other objects. See Dali’s 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory or the later version, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.

His paintings are often dream-like, with bizarre and incongruous images that invite symbolic interpretations. Dali fills his backgrounds with landscapes in grandiose Renaissance fashion. He paints distorted animals, hyper-religious icons, sexual imagery, and scientific subjects in the foreground.

Bad boy

Salvador Dali

Dali was a bit of a bad boy, often taking controversial positions on topics of the day. He supported the fascist dictator Francisco Franco and turned to Catholicism in later life. Both ran counter to the intellectual and artistic mood of the times. With the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, he made the nightmarish 1929 film, Un Chien Andalou. Viewers were shocked by the film and many called for it to be banned. It contains images that haunt me to this day.

Dali made an earlier version of Basket of Bread in 1926, 19 years before the one above. See the 1926 painting here. The times were quite different, of course. World War One, which had ended eight years earlier, was still a recent memory to viewers of the painting.

The Basket of Bread, 1926

The imagery of the earlier painting is similar: a basket with bread on a table. The basket is more ornate than the 1945 version. The light is warmer, and a white table linen is gathered around the basket. There are four slices of bread, thickly cut and buttered generously. One piece appears to have a bite taken out of it.

This is a more inviting image. The bread in this case is meant to be savoured. Europe had emerged from a devastating war. There was a sense of relief, a longing for the comforts of the past.

Dali painted it shortly after finishing art studies in Madrid. He was interested in the Dutch masters. At 22 years of age, his artistic identity was likely unformed.

Borderline of dematerialization

Dali completed the 1945 version the day before the end of World War Two. The U.S. had deployed two atomic bombs in Japan. The symbolic force of the nuclear age had a significant impact on the collective consciousness. Dali suggested the world was on “the borderline of dematerialization of matter.” 1.

Dali also described the painting to a friend as “the most esoteric and the most Surrealist of anything I have painted to date.” 2

It’s amazing what some people can see in a painting of a piece of bread in a basket! But symbolism is the basis of surrealism. Likewise, the objects, gestures or situations in dreams are symbols of the psyche.

A Poilâne partnership

Bread was a common thread of Dali’s, who described it as “the elementary basis of continuity” and “sacred subsistence.” 3

“Bread has been one of the oldest subjects of fetishism and obsession in my work, the first and the one to which I have remained the most faithful.” 4

The famous bakery, Poilâne of Paris, has had a long relationship with the visual and baking arts. Apollonia Poilâne, CEO of the bakery, wrote about this in her 2019 book, Poilâne. In the early days of the business, the Poilâne family often accepted paintings from local artists as payment for bread instead of money. 5

These paintings cover the walls of Poilâne stores in Paris. Apollonia says they represent just a smattering of the hundreds they’ve collected over the years.

Dough chandelier

Dough chandelier on display in the Poilâne bakery, Paris.

Salvador Dali was a regular visitor to the bakery in the late 1960s and befriended Apolloinia’s father, Lionel Poilâne. They spoke a lot about the meaning of bread in life and art.

Dali approached the older Poilâne with an idea about creating a bedroom suite made out of bread. Dali came up with the idea but it wasn’t for one of his grand artistic visions. He was living in a five-star hotel and was convinced there were mice in the suite. If the tables and light stands made of bread showed signs of being eaten, he’d have proof for the management. The installation was eventually shown at the very hotel.

Lionel Poilâne created a replica of a dough chandelier used in the exhibit. It is displayed to this day at the store on Rue du Cherche-Midi in Paris.

The chandelier has to be remade every couple of years. Although bread may be a symbol of life, like life, it doesn’t last forever.

A paradox that would not have been lost on Dali!


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Fun at 4 in the morning … first load of bread in the oven, first light, first birdsong, making the treacherous walk back inside with a tower of bannetons. In the rain.
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Fun at 4 in the morning … first load of bread in the oven, first light, first birdsong, making the treacherous walk back inside with a tower of bannetons. In the rain.
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Post to The Happy Monk Baking Company
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Post to The Happy Monk Baking Company
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  1. from Wikipedia entry on Basket of Bread, sourced from The Spanish Eye: Painters and Poets of Spain, essay by Antony Rowe

  2. from Wikipedia, sourced from M. Etherington-Smith, The Persistence of Memory: A Biography of Dali, 1993.

  3. from Wikipedia entry on Salvador Dali, sourced from Salvador Dali, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, 1993.

  4. I think Dali uses the word “fetishism” not so much in the sexual context, but as the worship of inanimate objects for their supposed magical powers or because they’re considered to be inhabited by spirits.

  5. Take a look at an earlier Happy Monk blog post that describes Apollonia’s book and the bakery in greater detail … Take me to Poilâne!

2 thoughts on “Salvador Dali and the Art of Bread

  1. Thank you for the Dali anecdotes, David. And now to get back to rue du Cherche- Midi.🙂

    1. Thanks Susan! I’ve never been to Poilâne! It the Rue du Cherche-Midi is high on the list for when we travel again. Paris always beckons!

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