Math and Misery in Modern Art



During the day, the thing I think about most is math. This is surprising, not least to me: I didn’t take any math classes in college and don’t have a particular passion for the subject; nevertheless, my profession at the time is tutoring math, and so from 7:30 AM to 4 PM Monday through Friday I think about, talk about, and work on, math. When I arrive home at 4:30, I am usually ready to not think about math any more.

Usually. But when I saw this painting by Salvador Dali, I couldn’t resist: there was something irresistably math-y about it. And, like most of Dali’s paintings I’ve seen, also something ineradicably weird about it. Three things struck me at once:
1. This is a painting of Christ’s crucifixion.
2. The cross is very oddly shaped. 
3. Christ does not seem to be in pain.

My interest piqued, but too impatient to try to understand the painting more by myself, I Googled it. What I read confirmed my conjecture: the shape Christ is crucified on here is a hypercube, a mathematical term for a 3D rendering of a four-dimensional object. Though I’d never heard of a hypercube, I had recently been working with some of my students on 2D renderings of three-dimensional objects, called nets. For example: the wrapping paper on a box, laid flat on the ground is a net. One even seems to be included in the painting, on the chessboard floor just below the hypercube. Upon closer inspection of the painting, dimensionality seems to be the primary concept Dali is playing with: The hypercube represents a transcendent fourth dimension, on or in which Christ is crucified; the woman standing watching (his mother?) has three dimensions; the chessboard floor has length and width, and thus two dimensions; the horizon line in the background is a single dimension. So far, so geometrical. 

But what of the third point? There seems to be no evidence of violence in the painting, despite its subject. Christ’s hands and feet are immaculate, unblemished by crude nails, and he levitates both off the ground and away from the cross. His body’s shape is idealized and his skin glows against the golden hypercube-cross — more like the Beast at the end of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast than the ‘man of sorrows’ of Christian iconography. Were it not for the hypercube, it would appear that the painting illustrated not Christ’s crucifixion but his ascension into heaven.

Which brings me to one of the other things I think about a good deal: theology. Is this, we might ask, a human Christ? The marbled, impassive flesh on display suggests something super-human, removed from the realm of bodily pain. And yet there is a certain tension to the piece: the vein’s in Christ’s arms are taut against his skin, as if he were trying to pull together these disparate dimensions. And speaking of dimensions, Dali was working on this painting at the same time as some of the great discoveries of modern physics were taking place, discoveries he took a great deal of interest in; is this crucifixion a metaphor for the fate of modern man in a nuclear world?

Whatever Dali’s intent, the Christ painted in Corpus Hypercubus is exceptional. Unlike the artists and theologians of the 20th century who emphasized Christ’s humanity to the exclusion of his divinity, Dali’s depiction shows Jesus as ethereal and transcendent, seemingly untroubled by his own death. Yet for all its numinous eccentricity, the divinity shown here begins, on closer inspection, to resemble the model modernism had sought to sweep away: the confident humanism of Renaissance painters. Sure, there’s a a pop-science twist and a brooding background thrown in — this is still Salvador Dali we’re talking about — but God looks for all the world like a lithesome European man levitating. 

After the cataclysm of the first and second World Wars, modernists banished the human form from the canvas and religious discourse from the Museum. How, In the wake of concentration camps and nuclear holocaust, they asked, could beauty and transcendence be depicted? Dali’s Crucifixion, for all its peculiarity, dodged the question. A more appropriate (and indeed Christian) response might have been to do what the Jewish painter Marc Chagall did in 1938, while Europe’s Jews were still in the grips of Nazi genocide: paint an asphyxiating Jew strung up on some timber, bleeding on behalf of his people.