Salvador Dali

By: Richard Laayo

F OR A LONG TIME THE NEAR UNIVERSAL JUDGMENT  on Salvador Dali was that he had outlived himself. The Surrealist work he did from 1929 to 1939 was brilliant and durable. After that came decades of repetition and kitsch, the years of his collaborations with Walt Disney—never completed—and his magazine ads for Elsa Schiaparelli lipstick. It didn’t help that from early on he was art’s state-of-the-art goofball, the guy who would show up in public in a deep-sea diving suit or a Rolls-Royce filled with cauliflowers. Then came the Spanish Civil War. When it was over Picasso refused to set foot in Spain so long as the victorious Franco still reigned. But Dali was soon returning for a part of each year—and worse, giving his blessing to the Generalissimo’s wretched regime. “I have reached the conclusion:’ he once said, “that [Franco] is a saint.” There are people  who have never forgiven him.

By the time he died, in 1989, at 84, Dali’s wobbly postwar output and his thread-bare shenanigans had tarnished his reputation for good—or so it seemed. But reappraisal is the bread and butter of the art world. Which brings us to the major Dali

retrospective that opens this week at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (February 14th, 2005) It’s another step forward in what you might call the late Dali rehab project. Five years ago a show organized by the Zurick Kunsthaus, “Hypermental: Rampant Realty 1950-2000: From Salvador Dali to Jeff Koons,” toured Europe to spread the not unreasonable precursor of Pop and postmodernism. In the same spirit he is being re-examined by academics and curators as a pioneer of the artist as public performer, role model par excellence for Andy Warhol and Koons. It might not seem like a good thing to re-emerge as the original media whore, but there’s no denying Dali’s role in making showmanship an art-world career tactic.

But is there more than that? Is it truly possible to look at the later Dali, at the endless recyclings of his Surrealist mannerisms or his hologram of Alice Cooper, the ‘70s rock nuisance, and not shrug? The well-argued Philadelphia show says it can be done—just pick your way carefully among the works. “Salvador Dali:’ which runs through May 15, doesn’t reposition him as a master of the postwar era. But it rescues him from the status of purest kitschmeister and brings back some spectacular pictures.

ft also rattles the walls with room after room of his initial brilliance and originality. Most of the 200 works in the show, which was organized by the British Dali expert Dawn Ades and Michael R. Taylor, the Philadelphia museum’s curator of modern art, are from the agreed upon golden age before 1940, when Dali’s great topic was sex and how much it frightened him. Whatever was limp, runny and detumescent —plus anything disgusting—found its way into his canvases. He generally placed all of that in a space adapted from Giorgio De Chirico’s plunging distortions of classical perspective, which he merged with his erotically charged memories of the receding horizons of the beaches around Cadaqués, the Catalonian village of his childhood. What it all led to were images that were both recognizable and weirdly disordered, sunbleached and unwholesome.

Dali’s most inspired decision was to reach back to late 19th century realism, to paint in a hyperdetailed style that could be more dreamlike than any of the fright- mask distortions of Picasso. Knowing very well how it would be received by militant modernists, he adopted Jean-Louis Ernest Meissoniei the last word in retrograde Academicism, as the model for his enameled surfaces and high-definition images. The final twist was that so many of Dali’s images, all those flaccid watches and fluid shapes, remained utterly ambiguous. He cast the clearest light possible on unnameable things, as if to say that even clarity was of no help in penetrating the deepest enigmas.

By 1929 Dali had found his natural home among the Surrealists, who were fascinated, as he was, with the unconscious. But he departed almost at once from their favorite method of arriving there—automatic writing and drawing, in which words and pictures were set instantly to paper with a minimum of conscious deliberation. As an alternative, he came up with his “paranoiac-critical” method, which was an attempt to enter a kind of delirium while keeping a part of the mind detached, alert to the imperafives of the rational world.

Dali Painting

Apparition of Face and Fuit Dish on a Beach. 1938

High-definition illusionism sirred into optical double dealing.


 Whatever that meant, it led him to the dazzling trompe l’eoil illusionism of Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, from 1938, which reads simultaneously as a landscape, a dog in profile, a human face and a tabletop with a fruit bowl holding a heap of pears. This is a canvas in which the eye leads the mind down unexpected roads while the mind keeps pulling back, trying to get its bearings.

In the years after World War II, when Dali began a long effort to reconcile his new passions—physics and religion—his reputation began its serious decline. And it can’t be denied that his newly rediscovered Catholic piety led to some cheesy paintings, like the portraits of his wife Gala as the Virgin. But it also produced the magnificent crucifixions of the early 1950s. With its sources in Zurbaran Caravaggio and Velázquez, and with its hint of movie camera angles that never quite happened in the movies, Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubicus) is one of the handful of truly powerful devotional images of 20th century art.

Then there were Dali’s phenomenal dot paintings of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s large-scale, intricate fields of enlarged Benday dots, those minute circles of ink that make up a newspaper or magazine photograph. In Portrait of My Dead Brother an imaginary portrait of the real brother who died a few months before Dali was born, the dots mutate into a bird emerging from his head and ranks of soldiers at his chin . Images of struggle and flight, they match Dali’s effort to come to terms with a ghostly brother whose name he was given. Then there’s The Sistine Madonna in which a detail of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna is made to appear within a massive close-up of a human ear—the ear of Pope John XXIII, no less, much enlarged from a magazine photo. It may not be more than a tour de force of craftsmanship, like scrimshaw. But what’s so bad about a tour de force?


                                                                       TIME Magazine, Inc.

                                                                                   February 21, 2005. (pgs. 59-60)

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