Dear Salvador. an Apology ; Dali Was a Dodgy Surrealist Showman with an Eye for the Main Chance - Which, Kevin Jackson Now Realises, Is Precisely Where His Genius Lies
Jackson, Kevin, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
A fish is not a bicycle. (Frankly, most fish can't even ride bicycles.) A block of granite is not a cloud. A woman's bare face is not a woman's naked body. Ah, said Doctor Freud, lighting his cigar that was just a cigar, that's where you're wrong. All these strange things may indeed be so, in the realm of the Unconscious, for the Unconscious doesn't recog-nise the principle of contradiction. The Unconscious, Freud went on to explain, is like a terrible old slapper: it simply does not know how to say "No". Andre Breton and the other pioneering Surrealists, who revered Freud (he, on the other hand, thought they were for the most part a bunch of horrid zanies), took this principle of non-contradiction to their hearts, and then into their poems and paintings. Many of the most enduring triumphs of Surrealism stem from this gleeful liberation from dour Aristotelian logic. Look at almost any painting by Magritte. Or some of Dali's magic objects, such as the telephone which is also a lobster.
Bearing this principle of non-contradiction in mind, here are two wholly incompatible statements about Salvador Dali.
Proposition One. Salvador Dali is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, if not the very greatest. This is not merely a matter of his technical prowess, awe-inspiring though that may be, but of his unique responsiveness to the needs of a modern, mass audience. His vast commercial success, so offensive to snobs and critics, was a richly deserved reward for meeting a hunger for images at once stimulating and pleasing enough to hang on walls, to fill coffee table books, to reproduce on T-shirts. Despite its obvious strangeness, his work has brought incalculable pleasure to thousands of ordinary people who are still left cold by, let us say, post-1907 Picasso or by Jackson Pollock, let alone Donald Judd or Lucio Fontana. George Orwell once wrote an angry article about Dali, which suggested that Dali was praised only by pretentious fops who wished to appear "intellectual" and "advanced". A latter-day Orwell would have to argue quite the opposite case: that, today, Dali is only scorned by pseuds. The regular folks love him. On which note...
Proposition Two. Salvador Dali is a vulgarian, a hack, a disgrace, a disaster. His talent - largely a matter of applying slick, magazine-illustrator realism to banal optical tricks, maudlin religiosity or puerile shock imagery - is wholly meretricious. Members of his core audience adopt him in early adolescence, and then somehow fail to shed him as they grow older. (The phrase "arrested development" fits neatly on many aspect of Dali's work and mentality.) A life-long chancer, an Arthur Daley of the avant- garde, Dali jumped on the Surrealist bandwagon and distorted its hallucinatory contents beyond recognition, so that what started as a bold attempt to revolutionise consciousness ended up as a bag of amusing gimmicks. It is wholly predictable that he should have spent so much of his pampered, pathetic later life toadying to General Franco and making playthings for American plutocrats, for the only causes Dali ever truly espoused were those of his own vanity and riches. He is a traitor; a grotesque, contemptible sell-out.
Now, the phrasing is perhaps a little harsh, but the contents of that second proposition add up to a fair summary of standard educated opinion on Dali. Perhaps, though, the time is ripe for something of a rethink - not so much about whether the Dali nuts have actually been right about their idol all along, but about whether it was really such a dreadful crime for Dali to pay court to money so fervently, and whether the marriage of Surrealism and commerce was really a betrayal that anyone save purists and zealots need seriously lament.
The occasion for these ponderings is a large and lavish and hugely enjoyable exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Surreal Things. The creation of a young V & A researcher-curator, Ghislaine Wood, Surreal Things is the first major show ever to concentrate on the repercussions of the Surrealist revolution in decorative arts, design, fashion and commerce. Since Dr Wood's background is in the history of design, and she therefore is not a steely-eyed disciple of the Gospel According to Breton, the show is unusually fresh, and full of beguiling things that may come as a surprise even to those who think they know their Surrealist onions.
