Swans Reflecting Elephants (1937) is a painting by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. This painting is from Dalí's Paranoiac-critical period. It focuses on a double-image that causes the reflections of swans on a pond to look like elephants; the swans' necks and wings take on the appearance of trunks and ears when reflected, while the reflection of a tree covered shore behind the swans supplies the elephants' legs and bodies. To the left is a self-portrait of Dalí facing away from the double-image. Many of his contemporaries at the time liked to joke that Dali added himself facing away, with a dour expression, to express his frustration with the type of audience the surrealist movement was attracting. It's speculated that Dali gave the painting its uncomplicated title in an attempt to undercut the appreciation for weirdness that had eclipsed what he called "true artistic merit." After Warhol's soup cans, it was clear this gambit had backfired.
Swans Reflecting Elephants, painted using oil on canvas, contains one of Dali's famous double images. The double images were a a major part of Dali's "paranoia-critical method," which he put forward in his 1935 essay "The Conquest of the Irrational." He explained his process as a "spontaneous method of irrational understanding based upon the interpretative critical association of delirious phenomena." Dali used this method to bring forth the hallucinatory forms, double images and visual illusions that filled his paintings during the Thirties. As with earlier Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Swans Reflecting Elephants uses the reflection in a lake to create the double image seen in the painting. In The Metamorphosis of Narcissus the reflection of Narcissus is used to mirror the shape of the hand on the right of the picture. Here, the three swans in front of bleak, leafless trees are reflected in the lake so that the swans' heads become the elephants' heads and the trees become the bodies of the elephants. In the background of the painting is a Catalonian landscape depicted in fiery fall colors, the brushwork creating swirls in the cliffs that surround the lake, to contrast with the coll stillness of the water.
Salvador Dali merges hallucination with reality in his iconic Critical-Paranoiac style in “Swans Reflecting Elephants,” a quintessential Surrealist painting in which mirror images of swans and elephants transform into one another. Dali, who redefined Surrealism, expressed the unconscious process of thought, dreams and perception of reality through idiosyncratic paintings as well as numerous other art forms. Creating a spectrum of imagery from fanciful to nightmarish, he scrutinized the writings of Freud and art magazines devoted to Cubism, Futurism, and metaphysical works.