The Great Masturbator: A Look at Dalí’s Fear and Fantasy

The Great Masturbator, a 20th century artwork, is often confused for its meaning while it hides a funny childhood story of the artist. Read on to find everything about the painting.

The Great Masturbator

From the farthest corners of history, somehow, I noticed that even though any painting entirely details the artist’s life and personality, over time, the artist’s opinions are forgotten, and his overall fame lies on just his paintings. Besides, I always felt the need to know about the artist and his life before we move on to understand the painting; that’s what any painting analysis does, form a link to the reader’s mind with the respective art through the inspirational artist. And so, it is crucial to understand that any painting by an artist is a small part of his life which just acts like a visual personal diary, so desperate to narrate its story to the viewer, but regardless many of us still negotiate with the fact that a single painting is enough to understand the entire life of the artist. Putting you in front of an introspective mirror, tell me how many artists’ biographies you have literally put yourself in. Is that equal to the number of paintings you witnessed? Of course, it is not. Let me tell you why this happens with all of us. Despite the importance of knowing the artist’s historical background, only a few of them evoke deep feelings in our hearts, leading us to study the artist deeply. And not all artists fall under this category as they form personal interests and tastes. In consequence, if we ignore other artists, we are forced to choose among a limited number, regardless of whether there are hidden treasures. Therefore, I suggest reading the biographical notes of as many artists as possible. Coming to our topic, Salvador Dalí is one of the modern artists who touched everyone’s heart through his works and life. If today by chance, you come across any of his paintings, you will instantly recall the artist’s personality and behavior. They have an extraordinary impression, which are sometimes violently attacked but still passionately admired by the public. One of Dalí’s paintings, which I came across and found its subject matter fantastic and weird at the same time, is The Great Masturbator. Equally famous, we are here to understand every single angle of the painting. And yes, to start, I will add a biographical book on Dalí at the end of the article, which I hope you will read this week. So let us start reading. 

General Information About the Artwork.

1. Artist’s Statement.

“Since I don’t smoke, I decided to grow a mustache – it is better for the health.

However, I always carried a jewel-studded cigarette case in which, instead of tobacco, were carefully placed several mustaches, Adolphe Menjou style. I offered them politely to my friends: ‘Mustache? Mustache? Mustache?’

Nobody dared to touch them. This was my test regarding the sacred aspect of mustaches.”

2. Subject Matter.

The Great Masturbator by Salvador Dalí exhibits all the anguish and the menacing undercurrents that threatened to turn against him. Of all his works, this is probably the most demented. In an attempt to relieve his agony, he concentrated all the soft elements to a boil on his neck. One of the passages from the poem Le Femme Visible, written by Salvador, refers to this painting.

Le Femme Visible

In spite of the general darkness
The evening had scarcely begun
At the edge of the great agate staircases
Wearied by the light of day
Which had lasted since sunrise
The Great Masturbator,
His immense nose resting on the onyx parquet
His enormous eyelids closed
His forehead riven by frightful wrinkles
And his neck swollen by the famous boil boiling with ants
Encounter in this still too bright evening hour
While the membrance which covers his mouth completely
Toughens under the agony of the enormous locust
Which had been gripped and glued to it
For five days and five nights.

– Salvador Dalí

Probably, if you did not get the entire painting, do not bother to stress out as we will learn it in steps in the subject matter analysis in later sections.

The Great Masturbator by Salvador Dali

3. Artist.

Salvador Dalí, one of the enigmatic artists of the 20th century, who painted bizarre and fertile imagination and attracted interest and controversy through his works painted the artwork, The Great Masturbator. In most of the paintings of the artist, we see familiar surroundings and his wife as the model for most of the female figures in them. The landscape around his house at Port Lligat, like the Montagne St. Victoria and the Provencal pine woods in Cezanne, recurs frequently, as the surroundings. Besides the innovative approach to arts, Dalí freely acknowledged his debt to the great masters whose paintings he observed and copied, such as Raphael, Vermeer, and Velazquez. All of his paintings had Renaissance qualities. Interested in modern thoughts, and scientific and philosophical readings, he always stands out in the twentieth-century painter’s list who blended the past with modern feelings to form a profound respect. 

4. Date.

The painting dates back to 1929. 

