Philadelphia Museum of Art/Rizzoli,607 pp., 75.00; $48.00 (paper)
For well over half a century, Salvador Dalí has been internationally famous for the sexy and deranged subject matter of his paintings, for his personal nuttiness, flamboyance, and grandiosity, and for the demoralizing way in which he destroyed the borders between creativity and commercial self-promotion. He was a huge character; indeed, he often said, in that simultaneously boastful, cynical, and self-deprecating manner that he perfected, that it was his “personality” that was his greatest achievement. At other times he might announce to the world that his writing was his real achievement, and his painting the “least” of him. Yet what is most solid and substantial about Dalí is very specific and not wildly complex qualities: the particular gleaming surfaces of his paintings, with their often large areas of a single, pulsating color; his feeling for the transient, soft light of dawn or dusk and for the brilliantly hard light of a sunny summer afternoon by the Mediterranean; and his astounding ability to delineate and make us feel the simmering strength in tiny, tightly wound concentrations of lines, dots, or shapes.
The world of Dalí’s paintings and drawings is full, to be sure, of the oddest, most daring, and startling imagery. In his 1929 The Great Masturbator, for example, we see a woman’s face nuzzling a man’s groin, his member greatly enlarged. In the 1936 Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), a colossal and agonized creature has pulled himself (or herself) apart with such force that we can’t fathom how this being was ever one body. In probably his best-known picture, The Persistence of Memory, of 1931, limp watches are draped over this and that in a barren terrain. Dalí’s pictures are dreamscapes, and like dreams they can come and go in the mind, gnaw at you, or cry out to be interpreted, as if they were keys to a deeper meaning of an experience. Yet like many dreams his images are also weightless, interchangeable, and evanescent. With certain exceptions, they run together in the mind, but the texture and degrees of light in his pictures, the way he brings together the metallic and the velvety, the crinkly and the vaporous, become more pronounced the more of his pictures you see.
Dalí is now the subject of a retrospective on the occasion of the centenary of his birth in 1904. It is a respectful and measured show, with an emphasis on his early work, which is in keeping with the generally held belief that his most serious and engaging art was done beginning in the late 1920s and was over around 1938 when, not yet thirty-five, he was still a relatively young man. Many of his most powerful pictures from this time are here. The art he did thereafter—Dalí died in 1989, but had stopped making pictures around 1983—has been presented to give a clear sense of the artist’s later thinking. We can see how he was concerned with retelling myths, or giving his take on atomic power, Christianity, and stereoscopy, among other topics. But this exhibition is not the one that Dalí, whose artistic reputation has long been shaky, could have used.
Philadelphia’s show is too big. We don’t need to see in such detail the work he did, as a teenager and a youth, as he precociously took on one advanced new style after another in an attempt to find his own direction. There is also an overabundance of paintings from the 1930s. At the same time, none of his superb portraits of acquaintances from this decade—images of, say, the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard or Dalí’s patroness the Vicomtesse de Noailles—are here or are illustrated in the mammoth catalog. And while the show includes drawings, one feels that they are insufficiently represented. Dalí’s impetuosity, his quicksilver thinking, and a messy down-to-earthness, little evident in his compulsively shipshape paintings, are most accessible in his drawings throughout his career.
There are drawbacks to the way Dalí’s later work is presented, too, although how to manage the artist’s work from the early 1940s on would be a headache for any curator. With his simultaneously pious yet glitzy and often enormous rethinkings of, say, the Last Supper or the Crucifix-ion (which are in the show), or his bombastic conceptions of Christo-pher Columbus discovering America or Saint James on a rearing horse, Dalí, in these years, caromed from the arid to the bizarre, the grandiloquent to the esoteric, the sleazy to the simply unbelievable. Yet he managed, in paintings here and there and in drawings with some consistency, to make pictures that are as absorbing as his earlier ones, and few of these made it to Philadelphia. It is a shame, for example, that an amazingly strange little oil, dated 1958–1960, with a preposterously long title beginning Cadaques Spitting—it shows a macabre, twisted couple—could not be in the exhibition, or that the huge painting The Hallucinogenic Toreador of ten years later, a carnival-like compendium of many of the artist’s earlier images, isn’t present, either.1 His gently atmospheric later landscapes of life along the Spanish seacoast where he lived are also absent, and missed. Dalí isn’t as great an artist as this exhibition, in its sheer number of pictures, makes him out to be. Yet he is, if only by a little, a more sensitive and engaging one than the selection suggests.
