Scattering throughout his endless and bleak landscapes monolithic elephants and melting clocks, where figures with drawers on their bodies hatch from eggs fully grown, Dali once decided shake things up: by painting a pop bottle. It’s strange to see an illustration of something so ubiquitous to us in our real lives exist in the same painting that contains the whole of Africa melting out of a clock. This image is stringed to the nipple of a figure whose entire visage is a candle, but for once, you can leave this surrealist aesthetic behind.
Twenty years before Pop Art and Andy Warhol’s weird haircut, Dali chose to put a Coca-Cola bottle in one of his paintings, The Poetry of America. If not quite earth-shattering, it confused me at least. This speaks to the artist Dali is: where a simple pop bottle can astonish a viewer of your work, when including a man who literally shits his pants seems commonplace.
So why did he do it? It’s possible that during one of his sleep-deprived hallucinations, an object from the real world might have entered his mind, though why this one? And why only this once?
There’s a definite intent on Dali’s part to include such a universal symbol in this painting, especially with a title as affected as this. Dali and his lover chose to leave Europe during World War II and stay in the United States, a visit that clearly influenced Dali. This painting very clearly invokes the contemporary American issue of race relations through its imagery: the physical supremacy of blacks over whites symbolized by the tiny figure playing football, the liquefaction of Africa in the background and the black ooze bleeding on the white clothe in the foreground.
That Coca Cola used maltreated workers in Central America, a large proportion of which were imported from Africa in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, to produce sugar cane during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, links this very American image with the issues Dali wanted to focus on. Was he envisioning a future for blacks when the oppression they faced, symbolized by the Coke bottle, would evaporate? The bottle here is then premonitory: a sordid past fading away because of the primal strength of the black male body.
This interpretation comes with a caveat, however. Drawing meaning from a Dali painting is so hard when he’s so pathologically committed to the principles of surrealism. Even if these figures are humanoid in shape, that doesn’t make them humans. Just because that amorphous shape looks a lot like Africa, doesn’t mean that’s what it is. And even though that Coca-Cola bottle so closely resembles a Coca-Cola bottle, it could just be the electric mind of a painting dynamo playing another trick on us.