5. Provenance.

A little history of the painting is that before Dalí returned to Catalonia, he sent a number of his Surrealist friends who agreed to visit him during the summers. But as soon as he reached home, he had hallucinations, which provoked him to paint The Lugubrious Game. A few weeks later, Rene Magritte and Bunuel were disturbed by his scatological aspect of the canvas and Dalí’s excitement over it. However, during this same period, Dalí saw in her image a Russian girl he always loved at school. And when others left due to his irrational actions, Gala (the Russian girl from school) became his support. And in November of 1930, the Galeria Goemans held the first Paris exhibition of the painter for which Dalí sent The Great Masturbator, Illumined Pleasures, and The Lugubrious Game. The show was an important event in his life as it would publicly class him as a Surrealist, but both Gala and Dali did not attend it, instead, they left for their honeymoon in Sitges.

It completes a brief provenance behind the painting. However, we have a lot to learn, which we will read in upcoming sections. 

6. Location.

The painting is on display in Room 205.13 – André Breton. The Magician of Surrealism in Museo Nacional Centro de Arte.

7. Technique and Medium.

The painting has a medium of oil on canvas with the Surrealistic technique.

ArtistSalvador Dalí
Year Painted1929
GenreAutobiographical Artwork
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions110 x 150 cm
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?Museo Nacional Centro de Arte

The Great Masturbator | Fast Knowledge

The Great Masturbator is an autobiographical Surrealist artwork by Salvador Dalí. With extensive symbolism, Dalí painted this composition when his love Gala went to Paris in 1929, and he felt alone, a state when he captured the experiences and fantasies of his life.

Now that you know a little information about the painting, let us learn it in detail. 

In-Depth Account of The Great Masturbator.

About the Artist: Salvador Dalí.

Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí Domènech was born on May 11, 1904, in the Figueres, a town situated in the region of northeast Spain called Catalonia. His father, Salvador, was an important person in the Figueres and had many friends in the town, some were writers and painters, whereas his mother, Felipa, was a devout Roman Catholic who was very loving and warmhearted. In describing his early life, Dalí says,

“At the age of six, I wanted to be a cook. At seven, I wanted to be Napolean. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.”

As a young boy, Dalí and his younger sister Ana Maria would spend most of their time in and around the comfortable family apartment in the center of town. Between six to twelve age, Dalí studied in a Roman Catholic primary school, which was then run by French priests. Often ending with daydreaming in the classroom, he sometimes even doodled the classroom, whereas, at other times, he just stared at the stain on the classroom ceiling made by the leaky roof and turned them into wonderful things. On all the weekends of the summer vacations, the Dalí family would go to the seaside village of Cadaques, where they had a beautiful home surrounded by gardens, fields, and orange groves. He and his sister spent their days exploring rock pools and beaches or sometimes watching their father paint across the Mediterranean Sea.

Portrait of Salvador Dalí by Allan Warren, 1972

When Salvador turned thirteen, he won a prize for drawing, and his father was so happy that he threw a party for the celebration. By that time, he already decided to be an artist. In 1922, when Dalí turned seventeen, he went to the San Fernando Academy of Fine Art, where he quickly became unhappy with the teachings of the professors. So, he preferred to wander around Madrid’s huge art museum, the Prado, to get inspiration from the works of great Spanish painters such as Diego Velazquez and Francisco de Goya. During the 1920s, Dalí’s closest friend was poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who wrote poetry with passion and dreamlike images. 

For now, I have given the minutest glimpse of the artist’s life so that you understand a rough background. Moving to the next section, let me tell you under what circumstances Dalí painted The Great Masturbator.

Historical Background of the Painting.

Starting from the childhood story, I have earlier told you how Dalí and his family used to enjoy the summers in the Cadaques. By geography, Cadaques is a peninsula whose ancient vineyards were ruined for use as fishing grounds by the phylloxera. Due to this ecological disaster, the landscape had a mineral look, harsh and austere, and the terraces built for the vines added to the severity of the arid hillsides. This extraordinary setting is rounded off by Cape Creus, the most easterly point of Spain, formed from schistose mica rocks that have been eaten away and sculpted by the tramontana. There was something so fascinating about these polymorphous monsters, which could transform from cocks to camels to anvils to female breasts. It was The Great Masturbator that would emerge from one of these rocks, like a face leaning on its nose. Now you might have understood why we have learned the geography of the peninsula as it relates to our master painting. 