To take just one example from more than 300: those who have so much as a cursory awareness of such matters will know Meret Oppenheim's fur-covered cup and saucer (1936) - one of the most justly celebrated of all Surrealist objects, sexy and eerie and weirdly appealing. What the V & A show makes clear is that the furry cup had its origins in an earlier Oppenheim creation - a (delightful) fur-lined bracelet which she had created for the influential Parisian designer Schiaparelli - herself a key figure in the show, as a major importer of Surrealist discoveries into the world of high fashion. Oppenheim wore the bracelet to a meeting at the Cafe de Flore with Picasso and Dora Maar. Picasso's joy at this seductive combination of metal and pelt inspired the artist to create her immortal erotic crockery. A small anecdote, but an instructive one; as Ghislaine Wood points out, it was the commercial object that inspired the art object, not the other way round.
Much the same principle runs through the whole show, surfacing here and there to rebuke the standard line, that the cynical world of commercial arts fell down on Surrealism and dragged away its plunder. There is some truth in that moral tale, but only some. Almost from the earliest days of the movement, plenty of Surrealists were happy to turn a deaf ear to Breton's curses and excommunications, and to apply their discoveries in a fields where they might be well paid. In 1926, when the movement was still young, Max Ernst and Joan Miro made backcloths inspired by automatic paintings for a Diaghilev production of the Ballet Russes. Breton and his then-ally Aragon went ballistic, and howled that "It is inadmissible that ideas should be at the behest of money..." But the courtship dance was on, and few Surrealists kept their virginity for long. (A fuller version of this interesting argument can be found in Ghislaine Wood's introductory essay to the catalogue.)
In the light of such considerations, Dali starts to look rather less uniquely culpable, rather less fanatical, and - whisper it - a lot more interesting. Perhaps Dali should be seen not so much as a traitor but as an infiltrator? Perhaps his efforts and example, crass as they might appear at times, were the very thing that allowed Surrealism to develop from a coterie activity and to conquer the world? Time to check out the suspect's deep background. Anglophones tend to call Dali a Spanish artist, which is a bit like saying Dylan Thomas is an English poet. In reality and Sur-reality, he was Catalan: the landscapes of Catalonia are the settings for any number of his paintings. Catalonia has returned the visual compliment, and tourists who come to pay their homage to Catalonia every summer soon discover how many places carry the spoor of Dali's occupation. (By the way, the proud locals pronounce his name more like da-LI than DAH-li; and the "v" in Salvador sounds like a "b". All together, then: SAL-bador da-LI.)
A fine place to begin a Dali pilgrimage is the small seaside town of Port Lligat, which can only be reached by a nausea-inducing drive through vertiginous coastal hills. Dali first bought a modest cottage here in 1929 when it was still nothing but a fishing village, and though a brief period of unregulated building in the post-war period has bulked the place up with a few hotels and houses, it remains gloriously tranquil - not a state one usually associates with Dali. Dali was not yet a rich man in 1929; as his wealth grew, so did his secret HQ. He bought up cottage after cottage and bashed them together, until he had a fair-sized house (smallish rooms, low ceilings, little in the way of grandiosity) with a swimming pool in the shape of male genitalia, enclosed gardens and a collection of his favourite curiosities. It now functions as one of the main Dali museums.
Though there is a strong sense of theatricality about the house, it also has a backstage feel - you have a sense of the inner compulsions that Dali was able cunningly to transform into commercial product. On the one hand, then, there is a version of the Mae West Lips Sofa that Dali created for the English patron of Surrealism, Edward James, to install at his fantastical house Monkton, in Sussex.
But there are also things here that were obviously a matter not of showmanship but of private pleasure: stuffed swans, stuffed owls, a stuffed bear... There is an atelier, magnificently lit by a window which gives on to the sea, and decorated with a mirror that alludes to Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Couple. There is a lovingly preserved lump of polystyrene, the protective container for a radio Dali once bought: he admired its shape, and had architects build a giant concrete replica of it for his grounds.
