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The Redemption of Salvador Dali
One of my personal favourite artists is Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, 1st Marqués de Dalí de Pubol (May 11, 1904 – January 23, 1989), more commonly known as Salvador Dalí. Or even more often, as Salvador Dali – without the diacritic mark on the “i”.
Salvador Dalí 1939, photo by Carl van Vechten
Dali has been largely misunderstood by the critical community until fairly recently, even though he enjoyed mass popularity all along, which is kind of telling. It’s worth noting that he was critically popular before, and then critically unpopular, and then critically popular again and soforth, it kind of comes and goes in waves.
The Persistence of Memory, 1931
As the author J.G. Ballard, an avid collector of surrealist paintings once noted, “The critical establishment absolutely disdained Surrealists, and World War II seemed to confirm their hostility.” [Art Newspaper, 1999] J.G. Ballard Quotes p. 287
I’ve seen that disdain. When I was in art school, my instructors cautioned me against enjoying Dali’s work, and that of most of the surrealists in general. Sure, his work is technically good, they would say, but it’s too easy. We heard that in art school a lot about the work of various artists; too “easy” basically meant not challenging enough, something that could be enjoyed without thinking about it too much, basically implying that anything you could just “enjoy” was decorative work with no real “artistic” value. Now, I personally think that’s a load of crap, but it goes a long way to explaining why fine art has so vigorously turned its back on figurative realist painting – but I digress.
Back to Dali, even those critics who can “forgive” that his work is easy to enjoy like to dig into Dali’s public persona with the intent of explaining away the effect of his art by dissecting his bizarre proclamations and even more bizarre lifestyle, attributing his work to oddities of neurosis and fascist dreamings. I believe that Dali at his prime was never serious, but always sincere.
What counts as his prime is a matter of some debate, though – there are many that insist that Dali never created work of any significance after he was kicked out of the surrealists, and that he wasted much of his genius in self-promotional antics, devolving into self-parody.
I believe quite the opposite of all the negative sentiments; Dali was a true genius, I believe that he was the first real pop artist, bridging early modernism and postmodernism, and I also believe that his antics were a form of self promotion that are not entirely unlike what we now expect from every artist in the age of celebrity from fine artists like Jeff Koons to street artists like Banksy. Basically, Dali was an icebreaker churning up the seas of modernism in a way that can only really make sense to viewers and art lovers in the post-modern phase of painting.
The Temptation of Saint Anthony , 1946
Now, it is worth knowing that according to Modernist art critics, Salvador Dali ‘s prime ended in 1939. That was when he was kicked out of the Surrealists headed by André Breton, and left Paris for New York. Bréton was a very active socialist and envisioned surrealism as a kind of revolutionary art form something along the model of Leon Trotsky’s notion of art as a revolutionary practice. That Dali refused to disavow the rise of fascism in Spain under Franco was too much for Bréton, who already disliked Dali’s desire to actually make money from his art to the extent that Bréton renamed “Salvador Dali” as “Avida Dollars”. It was a pretty serious diss, but Dali never made a secret of wanting to get rich making art. He also enjoyed the attention of being shocking, which goes a long way to explaining his open support for fascism – especially considering that in his youth he was a communist, at a time when being a communist could get you thrown in jail, which it briefly did, for two months, though the prison records have disappeared.
So that’s the respected art critic Robert Hughes – contrast that with this statement from Dali some 30 years after his “prime”:
I think it’s pretty clear that Dali was well aware of both his clownish reputation and its relationship to his intent as an artist. That said, in recent years Dali’s entire career has been enjoying a redemption in critical circles.
Personally, I prefer Dali’s later work, especially his atomic period. While the virtuosity in his early work like “the Persistence of Memory” (1931) is undeniable, there is a depth and complexity to work like “Portrait of my Dead Brother” (1963) that Dali’s early work only foreshadows.
Portrait of My Dead Brother, 1963
As Dali himself said in 1960,”Compared to Velazquez I am nothing, but compared to contemporary painters, I am the biggest genius of modern times … but modesty is not my specialty.”
Dali’s Mustache – photo by Philip Halsman, 1954
Fun art fact: if you watch the TV show “Archer” you know the pet ocelot, Babou. Salvador Dali actually did have a pet ocelot. Its name was Babou.
Salvador Dali with his pet ocelot, “Babou”
If you would like to learn more about Dali’s work throughout his lifetime, the book “Dali by Dali” is an excellent starting point. Dali himself talks about his life, his work, and his intent, giving a lot of insight than a more academic history. Of course the possibility that he’s making most of it up is a strong undercurrent, but that’s all part of Dali’s showmanship. Of course, if you prefer a more academic history, Dawn Ades played a big part is restoring Dali’s reputation, and her book “Dali and Surrealism” is pretty much definitive.