salvador dali painting brain Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire

The optical illusion in this Salvador Dali painting could say a lot about how your brain works.

Art isn’t always about painting a “pretty” picture. Sometimes art can be horrifying and speak with loud accusations. Art can also be riveting in emotion and cause the viewer to stop and stare in awe at the work of a creator’s soul. Yes, art can be many things, it can also weave an optical illusion, much like the work of Salvador Dali.

I love Dali, he’s one of my favourite artists, he bends and twists the mind causes the thinker’s perception to switch back in forth. What I mean is, Dali is a master of illusions of sorts. For instance, Dali painting “Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire” is being researched at the Glasgow University, to help understand how the brain processes information. This study can be found in scientific reports.

What do you see in this Dali painting?

The objective here is to look quickly at the 1940’s painting and relay what first catches your eye. There are many things going on in this Dali painting, including the topless Gala staring toward a crowd of slaves and other figures. The painting includes crowds of people gathered against the backdrop of the Catalonia landscape. Seems pretty simple, right, but look again. Look deep within the crowd to a pair of Dutch merchants clad in black and white attire. There! Did you see it? It’s the bust of Voltaire. And now you see the pedestal in which the bust sits.

Dali Painting Scientific Reports

There’s another side to this story, however. Some who see this painting for the first time will immediately see the bust of Voltaire. As they look harder, the figures will emerge parting the crowds of slaves. This is what Gala, the topless lady wants you to see. She hides the face of Voltaire from French philosophy and the skeptics of the eighteenth century.

You saw one or the other at first glance, right. So, what does this mean? Without delving too deeply into the minds and accusations of the time, we realize our brains process information differently from one another.

How does the brain see images? As you may know, the right side of the brain processes the left side of images, while the left side processes the right first off. Within seconds, almost unnoticeable, the two sides converge and put the picture together. This may remind you of the right side/left side brain affiliation when dividing the artistic from the technical individual.

Professor Philippe Schyns told BBC,

We found very early on, after around 100 milliseconds of processing post-stimulus, that the brain processes specific features such as the left eye, the right eye, the corner of the nose and the corner of the mouth. At 200 milliseconds, the brains transfers features across the hemispheres.

Yes, I know, this doesn’t explain why we see one image of the other at first glance, during an optical illusion. Researchers are still working on that. The information we do have, however, can play an integral part in areas such as robotics and how artificially intelligent life processes visual data. This in itself is a giant leap toward the future.

After all, it’s not always a “pretty” picture, minutely detailed and constructed. Sometimes it all boils down to how you look at it. Take a closer look when viewing Dali’s work. You may be surprised by what you see.

Image credits:

  1. “Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire” by Salvador Dalí, 1940. Wikipedia (Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use)
  2. Philippe Schyns et al./University of Glasgow/Scientific Reports

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Sherrie is a freelance writer and artist with over 10 years of experience. She spends most of her time giving life to the renegade thoughts. As the words erupt and form new life, she knows that she is yet again free from the nagging persistence of her muse. She is a mother of three and a lifetime fan of the thought-provoking and questionable aspects of the universe.