A St Andrews researcher is taking part in a major scientific investigation of the ancient Spanish rocks said to inspire the work of surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
Dr Ian Alsop has just returned from fieldwork analysing 500 million year old rocks along the rugged coastline forming the Costa Brava of North East Spain. In a case of art imitating science, the landscape displaying `spectacular and peculiar geometries’ provided the inspiration for some of Salvador Dali’s most famous art works. One of the great 20th century surrealists, Dali – who was born and lived in the area – was said to be inspired by the ‘unrivalled’ rocks at Cap de Creus in his surrealist masterpieces.
Dr Alsop, a senior lecturer at the University’s School of Geography & Geosciences, is collaborating with colleagues from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in a detailed scientific investigation of the rocks and structure of the largely unspoiled area. They hope that the study will reveal new insights into the products and processes responsible for the evolution of the Earth’s crust.
He said, “The rocks were originally deposited about 500 million years ago, but were subsequently compressed and deformed during mountain building or ‘orogeny’ 300 million years ago. The rocks were squeezed into fantastically folded and sheared geometries, and were also injected with molten magma which subsequently cooled into spectacular outcrops.
“It is these strange and sometimes grotesque exposures that are considered to have provided the inspiration for some of the surreal shapes in Dali’s greatest masterpieces such as “The persistence of memory” (known as the ‘melting clocks’ painting), currently on display in the Tate Modern.”
The unrivalled landscape is due to a combination of rock types, waves and wind in the area that provides a unique quality of exposure – resulting in fantastic three-dimensional rock formations.
The rocks now exposed at Cap de Creus provide superb small-scale ‘analogues’ of the behaviour of the Earth’s crust when sedimentary basins and mountain belts are created. The rocks can also tell geoscientists much about the way the Earth behaves during mountain building, when continental masses move towards one another at about the rate fingernails grow.
Dr Alsop explained, “The rocks of Cap de Creus provide an opportunity to collect and analyse an unrivalled data set of folds and fractures. This allows us a perhaps unparalleled glimpse of the products and processes responsible for the evolution of the Earth’s crust.”
The unique geology and weathering patterns observed in Cap de Creus are recognised not just as an inspiration for artists, but also as a special landscape now protected in a national park. The ongoing research by Dr Alsop and colleagues in to the nature of the deformed rocks is funded by grants from the Carnegie Trust and the Spanish Ministry of Science.