The Burning Giraffe: Sexualized Objects and the Death of Patriarchy old texts

Widely considered to be one of the greatest artists of the twenty-first century, and certainly one of its more salient cultural figures, the iconic Salvador Dali has left an indelible mark on the public conscious. Emblematic of the Surrealist movement, Dali brought to the masses a heightened awareness of the unconscious landscape of the human experience. He was certainly a controversial figure, often made the subject of immense public scrutiny, with critics focusing more on his eccentric mannerisms and unique dress than his complex and symbolic cannon. However, despite all of this, he mastered the Surrealist genre, a style strongly linked to the humanity that his detractors sought to deprive him of. Heavily influenced by Freudian theory, Dali exposes the nuances and the intricacy of the psyche through his artwork. Utilizing certain symbols and precise, artistic techniques, Dali discovered his unique style—the world of the unconscious recalled in dreamlike states—propelling him to worldwide fame. And yet no less immune to the criticism and the fascination of the public eye was the founder of Psychoanalysis, whose ideas are in the backdrop of almost every Dali work. Providing context, Sigmund Freud delved into the unconscious and brought to light the various drives, motivations, and desires that humanity often represses. Focusing specifically on The Burning Giraffe (1937), I intend to analyze the artist’s work relative to his theoretical inspiration. Existing in a tapestry of symbols, we see union of theory and expression manifesting in a reflection of Dali’s own unconscious. Moreover, we see the intricate interplay of repressed female sexuality, male authority, and societal prescriptions in the painting. Soon after its production, the image of the burning giraffe and several others would become a reoccurring theme throughout Dali’s art, representing the Freudian concept of the death of a father and the rise of a new social tradition bound by restrictions. Although there are many points of comparison, I will focus primarily on the Freudian themes regarding women’s sexuality, fetishism, and the death of the father, and in addition, the symbols of drawers, crutches, and the burning giraffe.

The concept of Freud’s psychoanalysis, as part of his controversial yet influential Psychoanalytical Theory, is a type of narrative to recount one’s path of development as related to ones’ unconscious or inherent desires and impulses. However, while the majority of individuals across societies repress unconscious and “socially unacceptable” impulses, there remains a group who are unable to keep up with the societal demands. Freud terms these individuals as the “neurotics”, the “discontents” who remain fixated within the confinements of their primitive and infantile stages and seek alternative ways to satisfy their clandestine desires. Among Freud’s three types of “neurotics”, Dali most similarly resembles the “hysteric” whose symptoms manifest like artwork, serving a fundamental purpose in reproducing one’s own desires. Dali’s artwork certainly provides a window to his unconscious; his paintings are decorated with symbolic implication serving to report childhood memories, express veiled and delicate desires, and reveal unique perspectives on a reality that may very well not be real at all—all goals that psychoanalysis aims to serve. In this regard, one can make the case that Salvador Dali mirrors the “discontent”, the outsider stuck in a neurotic state of his own, overtaken by sexual fantasy, object fetishism, paranoia, and obsessive imagination.

Upon first impression, the viewer is impacted by the colors, the artistic technique, and the theatrical stance of the three isolated figures. Dali utilizes dramatic and vivid colors such as blue, black and red, and the desolate backdrop to construct a supernatural and dreamlike landscape.  Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytical theories and analysis of dreams are two themes palpably discernable in his paintings.  Dali certainly invokes a comparably mysterious feeling in The Burning Giraffe (1937), tying in the themes of surrealism and dreams with this uncomfortably morbid and seemingly apocalyptic scene.  According to Freud, psychoanalysis acts like lucid dreams, which provide a window to the unconscious and imply unfulfilled desires. To some extent, therefore, this painting’s mystical and dreamlike technique is a deliberate implication of Dali’s unconscious side, a bold aspect of his character that he is willing to expose to the public.