In 1929, Dalí painted Illumined Pleasures, where he covered the canvas with the already-filled various boxes, which is a kind of figurative element engendered by the experience of Un Chie Andalou. And this painting consisted of the head of The Great Masturbator, which is why you must look at the artwork. Dalí said,

“There are no landscapes. Not even Horizon. There is, on the physical side, nothing but our immense suspicion which envelops everything.”

Now, let me take you to the time and the happenings when Dalí painted the artwork. From the Secret Life of Salvador Dali, we know that after Gala and Dalí were madly in love and as Dalí returned from the station of Figueras after seeing off Gala to Paris, he finally exclaimed,

“Alone at last!”

He says,

“For if vertiginous twists and turns of the murderous impulses of my childhood had in fact disappeared from my imagination forever, my desires and my need for solitude would be long and stubborn to heal. Gala, you are the reality; I would often say, opposing the tangible experience of her flesh to the virtual and idealized images of my chimerical pseudo-lovers. And I would bury my nose in a knitted wool bathing suit of hers, which kept something of her odor. I wanted to know that she was alive and real, but also, I had to remain alone from time to time.”

And after experiencing this new kind of solitude which appeared closer and truer than old, Dalí shut himself in his studio in Figueras for a month to return to his monastic life. And it was this time that he painted Paul Eluard’s portrait and two other large canvases, including The Great Masturbator.

To give an explanatory note of the painting, Dalí writes,

“It represented a large head livid as wax, the cheeks very pink, the eyelashes long, and the impressive nose pressed against the earth. This face had no mouth, and in its place was stuck an enormous grasshopper. The grasshopper’s belly was decomposed and full of ants. Several of these ants scurried across the space that should have been filled by the non-existent mouth of the great anguishing face, whose head terminated in the architecture and ornamentation of the style of 1900. The painting was called The Great Masturbator.”

Understanding the Meaning of The Great Masturbator by Salvador Dalí.

The painting depicts the artist’s fantasies and anxieties through a vivid and colourful medium on the canvas. If I have to describe the artwork in one sentence, it would be that the painting indicates the change, fear, and fantasy from the artist’s past to the future. The past here refers to a few things. For instance, Dalí had a lot of phobias when he was really young; he suffered from ereuthophobia and acrophobia. Being a patient of Delusional parasitosis, he felt that the non-existent insects infest his skin, which we see in his artwork. 

But Dalí’s real phobia was born when his father left him a book illustrating male and female genitalia diseased with advanced stages, ostensibly to educate him. As a result, the lesson backfired. And since then, sex and sex organs became the subject of simultaneous horror and fascination for Dalí. Hence, in his artworks, we see the over-interpretation of sex in a nightmarish corruptive way. But as I said in the previous section, he met with Gala, the love of his life. Hence, these fears and anxieties were bonded with the love towards Gala. And on top of everything, Dalí had a fear of being alone, which we can see in the painting. Hence, the autobiographical artwork is a fantasy and experience of Dalí’s life.

Now, to learn the painting’s insides, let us finally move on to the subject matter analysis, the most awaited portion of the article. 

Subject Matter Analysis.

Starting from the large-yellowish figure, which has almost confused everyone, resembles a head if you see it upside down with its nose touching the ground, creating a shadow. You see a closed elongated eye with immense eyelids. Now, you might be wondering why Dalí has made an inverted face here, so let me tell you that it is because of the autobiographical glimpse in the work. It is Dalí’s face here. Also, note that a small needle with a blondish flag represents the minutest glimpse of hair.

The face of the great masturbator

Secondly, to the left side of the painting, you see different stones and pebbles. You know the reason for them being here. Still, to be firmly clear, let me tell you that these are the pebbles from Cadaques, which I have stated earlier as the bondage of childhood memories. Next, to the inverted face bottom, we see a mammoth grasshopper, which again defines the fear or acrididophobia from Dali’s childhood. To its tail or end, there is a swamp of ants, which indicates that it is decomposing.

Grasshopper and Stones in the great masturbator by Salvador Dalí

Again, in the foreground, beneath the grasshopper, we see an egg and two figures. As a result of Dalí’s bizarre over-sexualizing interpretation of art, it comes from his father’s sex organ education, which ultimately backfired. We see that the egg sits in the sand near the bottom of the canvas. It might be because of his obsession with the reproduction or symbolism of le petit mort or the little death of orgasm.