The foregoing is not to deny that Dalí’s chief claim to historic importance lies in the work he did as a young man operating under the aegis of Surrealism. As Ian Gibson, the author of The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí2—the most recent and authoritative biography of the artist—persuasively sums up his subject, the Surrealist movement, with its desire to shock and to present the irrational and the repressed, gave an already volatile, knowing, and ambitious young artist the green light to make an art about his every paranoid fantasy, perverse daydream, and nightmare. The movement, which was as concerned with writing as with visual art, also prompted Magritte and Yves Tanguy to find their voices, while Miró and Ernst, who were older, were crucially influenced by Surrealism’s insistence on sexual candor and on the role of chance and sheer incongruity in the making of an image. The young Giacometti created some of his best early sculptures, including Woman with Her Throat Cut and Disagreeable Object, under the movement’s belief in confronting viewers with discomforting, even harrowing material.
But no one embodied Surrealism as dramatically as Dalí. In paintings with which he announced himself to a wider European audience in 1929, his breakthrough year, the door to the unconscious was opened and what came out were images that have retained their ability to disarm. In pictures such as The First Days of Spring, Accommodations of Desire, and The Lugubrious Game, we might see a man who has soiled himself, a woman whose head is a large red vagina swarming with flies, or merely orgy-like groupings. Young men, in these paintings, often have a hand held up to cover their faces, as if in shame, and a bearded older man who appears to be Freud himself—a hero to Dalí, who was familiar with a number of Freud’s works—can be spotted in a picture or two.
The paintings Dalí went on to make in the early 1930s substituted a glowing and subdued light for the brilliant hard clarity of the earlier works, and he toned down their crazed atmosphere. In the newer pictures the instances of knives, gushing blood, and threatening vaginas diminished, but a general atmosphere of eroticized strangeness prevailed. Pictures show penises on the verge of ejaculation, nipples so aroused they could be little flagpoles, and prominently placed buttocks, some shown with impossibly weird deformations. When we can’t figure out what makes an image disturbing, or plain odd, Dalí’s titles—as in Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano—help.
Dalí, it turned out, was more than a Surrealist artist. He was a Surrealist being. Once he had been given license to parade his every phobia, dream, hunch, fetish, and memory, even (as he put it in his 1942 autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí) false memory, he couldn’t be put back in the box. With his seemingly uncontrollable desire to show off his learning, to proclaim his genius, and to uncover one or another long-hidden principle of existence—and determined to discolor as much as he could with the scatological—Dalí became an outright monster. Especially for viewers who remember him in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s, the man himself is impossible to keep separate from his pictures.
Armed with his barbed mustache, his ever-present cane, and his generally dark, formal suits, Dalí played the part of a Mephistophelian master of loony revels. By his side was his wife, the sphinx-like Gala, whom he cast as his protector, muse, sister, collaborator, even other self. She had initiated him into sex when he was twenty-five and jumping out of his skin with anxiety about the topic; and part of his slavish devotion to her thereafter seems to have been based on simple gratitude for giving him a sense of his manhood (never a subject he was easy with). From the early 1950s on for three decades (or until they became too old and ill for it), the Dalís divided their time the same way. For roughly half of the year, they holed up in their modest house on the Spanish coast, where Dalí was chiefly involved with his painting. The rest of the year was spent in hotels in Paris and New York, where the artist seemed largely engaged in self-promotion, some of it tied to products with his name attached, including jewelry, perfume, and clothing. As time went by, Gala’s most important role was as the business manager of this operation.
To a degree, Dalí remained in touch with orthodox Surrealist thinking in that, in his “actions,” as he called them (they might also be called performance art pieces, or stunts), he aimed to sabotage everyday reality and good sense. His antics were not all that different from those performed by the Marx Brothers, whose work he loved. His props often included animals, women in some stage of undress, and unwary people who would get caught in the illogical carryings-on. He might show up to give a lecture wearing a deep-sea diver’s outfit (in which he nearly asphyxiated himself), or present, at the Paris Zoo, an abstruse theory involving a rhinoceros and a reproduction of a Vermeer, or merely make a commotion at a fashion show. Like Harpo Marx, his favorite of the brothers—Harpo and Dalí hoped at one point to collaborate on a movie—the artist’s clowning had a daredevilish and very physical component.
There was a significant literary side to the man, too. Dalí could deliver himself of Groucho-like, barbed inanities, referring to Matisse, for example, as the “celebrated painter of seaweed,” or declaring “I hate simplicity in all its forms,” or saying he had lost his fear of death because he discovered that “God was tiny.” Edmund Wilson pronounced Dalí’s 1944 novel Hidden Faces a failure, although an “entertaining” one; and the artist’s autobiography, while seemingly endless, is highly readable and quite funny, as is 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, from 1948. Gibson, whose comments on Dalí the writer are particularly valuable, says that Dalí’s frankness about masturbation and shame are most unusual in Spanish prose; and Dawn Ades, the art historian whose knowledge of the painter’s thinking can be called definitive (and who is a principal contributor to the Philadelphia catalog), writes that Dalí’s 1934 study of Millet’s painting The Angelus is “one of the most remarkable interpretations of a picture ever written.”
Both paintings are in the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, and they are reproduced in its catalog.↩