Magazine article The Spectator

Surreal Showman

Magazine article The Spectator

Surreal Showman

Article excerpt

In 1938 in London there took place one of the most intriguing encounters of the century - so piquant, in fact, that it is surprising that nobody has written a play about it. After repeated attempts, Salvador Dali finally met Sigmund Freud. So excited was the painter at seeing face-to-face the man he believed had influenced him more than anyone else - except perhaps Picasso - that his eyes blazed with excitement. The aged Freud was evidently slightly taken aback, and whispered in German, `That boy looks like a fanatic. No wonder they have civil war in Spain if they look like that.'

His more sober estimate the next day was more favourable, if still a little lukewarm. `I have to thank you indeed,' he wrote to Stefan Zweig, who had arranged the introduction. `Until now I was inclined to regard the Surrealists as 100 per cent fools (or rather, let's say, as with alcohol, 95 per cent). This young Spaniard, with his ingenuous fanatical eyes and undoubtedly technically perfect mastery has suggested to me a different estimate.' One can't help wondering what he would have made of an exhibition such as Salvador Dali's Optical Illusions, currently at the Dean Gallery of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Freud's deeper reservations, noted by Dawn Ades in her catalogue essay, were that with Dali, paradoxically, psychoanalysis was short-circuited: `The mystery was manifested outright.' Thus the pictures were the product of conscious rather than unconscious thought.

That sounds spot on: the mysteries are all on the surface. It is an understatement to say that Dali wore his unconscious mind on his sleeve. It was, even more than the staring eyes and watch-spring moustache, his trademark - the equivalent of Mae West's bust, or Chaplin's baggy trousers. Such comparisons are not that wild. Andy Warhol, when he hung around with Dali and his wife Gala in New York in the Sixties, enjoyed their company because `it's like being with royalty or circus people. That's why I like being with Dali because it's not like being with an artist. He wouldn't be caught dead in a loft.'

Dali was in fact a showman. Which other major artist would have turned up to a public appearance in a limousine entirely filled with cauliflowers? And which for that matter could have supplied designs for the Hitchcock film Spellbound (`The Eye', 1945, one of the pictures made for the movie, is on show)? The Surrealists ejected him for political unreliability - he leaned to the Right - and also incipient vulgarity. Andre Breton devised a telling anagram of Dali's name: Avida Dollars.

As an artist, Dali's showmanship largely depended on two devices, both intended to produce a certain type of frisson, a psychological `click' which occurs as you realise that something strange and disorientating is going on. One method he used is the metamorphosis of people and objects the female figures, for example, whose heads are composed of bouquets of flowers, clutching a gelatinously floppy cello and piano in `Three Young Surrealist Women in their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra'.

The other, which is highlighted in this show, is the image which suddenly switches - like the duck and rabbit of the psychology books - into another completely different one. Dali was extremely adept at constructing these. On show, for example, is a group of figures in 17th-century dresses who suddenly turn into a bust of Voltaire, and a female figure along the lines of a Vermeer is simultaneously a bearded male face - her elbow becoming the point of his nose, her skirt his beard and so on. …

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