The Burning Giraffe

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A description of ‘The Burning Giraffe:   It was painted in 1937 by Salvadore Dali. 

There’s a body with drawers coming out of its legs and chest. The figure appears to be being held up by some sort of scaffold-like structure from behind.

Behind this figure is another, similar looking one. This one has no drawers but does have the same scaffold-type contraption behind it, but more intense. It also has what appears to be branches growing out of its head. It’s holding something in its hand. A dagger? A piece of material? I don’t know. Oh, and let’s not forget the giraffe in the background that is on fire. The paintings namesake: The Burning Giraffe.

This painting first caught my attention about 14 years ago when I purchased a Dali Diary. Yes a Dali Diary. A diary that contained pictures of Dali’s paintings at the start of each week.

Confession: I am not an art connoisseur, nor am I an artist. I don’t have a background in art and I am terrible at drawing. So what qualifies me to write about this piece? Nothing, other than the fact that I like it. Art should be that way. Artists create art and people decide whether or not they like it. Simple. Not everyone can wax lyrical about the history of the artist or what was going on in the artists’ head when he or she created it. Not all of us would want to. Sometimes it’s just as simple as liking a piece because it moved you, made you think, excited you, inspired you or was just pleasing to the eye.

‘The Burning Giraffe’ made me laugh at first then when I had finished laughing, I started to think. I’ve since read about this piece and understand Dali’s thinking behind it, which I will explain later. I should say however, that this information is secondary to what this piece represents to me and how it made me feel when I first saw it.

I’ve often had an ongoing argument with myself: Does it matter if what the viewer takes away from the piece of art is nothing close to what the artist hoped to convey? Take the American television show Boardwalk Empire for example. Some people will watch the show because they are drawn to the complexities of the main character, Nucky Thompson. Others will watch the show because they are drawn to the gang aspect. Either way, people are enjoying the show. So does it matter if the writer’s main reason for creating the show was, say, to highlight the stupidity of prohibition? (I should say here that I have no idea what the writer’s motives were/are, I’m simply trying to make a point). Isn’t it the viewer’s enjoyment that really matters?

On the other hand, if I had spent time writing a book or television show; or sculpted or painted a beautiful piece of art to convey a particular feeling, view or ideology, I might be a little pissed off if people either ignored or completely misunderstood the message behind it.

As I said, it’s an ongoing argument.

I mention this because my love of ‘The Burning Giraffe’ is based purely on my own interpretation of the piece – the feelings and ideas it evoked in me the first time I saw it. I’ve since realised that my interpretation and Dali’s motives behind the painting couldn’t be more different but what I’m not sure about however, is whether this matters?

The first thing that came to mind when I saw ‘The Burning Giraffe’ was Grace Jones. Yes, you read that correctly, the singer, model and actress Grace Jones. I think it was the body shape that brought her to mind, then I figured that if there was a way she could have had a dress designed for her with drawers coming out of it, she probably would have because… well she’s Grace Jones.

Then I gave some thought to the drawers. They are all open which suggested to me that the figure was ‘opening up’; revealing parts of herself to… To whom? The painter? The viewer? Herself? The world? I don’t know.

The figure seems to be attached to what looks like branches or sticks. The figure behind her is also attached in this way, except there are more of them and as a result this figure seems less able to break free of them unlike the image in the foreground. I found this interesting because the figure in the background doesn’t appear to have any drawers and if it does, they aren’t open. I remember thinking that the artist was trying to show us that in order to be free you have to give a little of yourself, expose yourself – open your drawers – even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. If you are closed off you will find yourself limited in life, stuck in one place, unable to move just like the figure in the background.

The actual burning giraffe has always been a mystery to me. I didn’t understand it’s significance but I did wonder if the little figure standing in front of it was in fact a tiny little arsonist with a penchant for animal cruelty.

Of course, the painting does not represent what I thought it did, although it is about ‘opening up’ to a certain extent. The drawers apparently represent the subconscious and in a book entitled ‘Dali’ by Gilles Neret, Neret writes: “Dali borrowed these drawers from Sigmund Freud. He used them to represent the psychoanalytical theories of the Viennese professor in pictorial images.” As for the burning giraffe, it was, according to Dali, a premonition of war.

So there we have it. Dali had Freud, the subconscious and war in mind when creating this piece but for me, this painting will always represent the need for us as human beings to open up and to break out occasionally for the sake of our own advancement and happiness.

 It may not be what Dali intended but does this matter? Should we abandon our initial interpretation of a piece of art as soon as we discover the artist’s true meaning behind it?  Or can we accept the artist’s vision while still associating the piece with the feelings and emotions we experienced when we first encountered it?

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