Dominating one’s visual field are two painted figures, appearing to be feminine in their stature and anatomical build. This introduces a theme of feminine sexuality that is prevalent in much of Freud’s theories and Dali’s artwork. Within the ominous and bleak setting, the figures are positioned in a sort of procession, similar to a procession of the dead or the blind, or at the very least, those robbed of “life” and lacking direction and sight.  Their lack of individuality is evident in their featureless faces, and they are depicted as deprived of any fundamental sensory agency, including sight and hearing and speech. The lack of these qualities leads one to infer that these figures have been deliberately mutilated, and robbed of their perception and humanity; they have been silenced under the control of a higher powerful force. They have lost their sight and remain blinded from reality and stuck in an illusion, a world filled with ideals and limitations on individual freedom. This initial portrayal of the female figures, and primarily the center body, mirrors the long-lasting sociopolitical conflict of equality that women have struggled with throughout centuries—a point I will elaborate later in this essay.

The viewers’ eyes then fall to the center of the portrait around the pelvic area, becoming aware of the semi-open drawers ascending up the female’s leg. The drawers are symbolically and theoretically significant, as their purpose relates directly to Freud’s psychoanalytical theory. This theory posits that over the course of recent history, humans have learned to repress their inner and unconscious life, where infantile sexuality and impulsive desires are turned inward in order to adhere to what is socially acceptable in society. This resembles the concept of the “human animal”, a term associated with Friedrich Nietzsche to convey the repression of our animal instincts to redeem and prepare humanity for salvation in an afterlife. Like Nietzsche, Freud calls upon the realization that humanity cannot act on internal drives (“id”) because societal forces require them to be controlled. As such, internalizing these drives, or turning them “inward”, is an action necessary to “tame” the wild and unruly beast within us. Whatever we keep in a drawer is strictly our own and cannot be had by friends, family, or acquaintances. It is removed from public sight. What’s more, we invest elements of ourselves in the content of these hiding places. Although women are objectified, our desires and thoughts about them are stored in their person and when exposed, it reveals much about our true character. The drawers in this painting are a symbol for this conception; that our true inner beings are hidden away from the public, like drawers that store and protect private objects from others. To some extent, Dali utilizes the drawers on the woman’s body to demonstrate her repressed and hidden sexuality, a sexuality that may be regarded as sacred in some cultures or even dangerous in others.

Since the time of Genesis, and until today, a woman’s sexuality has been regarded as a feature that needs to be tamed and controlled because of its inherent power to tempt men.  As Freud claims throughout his works and particularly in Totem and Taboo, prohibitions arise and apply to those particularly strong innate human tendencies that must be controlled for the sake of social order. Freud outlines strong prohibitions on incest and cannibalism; two dominating human drives surrounding pleasure that must be repressed for a greater good. Similarly, a woman’s sexuality has a power that may cause a man’s weakness, and therefore, is threat to a traditional and patriarchal social order.  A reaction to a woman’s potent sexual nature is the marked portrayal of them as subordinate creatures to men, deeming them unworthy of achieving equal status as men and marking them as perpetuators of social chaos according to some cultural beliefs. Their seduction is what is threatening, and consequently deserves regulatory and preventative measures.

Prohibitions on feminine expression and limitations on public influence have been persistent issues throughout the centuries and even within more “civilized” societies. Although the most evident examples reside in the human rights movement for women’s equal rights, traditional religious practices also aim to contain a woman’s sexuality in private and public life. The main motivation for these constraints serves a higher purpose and one that is relatively independent from that woman herself; it is displaced to benefit the patriarchal order, a man’s masculinity and dominance in the public eye. In some religious practices and cultures, such as traditional Islamic Muslim society as an example, the evident expression of a woman’s sexuality is socially unacceptable and even regarded as taboo for more conservative Muslim societies. Regardless of a woman’s experience, motivations for such regulations, such as the use of hijab and burka, are introduced as a societal norm to protect the male authoritative figure from temptation and keep women’s bodies under male control and surveillance.

