© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2002

© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2002

Tuna Fishing by Salvador Dalí

Tuna Fishing by Salvador Dalí

Dalí: art of the surreal

Salvador Dalí: one of the most complex and prolific masters of 20th century art.

If the 790 090 visitors to the Paris Centre Pompidou Dalí exhibit are anything to go by, then interest in the artist who “dragged the very realm of delirium within the scope of reality” is alive and well. This retrospective is currently at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid until September 2nd, 2013. And, if only for a moment, might the “paranoiac-critical” Catalan Spanish drown out the paranoia surrounding the economic crisis and revitalize multitudes of Spaniards from all lands?


Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) metamorphosed himself from the shy compulsive of his youth into an exhibitionist who declared himself the embodiment of surrealism: “I myself am surrealism”. However, by rejecting automatism and collective slogans (especially political ones), and because of his baffling individualism, he departed from surrealism and his devastating humour was the main reason why he was excluded from Breton’s group.

He rejected the annihilating idea of a single reality; and, on the contrary, investigated variable realities. In the wake of Miró, an elder he admired and an early supporter, he set out in his painting to shatter the single meaning attributed to reality. Like his friend Duchamp, he debunked painting as merely an optical or gestural phenomenon and instead defined it first and foremost as a “something mental”, echoing Leonardo da Vinci, whom they both revered. To him, “the crucial thing was to tell our life story mythologically through any means”. In that respect, the myth of Narcissus is key to understanding him: the successive states of Narcissus – innocence, amazement, heartbreak, death, and transformation into a flower – also relate his creative, sadistic and self-destructive tendencies. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, his painting from 1937 (London, Tate Gallery) is a magnificent illustration. The flower he often wore in his hair with overtly kitsch flair was also more than just a symbol...

In his polymorphous conception of creation, where Nature and Art combined, animals were especially important. Animals are the ‘other’ that ran deep through his life and art: whether it was the animal he somewhat feared such as grasshoppers and ants; the animal he accorded a leading role: flies (believed to be fairies in Catalan culture); or the animal he ate: sea urchins whose jawbones held in the dried, inked flowers for painting on paper. Within this conception, we understand rather well why Dalí opposed abstraction, and Mondrian for example, since for him one can imagine something else in front of any image, even an abstract one. Mondrian’s wish to “achieve painting that makes you think about nothing”, a radical innovation from the mid-1910s, desirous of harmony and peace, was the very antithesis of his thinking and positions.


The young Dalí was sensitive to modernist currents: cubism and purism, and to the Catalan “Noucentisme” movement that advocated a restoration in the 20th century by its attachment to classic Mediterranean culture. Paradoxically, he stood out by intensifying an über-local culture; for the rest of his life, he never lost his links with the chaotic, dreamy landscapes in the Empordà region of Catalonia, and in another aspect he built the myth of the train station at Perpignan as the centre of the universe. An early reader of the psychoanalytical writings of his acquaintance Freud, and later Lacan’s theses on paranoia, scientific and abstruse texts, he exploited his obsessions and hallucinations. Through an elastic, infinite “inquisition of the subject”, he generated a proliferation of analogies through multiple images. He never sought to curb the appearance of hallucination, but on the contrary extolled it as a self-interpretation to surpass historical and political circumstances: “The artist does not rest on history” (1952), “History doesn’t interest me. It scares me just like the grasshoppers do.” (1973). He advocated a new way of looking: “Knowing how to look is a brand new system of spiritual surveying. Knowing how to look is a means of invention.” His “paranoiac-critical” method was not limited to a visual strategy: thinking actively, freeing ghosts and concerns which migrated even into language, “it is a ‘methodical debate’ on the approach to reality that seeks to order the inaugural chaos of desire.” (M. J. Borja-Villel, director of the Reina Sofia museum). Since he knew several languages (Catalan, Spanish, French & English), plays on words and puns are woven through his work to form poetry and phantasmagoria. To understand this, one must read his numerous writings, and see and hear his filmic works. An instance of verbal synthesis would be what he said about his name in one text he wrote on Picasso entitled “Picasso and me” (1951, 1957): “My name is Dalí, which means Desire in Catalan, and Gala is mine” [Gala was his wife, muse and mentor], or again the play on words between ‘Dalí’ and ‘dailies’ in the title of his American journal from 1945-47, “Dalí News, monarch of the dailies”. His very forename, Salvador, was shared with his brother who had died shortly before his birth, and presented an opportunity to see himself as a replacement and saviour within his family and in art.


