Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Surreal Life ; Art Critics Are Often Dismissive of Salvador Dali, but a New Exhibition Suggests He Was Ahead of His Time

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Surreal Life ; Art Critics Are Often Dismissive of Salvador Dali, but a New Exhibition Suggests He Was Ahead of His Time

Article excerpt

When Salvador Dali died in 1989, his reputation had plummeted from heights of renown in the 1930s to a low point. His outrageous antics made him one of the most widely recognized artists of the 20th century. But his relentless self-promotion, buffoonish declarations of genius, and right-wing politics alienated the art world. By the 1960s, critics dismissed his work, outside its classic Surrealist period of 1929-39. Dali was considered a pathetic mountebank, a has-been.

Now, 101 years after his birth, the Philadelphia Museum of Art aims to reassess Dali's contributions. Without the spectacle of the living (and leering) Dali, the work speaks for itself in a retrospective titled simply "Salvador Dali," on display through May 15. According to Anne d'Harnoncourt, museum director, the exhibition offers a chance "to encounter a complete and complex picture of the artist's oeuvre."

The show's curator, Mark Taylor, believes the artist deserves to be seen as more than a footnote in prewar art history. "Dali's enormous impact on contemporary art has yet to be properly assessed. His late work ... redefined the boundaries of art, fashion, and popular culture in ways that we are only now beginning to understand." The retrospective, covering six decades of Dali's achievement, aims to give Dali "the proper recognition he deserves," says Mr. Taylor.

Salvador means "savior" and Dali said he was "destined for nothing less than to rescue painting from the void of modern art." Dali disparaged modernism (which he saw as lacking respect for craft) as a dead end. He rebelled by infusing contemporary art with virtuoso draftsmanship and painstakingly realistic technique.

He also injected a blast of color into the art world through the force and farce of his personality. With his floor-length capes, silver-headed canes, flowing ties, lacquered hair, and dashing mustache, Dali was a dandy and a showman. He gleefully commodified his image, transforming his life into a series of brand-name events.

The Catalan artist spoofed the New York Daily News with a self- authored publication called the "Dali News" and arrived for a news conference wearing green goggles and a boiled lobster on his head. On another occasion, he pulled up to a lecture at the Sorbonne in a white Rolls Royce stuffed with cauliflowers. Most notoriously, he made an appearance in London in 1936 in a deep-sea diver's suit with a jeweled dagger in his belt. As he delivered a discourse on mining one's subterranean depths for hidden imagery, Dali exhausted his supply of oxygen and had to be extricated from his diver's helmet.

Dali's plunge into show-biz commercialism won him the disdain of his early booster, the French poet Andre Breton, a founder of the Surrealist movement. Breton concluded that "Dali is like a man who hesitates between talent and genius."

Dali didn't care. He courted wealth and drew no distinction between high and low culture. In a 15-second commercial on French television, for which he earned $10,000, Dali rolled his eyes and proclaimed, "I am mad, completely mad" over Lanvin chocolates. He collaborated with Chanel and Schiaparelli on haute couture; invented a hallucinatory dream sequence for Hitchcock's film "Spellbound," and sold calendars, ashtrays, and oyster knives.

It's impossible to separate the life from the art because Dali's bizarre, mysterious paintings derive not only from his eccentric lifestyle but from his childhood traumas, phobias, and fantasies.

In 1929, at the age of 25, Dali came into his own. In that year, he painted "The First Days of Spring." A collaged photo of Dali as a child at the center of the canvas indicates the supreme position of autobiography as the fount of his disturbing imagery. …

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