In Voluptas Mors

Posted: June 13, 2014 in art, nude, photo, photographers
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’m a big fan of the movie “The Silence of the Lambs”, directed by Jonathan Demme in 1991. Other day I was browsing on Google about subliminal messages in movie posters and I found among some of them, “The Silence of the Lambs” poster. I have the DVD of the movie and I’m tired to see the cover and I never realized what was hidden behind that skull painted on the back of the moth.

See “The Silence of the Lambs” poster (right click on the image to enlarge in another window):

subliminar-silence“The Silence of the Lambs” high-res poster – 1600×2377.

Now, see closer and closer, and what you see is not a skull on the backside of the moth covering Jodie Foster‘s mouth but is actually a photo of seven naked women where the position of their bodies looks as a skull.

That was a tribute to “In Voluptas Mors”, the famous photo conceived of by Salvador Dalí and shot by Philippe Halsman in 1951.


I also knew the picture but I had never associated one thing to another. I decided to do some research about the photo. The draft of this post was saved for months, and finally I could finish it.

Halsman, Dalí and In Voluptas Mors

Philippe_HalsmanPhilippe Halsman was bon on 2 May 1906, in Riga, Latvia, and was a Latvian-born American famous portrait photographer who was born to a Jewish family of Morduch (Max) Halsman, a dentist, and Ita Grintuch, a grammar school principal, in Riga, Halsman studied electrical engineering in Dresden. In September 1928, Halsman went on a hiking tour in the Austrian Alps with his father, Morduch. During this tour, Morduch died from severe head injuries. The circumstances were never completely clarified and Halsman was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for patricide. The case provoked anti-Jewish propaganda and thus gained international publicity, and Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann wrote in support of Halsman. Finally by 1931 Halsman was released under the conditions that he leave Austria for good, never to return.

Philippe Halsman and Salvador Dalí lived and worked in Paris in the 1930s when surrealism flourished but they first met in New York in 1941, when both were new émigrés. They had arrived within months of each other – Dali in August 1940, and Halsman three months later. During the previous ten years, their paths must have criss-crossed frequently in the narrow streets of Montparnasse, where Halsman had a studio at 22 Rue Delambre, and Dali was part of the surrealist enclave at 54 Rue du Chateau. In 1936, Halsman exhibited photographs at the Galerie de la Pleiade, where surrealist photographer Man Ray also showed his work. But until 1941, Halsman and Dalí had never met.

Within a year of his arrival in New York, Halsman had re-established himself. His iconic portrait of model Constance Ford silhouetted against an American flag had been featured in a major Elizabeth Arden advertising campaign. And in October, Halsman was sent by the Black Star Agency to photograph the outsize costumes created for the Ballets Russes production of “Labyrinth” at the Metropolitan Opera House — with music by Franz Schubert, choreography by Leonid Massine, and scenery and costumes by Salvador Dalí.


Lacking a large studio, Halsman took the company’s prima ballerina, Tamara Toumanova, and another dancer dressed as a giant white rooster, to a nearby rooftop. When Halsman photographed bird and ballerina against the soaring towers of Rockefeller Center, he produced a photograph that evoked one of Dali’s own sharply-focused, surreal works of art. The photo became LIFE’s “Picture of the Week,” the artists became inspired friends, and their creative rapport would last for the next 37 years.


Several weeks later they collaborated again; this time they produced a collaged photograph of Dalí lying naked in the embryo pose within an enlarged photo of an egg. The image, entitled “Pre-Natal Memory,” was published the following year in Dalí’s autobiography, “The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.”


The 1948 work “Dalí Atomicus” explores the idea of suspension, depicting three cats flying, a bucket of thrown water, and Dalí in mid air. The title of the photograph is a reference to Dalí’s work “Leda Atomica” which can be seen in the right of the photograph behind the two cats. Halsman reported that it took 28 attempts before a satisfactory result was achieved. Halsman and Dalí eventually released a compendium of their collaborations in the 1954 book “Dalí’s Mustache”, which features 36 different views of the artist’s distinctive mustache.


To make “In Voluptas Mors”, Halsman took three hours to arrange the seven models according to a sketch by Dalí. Hours of direction, contortion and prodding seems to have eliminated any eroticism. In the behind-the-scene photos below, the models look exhausted and bored. The title, “In Voluptas Mors”, roughly translates to “the voluptuous death”. In Roman mythology, Voluptas was the goddess of pleasure.











In the decades ahead, Halsman and Dalí would “play” together at least once a year — “an elating game”, Halsman wrote in 1972, “creating images that did not exist, except in our imaginations. Whenever I needed a striking protagonist for one of my wild ideas, Dalí would graciously oblige. Whenever Dali thought of a photograph so strange that it seemed impossible to produce, I tried to find a solution.”

Usually they conspired in Halsman’s large, strobe-equipped studio at 33 West 67th Street, around the corner from St. Nicholas Arena in Manhattan. Other “sittings” took place at Dalí’s home in Cadaques, Los Angeles, and at the St. Regis Hotel, where Dali invariably stayed when he was in New York. The death of Philippe Halsman on June 25, 1979, in New York, put and end to this intense, prolific, 37-year collaboration unique in the history of 20th Century art. Dalí died on January 23, 1989, at 84, in Catalonia, Spain.

And to finish, an additional information: the moth depicted in “The Silence of the Lambs” is real. The death’s-head hawkmoth is a real moth found primarily in Europe, and it appears to have a human skull on its back.


  1. Reblogged this on Daniel D. Teoli Jr. and commented:
    An interesting behind the scenes for ‘In Voluptas Mors’

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