In short, the house is also a portrait of the inner Dali: a thing made for his own mental and physical comfort, not for display. There are hobbyhorses here, some of which made their way into the paintings, some of which remained more recondite. There are several allusions to Millais' painting Angelus, about which Dali had potty theories that subsequently proved to have some foundation. The colours of the Catalan flag, red and gold, provide a recurrent decorative motif, and there is a small statue which alludes to alchemical mysteries and the great Catalan mystic Ramon Lull. Were this the house of some unknown eccentric collector, most unprejudiced visitors would surely find it fascinating.
The next stop on the tour takes about an hour or so to reach by road, and adds a dimension of genuine pathos to the Dali saga. Like Don Quixote, the painter was haunted by myths of chivalry, and it seemed only right to him that Gala, his Lady Fair, should be like Rapunzel and have a castle of her own. So he found a ruined 14th- century fortress in the hilltop town of Pubol, bought it in the 1960s and transformed it into the Castell Gala-Dali.
Every room has its Surreal theme, but the theme always spirals around the figure of Gala.
Their marriage was not of a kind to gladden the heart of a Relate counsellor. Dali would have to ask her for permission to visit - understandably, for she was usually entertaining one of her many toy boys. Though not conventionally beautiful - and Dali's portraits of Gala idealise her only a little - she was obviously possessed of a powerful sexual magnetism which lasted late into her life. There are decorative touches here which seem to express minor outbursts of jealous annoyance on Dali's part. Gala told him that she hated the sight of radiators, so he covered them over with a trompe l'oeil painting... of radiators. For the most part, though, Gala-ola-try reigns.
The most melancholic part of this architectural feat of uxoriousness is the crypt, designed by Dali to preserve the Gala- Dali union for all eternity. Alas, it never happened, though the reasons for their separation in death remain a matter of dispute. The right-hand tomb contains Gala's body, protected by a small group of Dalinian animal sculptures, notably a giraffe. If you want to find Dali's final resting place, you must head on to the much larger town of Figueres, where he was born and where the town boasts the most jaw-dropping of all monuments to its oddest son. It's a huge place, converted from an old civic theatre, and surmounted with a geodesic dome. Dali's body lies beneath.
About a million people come to the Dali Theatre-Museum every year, and it's easy to understand why when you see Catalan children of about eight or nine years old thundering around the place, laughing and shouting and sometimes even gawping at the exhibits: it's fun! And to protest that the place leaves you cold feels curiously like refusing to clap your hands if you believe in fairies. That is, like a grumpy old git.
Nor is the place entirely about hooplah and cheap thrills. Some of the smaller galleries show off an aspect of Dali which is often forgotten: that he was a brilliant pasticheur, who, before he developed his trademark repertoire, also worked in the vocabularies of Cezanne, and Matisse, and the Cubist Picasso, not to mention the Old Masters. There is even one painting - of a simple basket of bread (1945) - that might draw a grunt of grudging admiration from all but the most resolute Daliphobe. Food for thought, here.
The new V & A exhibition is thoroughly haunted by the spirit of Dali, and takes as its text his statement that "I try to create fantastic things, magical things, things like in a dream. The world needs more fantasy. Our civilisa-tion is too mechanical. We can make the fantastic real, and then it is more real than that which actually exists." The attempt to shed one's mind of anti-Dalinian prejudice is a healthy one: all dogmas should be dusted down now and then. True, it will remain hard for a lot of discriminating people to admire much, if anything, that Dali did after the end of the 1930s, when he took New York by the throat and the wallet. And yet: by their fruits you shall know them. Like Tutankhamen's tomb, the V & A exhibition is crammed with "wonderful things", and no small number of those wonderful things owe their existence to the influence of Salvador Dali. It all makes you brood. Can a lobster be a telephone? Can a sofa be a pair of pouting lips? Can a chancer be a genius?
Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design, from Thursday to 22 July, V & A, London, SW7, www.vam.ac.uk, 020 7942 2000…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Dear Salvador. an Apology ; Dali Was a Dodgy Surrealist Showman with an Eye for the Main Chance - Which, Kevin Jackson Now Realises, Is Precisely Where His Genius Lies. Contributors: Jackson, Kevin - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: March 25, 2007. Page number: 4. © 2009 The Independent on Sunday. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.