There was a sublime moment in Matthew Collings’s successful TV series, This is Modern Art, when he showed footage of Salvador Dalí camping it up and singing the praises of money. “I love tremendously money and gold!” Dalî expostulates. And again, switching to the third person: “Dalí sleep best after one day of work receive one tremendous quantity of cheques!
We might laugh at these antics, but Dalí wasn’t joking. He really did love money with a passionate intensity. Collings quickly flipped to the present day, where young British artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are raking in the cash by the truckload. Spot the difference. Do the Hirsts and Emins represent any advance on Dalí? Only in terms of sheer quantity of income. Even Dalí’s most vehement detractors allow that he had a talent for painting and drawing, but today’s superstars prefer to delegate these activities. Dalí was earning a million dollars a year by 1970, but Damien Hirst was worth hundreds of millions while still in his forties.
Despite his outlandish hunger for publicity, Dalí (1904-89) was chiefly famous for the works of art he created while Hirst’s best claim to fame is the pile of loot on which he sits. Indeed, his price tags are far more fascinating than his dead animals and dot paintings. One might say that Hirst is the logical outcome of the notion of the artist-entrepreneur that Dalí set in motion. This makes it all the more surprising that for so many years Dalí’s name has been a by-word for everything that is gross, vulgar and ridiculous in modern art. For while he may remain an object of adoration for the general public, Dalí has long been anathema to contemporary sensibilities
Most people with pretentions to taste believe that Dalí has found his true level as a maker of posters for the bedroom walls of teenage boys – a fitting fate for someone who spent his entire life behaving like an adolescent.
No-one could possibly discern the point where Dalí stopped playing the clown and actually became one. When his sister, Ana María, published a memoir about her famous brother in 1960, Dalí was furious because it made him sound like a normal person. Having spent so many years building up the image of a lunatic genius, it was unbearable to him that the public could be permitted to see him in any other guise.
One suspects he would be delighted with the respectful treatment provided by the National Gallery of Victoria, in their winter blockbuster: Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire. All the work in this exhibition has been sourced from the world’s two main temples of the Dalí cult: the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí in the artist’s home town of Figueres, and the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. In the catalogue and publicity material there is little else but praise for the outrageous artist, although the sordid details of his career have been raked over in dozens of books.
Rarely has Dalí’s wife and muse, Gala, been so delicately treated. One of his biographers describes her as “a fearful, witchlike creature”. She was, by all accounts, manipulative, secretive, rapacious, vengeful and sexually obsessed. Dalí, by his own admission, had a terror of actual sex, but was a champion auto-eroticist. It was an avant-garde sort of marriage.
In discussing the scandal caused by Dalí’s Memory of the child-woman (AKA. L’homme fleur), when it was shown in Melbourne as part of the famous Herald exhibition of 1939, NGV Director Gerard Vaughan can’t resist pointing out how his “deeply conservative” precursor, J.S.MacDonald, threw away a massive drawcard by refusing to host the show. Feeling that modern art was a “degenerate” activity, MacDonald was happy to let the Melbourne Town Hall take the exhibition, which drew 45,000 visitors. There is a touch of gloating when Vaughan says that the earlier exhibition with Dalí’s work “was a huge popular success – and is guaranteed to be so again.”
So far his glee seems to be completely justified, with more than 200,000 people having already seen the show. This heavy visitation means that it is best to try and avoid weekends when the galleries are over-crowded. One might pause, however, to reflect on the fact that “deeply conservative” figures such as J.S.MacDonald and Lionel Lindsay rejected Dalí’s work – and potential revenues – on the strength of their convictions about art. Today’s NGV may have embraced Dalí so uncritically because of his power as a money-spinner.
The catalogue, for instance, is a bits-and-pieces affair without a solid essay on the artist. Rumor has it that the NGV had originally commissioned such an essay from Ken Wach of Melbourne University, a recognized expert on Surrealism. Wach allegedly wrote the piece and had a lot to do with the preparation of this show, only to be dumped unceremoniously the week before it was announced. This is only part of the story but from what I have heard it reflects very poorly on the NGV and its ethics.
Without a commitment to original scholarship, the Dalí exhibition is positioned straightforwardly as a crowd-pleaser. But there is no reason why it could not fulfil both objectives. For despite the fact that most of Dalí’s best-known works such as The Persistence of Memory (1931), Soft construction with boiled beans (1936) or Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), are not included in this selection, one hardly notices their absence. This is because the two Dalí museums have amassed such representative collections from all periods. It is also because Dalí was an obsessive-compulsive artist who returned to the same motifs time and again – the soft watches, crutches, loaves and fishes, weird hybrids of flesh and landscape, and so on.
Like him or loathe him, no-one could fail to be touched by Dalí’s constant creative vitality. The show begins with a room of amateurish daubs by a teenage artist who quickly finds his feet and begins painting with a technique reminiscent of the Flemish old masters. This is one of the most startling turnarounds in modern art, and it reveals the strength of Dalí’s talents.
He quickly took to Surrealism, which was the emerging avant-garde style of the moment, perfectly suited to his own taste for high theatricality. Dalí was welcomed into the fold by the Surrealist high commander, André Breton, and soon added his own theoretical contribution: the “paranoiac-critical method”. This was Dalí’s grandiloquent label for imagery that was concrete in form but ambiguous in meaning. Often his paintings contained double images that could be read as positive or negative shapes, such as a bust of Voltaire made up of the figures of a man and a woman in eighteenth century costumes. The aim was to generate confusion and undermine the tidy certainties of reason.
Breton had problems with Dalí’s double images, which he dismissed as a parlour game, but he was scandalised by the artist’s apparent admiration for Hitler and Franco; and by his over-the-top efforts at self-promotion, which took the United States by storm. In 1939 Dalí was excommunicated from the group, although he would declare that he was the only true Surrealist.
The show details many of Dalí’s publicity stunts, notably a shambolic pavilion entitled Dream of Venus, designed for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which combined Surrealist bric-a-brac with topless girls in a shameless blend of culture and cash-in. We see his film collaborations with Luis Bunuel, Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney; his book illustrations and drawings; his extravagant jewellery and sculpture; his amazing Surrealist photo-portraits made by Philippe Halsman, and a host of newsreel appearances in which he plays the loon.
The films may be the best things Dalí ever did: from Un chien andalou, the Surrealist short of 1929 which famously begins with an eyeball being sliced with a razor; to the designs for a dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945); to the Disney collaboration, Destino, which was only completed by Walt’s nephew, Roy Disney, in 2003. Those distinctive motifs that become trademarks in the paintings are given new life as moving images, invigorated by music and drama
It is the contention of this show that Dalí’s late work has been unjustly maligned. The reaction set in when he declared himself a “Renaissance” artist, and rejected both modernism and abstraction. There followed a flirtation with “atomic” themes, which meant that his pictures were filled with tiny spheres meant to resemble atoms. Finally he would embrace Catholicism, painting crucifixions and mystical symbols. Yet throughout these metamorphoses, the work remained recognisably the same. Like a big fashion house he would introduce changes from one season to the next while retaining the integrity of the brand.
To his critics it was nothing but a long-running series of stunts and gimmicks. But can we separate the artist from the self-promoter? By the end Dalí had become a caricature of himself, striving to remain shocking in a world that had embraced all the radical thinking of the sixties. Given our present-day mania for wealth and celebrity perhaps we have reached a stage when he can be rescued from his own excesses. It is only when we stop judging him by his own standards as an artistic genius, that we may recognise Dalí as one of the great popular entertainers of the twentieth century.
Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire, National Gallery of Victoria, June 13 – October 4, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 26, 2009