Genital organ in the great masturbator by Salvador Dalí

Next, we see a golden lion with jaws opened wide, which might be the representation of the mythic vagina dentata. It’s important to note that we have seen this element before in the painting Illuminated Pleasures, which I showed you earlier. Since previous sections of the article have discussed much of the painting, you already have a good understanding of it. We are simply adding those links to form a better visualization and understanding of The Great Masturbator.

Lion in the great masturbator by Salvador Dalí

Now, you might be thinking that there are three figures in The Great Masturbator painting in the distance, as we see in the bottom part of the inverted face. A picture of a single man may be a representation of Dalí’s childhood loneliness, which he wanted to convey, while another two figures show yet another type of alone time, which Dali evidently loves. Gala arrived in his life after the second one, which indicates that he is not alone all the time.

Lastly, we have a central figure of a woman with closed eyes, emerging like a hideous skin mountain, exposing her shoulders, neck, and face with sensitivity and care. Her delicate features traced with blue veins, captivates the viewer in no time. As a whole, The Great Masturbator by Salvador Dalí comes into its own when the woman is identified. The bugs and holes, the doughy knees, the fear of opening their eyes when the woman approaches, of them all add up to a dream vanishing as soon as the woman approaches. The whole thing is filthy, gross, and sexually icky, but this is a fantasy and experience, right?

Woman in Salvador Dalí The Great Masturbator

There is one more quote from Dalí, which I think completes the subject matter analysis of the painting.

“In that privileged place, reality and the sublime dimension almost come together. My mystical paradise begins in the plains of the Empordà, is surrounded by the Alberes hills, and reaches plenitude in the bay of Cadaqués. This land is my permanent inspiration. The only place in the world, too, where I feel loved. When I painted that rock that I entitled The Great Masturbator, I did nothing more than render homage to one of the promontories of my kingdom, and my painting was a hymn to one of the jewels of my crown.”

Now, that you are knowledgeable about the artwork, let us finally move toward the formal analysis section.

Formal Analysis of Salvador Dalí’s Painting.

1. Line.

The painting has a profuse combination of different lines. Through the grasshopper, there is a horizontal line usage, which suggests a feeling of rest and reposes as the grasshopper is parallel to the earth and is at rest. Further, it also helps gives us a sense of space. Similarly, there is a pin attached to the head of the inverted face, which again is in a horizontal line. Now, to highlight anxiousness and tense surroundings, Dalí has used diagonal lines. For instance, the legs of the grasshopper, the veins, and the tree roots from the end of the painting are in a diagonal posture to the composition. Furthermore, there are soft circular lines to carefully show the anguish and honest fantasy of the artist.

The Great Masturbator Analysis

2. Light and Value.

With the dark blue background, the paintings are contrasted and emphasized with a sharp contrast. There is a shark’s use of light and shadows to represent symbolism and three-dimensionality in the painting.

Light analysis of the Great Masturbator

3. Colour Analysis.

Dalí used a darker shade in the foreground to ultimately create contrast in the composition. With lighter shades like yellow and blond, there are other lines of color like red, blue, green, and black which highlight extra strength in the artwork. 

Opinions and Conclusion.

Salvador Dalí, one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century painted this eminent autobiographical painting. Representing the large head of the masturbator, Dalí here reflects the spiritual and erotic transformation of Dalí, which bridges his past and present. One of the most striking features of the painting remains the head which resembles a fetus washed up on the beach, eyes closed as if dreaming or dead in the imagination. And not to forget, the fish scales represented through colored strokes reflected on the head surface shows the head liquefying in the imagination of the artist. 


1. The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.

2. The World of Salvador Dalí by Robert Descharnes.

3. Salvador Dali: Liquid Desire by Salvador Dalí.

4. Salvador Dalí by Robert Anderson.

5. The Great Masturbator: Conversations With Salvador Dalí.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What is the meaning of The Great Masturbator?

The painting says the fear and anxiety of the artist, bound with the sexual ickiness. As Dalí’s life transitions through the years, it illustrates his transformation from the past to the present. For instance, the lonesome feelings of the artist in the past and present were absolutely different, which he related in this composition.

Where Is The Great Masturbator Painting?

The painting lies in The Magician of Surrealism in Museo Nacional Centro de Arte. It was never sold as it was very close to Dalí’s heart.

Why did Salvador Dali paint The Great Masturbator?

Salvador painted The Great Masturbator as he witnessed the alone time with himself, as he see off the love of his life, Gala from Paris. This painting is one of three compositions he painted in his studio for a month while he decided to live a monk life for a month.

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