(Found) Object Lessons: Dalí, Cornell, and Convulsive Cinema


  • Darren Thomas South Essex College/La Sirena Surrealist Group


According to the gallerist Julien Levy, in December 1936 Salvador Dalí and several other “artists, critics and select movie enthusiasts” attended a special screening at Levy’s gallery of several surrealist short films including Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936). The story goes that Dalí, became increasingly more furious as he watched Cornell’s film, resulting in a confrontation with Cornell. Levy recounts that Dalí, claimed, “It is that my idea for a film is exactly that, and I was going to propose it to someone who would pay to have it made. It isn’t that I could say Cornell stole my idea…I never wrote it or told anyone, but it is as if he had stolen it.”

Although this incident is mentioned by several critics, most of these elide the question of why Dalí, was so outraged by Cornell’s film, or what exactly Dalí, had in mind for his own production. It is my contention that the answer to this question throws considerable light upon both Dalí, and Cornell’s research and artistic output during this period and has a considerable bearing on what they would produce after this this time.

Indeed, this article proposes that Cornell and Dalí, although so different in many ways, and setting out on different, individual artistic paths, converge in their discovery of a common ‘cinematic’ approach that would offer a possible solution for each artist’s particular concerns. Most notably, this occurs in relation to their experiments with the object and film, or more accurately, the intersections between these and the interplay between reality and representation.

Author Biography

Darren Thomas, South Essex College/La Sirena Surrealist Group

Dr Darren Thomas is a senior lecturer in film and media, film maker and artist. His PhD: "Border Crossings: (Re)presenting Gender Identity in Surrealist Film" (Queen Mary University of London), utilised an interdisciplinary approach, combining film, collage, assemblage and a written thesis. He has published widely. Articles include: ‘Objectifying Surrealism: Man (Ray) Without a Movie Camera or the Object as Cinema’, (in: Coombs, Neil, ed. Surrinema: Beyond Cinema (Patricide 7). (Rhos-on-Sea: Dark Windows Press), 2014), ‘Gender Transformation in Un Chien andalou’, (Melusine, 2016), ‘In the Mirror of Analogy: Reflections on the Analogical Tarot Game’ (The Debutante – forthcoming, October 2022), and is currently researching a book ‘Convulsive Cinema: Surrealism and the Still-Moving Image’, which develops his notion of ‘convulsive cinema’ in the work of, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Joseph Cornell, Dorothea Tanning, Jan Švankmajer, Kati Horna and Francesca Woodman.

 Darren has been researching many aspects of surrealism for over thirty years – both as an academic and as an artist –  working with film, collage, assemblage, and poetry. His film Jesus and the Astronauts, combining documentary and fiction, explored the dreams of those he encountered on an Inter-Rail journey across Europe, which was screened at The New York Film Festival (1991). He ran a gallery in Cadaqués, working and exhibiting with local artists, where he wrote and directed his film-poem: Cadaqués: Portrait of a Surrealist Town (2000), exploring Cadaqués’ links with Surrealism.  

He is a founding member of The London Surrealist Group (2002) and has participated with various national and international surrealist groups, on group activities and exhibitions, publishing poems, tracts and other works. Darren has exhibited his work nationally and internationally, including London, New York and Barcelona. In 2019, he screened and discussed his The Dream Key film trilogy at Surrealisms/2nd annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Surrealism (University of Exeter). Most recently, he co-founded La Sirena Surrealist Group, who have been very active in the international surrealist community. Most notably, the group chaired a roundtable for the International Society for the Study of Surrealism conference (November 2021), on the importance of collective activity in surrealism: 'Poetry Made by All: Collective Surrealist Activity and Surrealist Practice as Research'; as well as contributing individual and collective artworks for The International Exhibition of Surrealism in Cairo, which then travelled to Alexandria, May 2022 (and will subsequently travel to Budapest and Saint-Cirq-Lapopie in 2023). The collective film Masks of the City, 2022, was recently shown at the exhibition in Alexandria. Darren also regularly collaborates with the Welsh Surrealists (Jean Bonnin, Neil Coombs, John Richardson and John Welson) on various projects (including the surrzine ‘Once Upon a Tomorrow’), and delighted to be included, alongside his Welsh comrades in the two volume: Surrealism in Wales (Jean Bonnin, 2020), which discusses his films, collages, assemblages and music and features many images of his work.