Therefore, is concealing our inner being a strictly natural and unconscious process? I would argue that to some degree it is not. In other words, it is not entirely a woman’s conscious efforts to conceal aspects of her unconscious being. Just as we fashion desks, homes, and equipment out of raw material, in order to truly posses them we must remove and separate their primal nature. Born no different that man, she is a feeling and thinking being; yet she is not a safe investment because her tendencies are dangerous to the man. However, if bound and fettered, she is extremely utile. Man and society must break her down. She becomes a fetished object subjected to the obsessive nature of man to own and rebuild her into a more perfect and useful object. Within this context, it is no coincidence that a popular theme of fetishism in Surrealism manifests in the fragmentation and mystification of the female sexualized body. Dali’s representation of the female figure in such ways—unbalanced, disjointed, mutilated, but also eroticized and dominating—mirror the psychological (inherent), sociological and sexual concerns of a woman’s sexual essence. The seemingly contradictory representation of women also expresses a further point connected to Freudian theory: the conflicted feelings towards a mother figure as both a sexual being and a devoted caregiver. This is figure that can only be obtained under the condition of her liberation—a freedom from another possessive force, the alpha male.

The crutches and stilts depicted act as this masculine architecture, providing shape, “stability”, and uniformity to a feminine structure.  The body of the center figure is notably unbalanced, and her facelessness shows a lack of direction and “vision”, aspects implying not only weakness and helplessness, but also ones rendering them dependent on a structural support as guidance. This construction represents the male power; the crutches demonstrate a structural (patriarchal) system utilized to rule over a woman’s sexual being—her body.  This obsession becomes an impulsive need, and thus a sexual fetishism. While attending to some detail, one notices the phallic structures protruding horizontally from the female figures’ backs, another claim of male assertion of domination on a woman’s body. Interestingly enough, the phallic symbols of masculinity are the solitary aspects of the figures seized by the crutches.  Could these be the crutches of reality, demonstrating the precise social situation of women? Relating to the treatment of women in most societies today, they are typically considered within the strict context of a male social, adhering to a masculine design and purpose. This painting brilliantly forces one to confront the hidden framework of a patriarchical society built amidst femininity, sexuality, and gender equality.

As Freud would contend, the fetishism linked with a woman’s sexuality is inherent in human nature. The son, who seeks to assert a similar autonomy and domination as his father, envies his father for possessing his mother as a caregiver and sexual being. He thus feels a deep seeded resentment and overwhelming desire to kill the paternal figure, and possess her for himself.  These emotions and ideas refer to the Oedipus Complex found in Freud’s Psychoanalytical Theory, a concept compatible to the image of the burning giraffe.  The concept of the animal is analyzed in Freud’s Totem and Taboo, where more primitive societies worship a “totem animal”, representative as the head and symbol of a clan. The totem animal is sacred and powerful, and one that must remain respected and untouched with the exception of one time a year when the members of that clan ritualistically consume it. This painting depicts the mighty animal of a giraffe, which may be regarded as a totem animal, that is positioned next to a small figure, possibly the son. The totem has another significance in that it reflects the role of the father within a patriarchal organization, both in a societal (public) and household (private) context.  Like the totem, the father is the protector and respected authority. Just as there are regulations that the father implements within the household regarding the rest of his family, the totem tradition involves very specific and rigid rules of adherence as well.  Thus, the giraffe is an anthropomorphic illustration of the father figure, with the miniscule son to the right, and the fire as representational of a vengeful and intentionally dramatic death.

The death of the father figure is the “primal crime” by the “primal hoard”, which Freud contends marked the transition from a primitive society to a “civilized” one with established religions and restrictions (taboos). Typically in many primitive societies, the herd or the clan has one alpha male who possesses all women in the community, leaving the son with none to his name.  According to Freud, this practice creates a deep ambivalence of the son towards his father; where he both loves him as his protector yet resents him for his greediness. Freud speculates that the “primal crime” is the turning point, where the sons’ jealous impulses overtake them (Oedipus complex), driving them to kill the alpha male and then consume him, which is perhaps a ritual to internalize and possess desired qualities of domination. The immense guilt as a result of this crime caused a collective neurosis among the hoard, inspiring them to transform the dead father into a godlike figure worthy of worship. The glue that brings the hoard members together is the common bond of guilt, in which all members are responsible for the primal crime.

