Salvador Dali, genius and myth

Perhaps no other movement in 20th-century art celebrated the irrational and the bizarre with the vigor that surrealism did. This is probably because for the surrealists, breaking with the dominance of reason was not just a creative urge but an entire way of life. And the most sensational – and also the most publicized – expression of this «surreal» lifestyle is found in the flamboyant and provocative personality of Salvador Dali. Dali’s life is like a performance subject to the same creative impulses that also gave birth to his mysterious paintings. At times exaggerated, and perhaps calculated, Dali’s eccentric behavior ultimately became inextricably linked to our perception of his art. This is probably why an exhibition on Dali, including «Salvador Dali: Singularity and Myth» currently on at the Museum of Cycladic Art (and organized jointly with the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation in Figueres and the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid), cannot just be viewed as a presentation of Dali as a surrealist artist, but also Dali as a myth, an ingenious as well as controversial artistic personality. Which of the two, his genius or his contradictions, accounts for his repeated disagreements with other surrealists is not clear. Either way, in the late 1930s, Andre Breton expelled Dali from the group of surrealists, in part because of the latter’s political views (Dali had become a supporter of Franco). Some years later, when Dali had settled in New York, Breton came up with «Avida Dollars,» an epithet that satirized Dali’s self-publicization as a moneymaking technique. But in essence, Dali remained a genuine surrealist, for both in art and life, he held the power of the subconscious and of the imagination as his guiding principles. He elaborated on them in his writings, including his famous «Declaration of the Independence of the Imagination and the Rights of Man to his own Madness,» which he wrote in 1939 as a riposte to having been forbidden to present a Botticellian Venus with the head of a fish at an exhibition. In his Declaration, Dali praised the man who imagined a woman with a fishtail and the ancient Greeks for their mythology. This was the same year when he destroyed two store windows of the New York department store Bonwit-Teller which had rejected his design for them. In yet another of his famous flaunting actions, he appeared in a diving suit at the opening of the London Surrealist exhibition in 1936. It is perhaps no coincidence that Dali’s most classic surreal works, including the renowned «Persistence of Memory,» are from the ’30s. These make up the bulk of the current exhibition, which is nonetheless well balanced, covering all of the artist’s phases from the 1920s to the ’80s. In the eight works from the ’30s (one is the bust of a woman, a 1970 reproduction of an original), viewers will recognize Dali’s signature. Compared with the artist’s subsequent works included in the exhibition, these images – most of them bathed in an unreal twilight light – seem sparer and perhaps more mysterious. In «Singularities,» the densest image of the group, some of Dali’s recurring motifs are recognizable: melting watches, the human figure with half-open drawers protruding from his forehead and the image of a landscape as a background. His famous technique of creating double images is most eloquently captured in «The Image Disappears,» where the image of a woman reading a letter can also be seen as the profile of a bearded man. It is a take on a painting by Vermeer, whom Dali placed in the first ranks of artistic excellence. Another painting clearly influenced by Vermeer is Dali’s portrait of Gala from 1939. Gala, who was Paul Eluard’s wife when she met Dali in 1929, became Dali’s companion until her death in the 1980s. She was one of Dali’s most beloved subject matters in art. Dali used ambiguity as an attack on the certainties of perception and the notion of order. His absurd, often hallucinatory images and incongruous juxtapositions asserted that art and creativity welled up from the subconscious and not from the rational mind. In fact, Dali developed an entire theory on his artistic process. A version of automatism elaborated by the surrealists, Dali’s «critical paranoia,» as he called it, was about cultivating genuine delusion as in clinical paranoia while remaining aware at the back of one’s mind that reason has been suspended. Dali came up with this theory in 1930 and used it throughout the decade. In 1940 Dali and Gala left for the United States where they lived for the next year. Greeted with success, Dali had his first major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (the exhibition traveled throughout America) and also collaborated with Walt Disney (the project remained incomplete) and with Alfred Hitchcock in «Spellbound» (his work as co-director with Luis Bunuel in both «Un Chien Andalou» in 1929 and «L’Age d’Or» in 1930 are also famous). After the mid-1940s, Dali became engrossed with science and technology. Greatly influenced by the atomic bomb, he considered the developments of science in paintings such as «Melancholy Atomic and Uranium Idyll,» a symbolic and menacing painting, as well as «Dematerialization and Nero’s Nose,» both included in the exhibition. Most likely because of science’s power to generate or destroy life, Dali lumped science and metaphysics together. His work gradually began to address religious themes but also explored scientific methods and techniques such as holography, the fourth dimension and stereoscopics. The exhibition takes the viewer through this last period. Seen against Dali’s early works, which are sometimes inspired by Cubism and others by metaphysical painting, the exhibition’s concluding works show the imaginative transformations in the work of one of the 20th century’s most famous artists. An artist, who through his idiosyncrasies, both in life and art, has become a myth. «Salvador Dali, Singularity and Myth» at the Museum of Cycladic Art (4 Neophytou Douka, tel 210.722.8321), to January 2003.