The parallels and clashes between Dalí and Picasso make an interesting paragraph in order to place Dalí and to appreciate their reciprocal influences and auras. Dalí admired Picasso and looked upon him as a second father and artistic rival. He enjoyed the latter’s support when he first travelled to Paris in 1926. He ended his text “Picasso is the greatest genius ...” (published in 1960) with his own personal summary of their positions: “Picasso sought to invent/Picasso is anarchic/I am monarchic ... Picasso sought to break up/ I to put together/ Picasso sought to invent means of expression/ I to discover them”. At the height of his fame and wealth, Picasso maintained a simple, familiar appearance – dedicated to his work, not extravagant and out of political conviction refused to travel to America. By the 1940s, Dalí on the other hand had been there and behaved in exhibitionist fashion publicising himself and acting like a dandy provocateur to woo the new showbiz American society. His attitude contained a desire to pervert the system, to go against what he called the “dumbing down” by the mass media. Whereas Picasso did not want his works to go to Spain until democracy returned, Dalí scandalously declared himself on the side of  Franco’s fascist regime. An allegiance that was not devoid of irony nor the desire to offend, one to which he owed his freedom and the relative exposure of his art in Spain, and which his defenders may pass off as a corruption from within, although this has hardly convinced opponents nor victims of the regime.


Dalí may at the outset seem to be a traditional technical painter, practising academic drawing, traditional perspective and with a broad knowledge of art history ... but applying this technique to the unconventional themes of his paranoiac-critical method, his deformations and iconographic associations created a destabilising ambiguity between what is ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, and made him an innovative and perplexing conservative. Although he raised Meissonier’s lack of imagination, he admired his skill which challenged him to discern the first fruits of action painting; and he paid homage to him in a number of works by using gestural technique worthy of a 1950s American painter or of his friend Mathieu. Although, even sarcastically, he declared himself opposed to avant-gardes, in many stages of his art, his curiosity for, proximity to and influence on the new currents is visible. His meticulous technique would resound in the 1960s with the hyperrealists; his multiple images in the Op art from the same decade; his symbolically interpreted objects can be compared to some of the pieces of the “new realists” (Arman, César) and to contemporary kitsch currents (Koons); his cannibalism of objects and drawer themes are not unrelated to the art of Tàpies (though they were opposed); by his admiration for Gaudí and his defence of the “modern style phenomenon”; the praise of the soft, those watches that expand space and time; and his tyre shapes, he renewed an organic aesthetic discovered in the soft sculptures by Oldenburg and the bloated women by De Kooning which he complimented. After the war, during his so-called ‘nuclear’ phase, he linked Seurat’s pointillism with a molecular and atomic theory that recalls Lichtenstein’s benday dot paintings. His laser technique-inspired artworks prefigured computer-generated images. His stereoscopic (binocular vision) works in the 1960s and his research into holograms in the 1970s were a forerunner to recent work into three-dimensional viewing and 3D. The paintings from the 1960s and 1970s in this exhibition are far from uninteresting: “Tuna Fishing” (1967) collected all of the currents in what Dalí called a “quintessential flamboyance” and also evoked the works of Polke.

Duchamp believed that many young artists were ‘Dalinists’. Among them we could mention Andy Warhol, as much for the techniques and postures as for that society attitude. Besides the filmic work that mattered greatly to him (with Buñuel, Hitchcock and Disney), one of the most conspicuous aspects of the current exhibits is to show Dalí’s major contribution to making theatrical and celebrity art. He was an artist who, almost a living painting, created the ‘happening’ and performance, which is why he declared: “I am a painter of theatre” and built his Theatre-Museum in Figueres. J.H. Martin, the exhibition curator refers to Dalí as an “artist-actor”. Lastly, he was some sort of unconventional ‘iconologist’ art historian, both playing the fool and Monsieur Loyal, purposefully burlesque when he judged and scored his peers from the past and present, and when he boldly interpreted ancient works such as Millet’s “The Angelus” and Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker” to give us a different vision of a tragic-comedic world.

Article by Christian Lassalle, art historian


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