Nevertheless, the primal crime is momentous in that it introduces and establishes a new social order colored with regulations tailored to reconcile collective interests by establishing taboos, or prohibitions to maintain a structure. Similarly, the burning giraffe symbolizes the death of the alpha male figure and the termination of original concepts of masculinity. Although for the sons, this represents liberation from the father and a temporary reassertion of their own autonomy, the crime simultaneously brings rise to a new order plagued by feelings of self-consciousness, guilt, and conscious attempts to repress our inherent natures. In this regard, Freud contends that all religions favoring a patriarchal order of some short result from the guilt of this primal crime. In a similar light, Nietzsche also touches upon these conceptions, and relates the rise of religious and rule-adherence to a sense of guilt for one’s own sins, or personal crimes. Thus, the burning giraffe represents the death of certain concepts of masculinity in a primitive context, but ironically reappear and assert themselves in a more “civilized” and rigid context of societal norms and taboos to restrict human nature.

Yet, the battle of dominance remains. As the sons of the hoard attempted, the woman too battles to assert her autonomy and release what is hidden in her drawers. The exposure of muscle on the central figure’s hands and forearms may serve to symbolize the peeling back of skin, the removal of what is seen (the conscious) in favor for the exposure of what is hidden underneath (the unconscious). This is the reassertion of what gives her power and what makes her a woman in essence, this is her sexuality freeing itself from a patriarchal control. Behind that flesh we find muscle, a necessary feature of the human body representative of strength and power. While the skin is brittle, weak, and malleable, the muscle has a inherent capacity to mature and become tougher and sturdier.  Behind the flesh, she is powerful, she has strength, and she has potential for action. In a similar respect, inside her drawers she is not much different than a man—she too is capable of dominating and worthy of power. She too can unleash what lays within and live freely. A similar action is occurring in the backdrop, where the second female figure is holding up fleshy meat, a very primitive and significant detail in this regard. The red meat symbolizes the return to a primitive nature, or as Freud would say, the return of the repressed. The repressed here does not imply the repressed individuals, but rather the repressed unconscious. The return of the unconscious, or the exposure of flesh in the painting, demonstrates the rediscovery of one’s inner being. As Nietzsche would contend, this inner being is our animalistic nature that resides deep within our soul but is unable to appear in societal contexts due to institutionalized guilt imposed on the human being if he were to express this inner being.

It is unsurprising that Salvador Dali’s childhood has been said to contain similar themes that he expresses in his artwork: his ambivalence towards his distant father, his sadistic obsession with female sexuality, conflicted feelings towards his mother, and his willingness to expose the idiosyncrasies of his character. Dali was armed with exceptionally rich imaginary capabilities, as well as psychological and emotional baggage, allowing him to successfully convey his erotic desires for women while delving deeper into facets of his unconscious. Yet, despite an initial negative public reaction, Dali was equipped with something special. He was able to take unsavory unconscious desires—which on the public realm was alienating—and transform it into something quite beautiful.  The tapestry of human emotion includes both the good and the bad, and ultimately, coupled with Freudian inspiration and artistic imagination, Dali was able to give meaning to his artwork as something liberating for himself.  As such, Dali has come to represent a hope for humanity; showing that perverse and unconscious desires are not meant to be repressed and regarded as vulgar or un-human, but rather revered as a beautiful and natural.


“The Burning Giraffe by Salvador Dali.” Scribd. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1950. Print.

“Salvador Dali Paintings – Analysis and Interpretations.” Salvador Dali: Biography, Painting, Galleries, Posters, and Anaglyph. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.

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