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 …
Correction June 9, 2005