I somewhat reluctantly went to the Dali exhibition at the Centre Pompidou on Friday night. Although I am a fan of Dali’s film collaborations, I have never been that taken with his surrealist creations. But I went with an open mind and also so I could have an opinion when the subject of the exhibition comes up at dinner parties!
|Salvador Dali, Les Montres Molles ou la Persistance de la Mémoire, 1931|
With the exception of some early figurative paintings, it is striking to notice how little Dali’s preoccupations change across the course of his lifetime. From very early on, the works are sexual, they concoct wildly imaginative nightmares of anxiety and trauma. As an aesthetic, the works tend to be fairly consistent, with the major point of connection being illustration. Dali’s skill as a painter varies: there’s a swiftness to the paintings, but there are also paintings, particularly landscapes, in which the technique appears somehow virtuosic, creating a luminosity that verges onto transparency. The living and breathing sky in The True Painting of the "Isle of the Dead" by Arnold Böcklin at the Hour of the Angelus, 1932 for example demonstrates a clarity of vision that is not always present in more drafted works.
|Salvador Dali, The Aprodisiac Telephone, 1936|
My friend Anne remarked that while the works were, at times, intellectually challenging and provocative, they often left her cold, offering no opportunity for emotional connection. It’s true that there is something alienating about these paintings, something that made them emotionally inaccessible, but it’s difficult to put my finger on what. I want to say it’s the relentless repetition, the almost obsessively meticulous detail, the psychological disorder of an artist that leaves no trace of the canvas, paper or wood support untouched and unworked. It is as though Dali’s psychological freneticism and obsessiveness forms a wall between the paintings and their viewer.
|Salvador Dali, The True Painting of the "Isle of the Dead"|
by Arnold Böcklin at the Hour of the Angelus, 1932
There is no medium that Dali does not touch: he paints using water colours, oils, draws, films, makes sculptures as well as conceives readymade environments, and even ventures into the theatre. This reach is impressive. And as if that’s not enough, the works take inspiration from and often repeat overwhelmingly their tribute to the history of art. Velasquez Millet, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Böcklin, and others all become, at some point, his obsessive, yet creative, focus. Perhaps the most touching paintings in the exhibition are those which interpret through reworking Jean-François Millet’s The Angelus (1857-59). Dali’s interpretations radically transform this otherwise quiet and humble scene of two peasants at the end of their day, the sun’s last light gently bathing the scene in a variety of ways. In Dali’s interpretations, the figures are abstracted and repeated, the man and the woman oversized and in the process of morphing into unknown forms, nakedness, violence, death and uncertainty, always soaked in sexual perversion. Clearly, like all of Dali’s works, these visions represent Millet seen through the eyes of Salvador Dali rather than an excavation of any hidden meaning in Millet’s French genre painting.
In addition to the works inspired by the history of art, I enjoyed some of the drawings and smaller scale sketches on display. There was a meticulousness to the detail that becomes mesmerizing, and the sketches reveal the painstaking process of his art, a process that is otherwise elusive in the bigger paintings. In addition, once Dali turns to larger scale, especially when they are not re-interpreting paintings from the history of art, the works become like cartoons that remind more of the illustrations of Robert Crumb than they reveal any kind of artistic genius.
Of course it was fun to see all of the images and objects which have been canonized by popular cultural reproduction: the melting clocks, the lobster telephone, the man with his moustache in portrait after portrait. And I never tire of seeing the scene in Un Chien Andalou where the razor slices open the eye. But ultimately, I was left wondering how to take this massive body of work seriously. There’s no arguing that Dali was prolific. But I did come away with the question of whether or not the self-obsessed paranoia gives anything to anyone other than Salvador Dali. In the end, there’s a lot of fun to be had going around this massive exhibition, but I am not convinced that we need to rethink twentieth century art in light of Salvador Dali’s contribution.