Monday, August 11, 2008

In all my fervor, I can't believe I let this one slip away.

Vintage Salvador Dalí scarf. Lurid colors. Armored Roman torsos on an endless vista. I just love the fissures drawn in, making the silk resemble crumbling stone.

As a kid I was a huge Dalí fan. I mean, what kid doesn't like melting clocks? And he was so prolific (that is, he would do anything for a buck) that there were plenty examples of his work to see and in different mediums. Cartoons, sculptures, even perfume and clothing. I loved the dream sequence he did in Hitchcock's Spellbound, which led me to explore more of his work. This was the image that stuck with me the most:

The moustache, the aphorisms, the giraffes on fire, all left an indeliable mark on my aesthetic. I saw photos of his house once and vowed to myself that I too would one day sleep in an enormous seashell. (This dream remains unrealized, though I do sleep in a loft bed, surrounded with Japanese carp windsocks and plastic bubbles and seahorses.) The Mae West Room, and the lobsterphone are also interior design aspirations for me. As a teenager I spent hours staring at reproductions of his paintings and tripping out on them. At that time he was still alive. And still churning it out.

Later, I began to view his work as a collection of rather obvious tricks and effects, mercilessly flogged by a PR machine. King of Kitsch, and never one to miss a merchandizing opportunity, Dalí's academic photo-realistic painting style easily appeals to a mass market. And he supported Franco, which seems crass, at best. However, reviewing Surreal Lives, by Ruth Brandon, which describes the arc of the movement and some breathless gossip, Lawrence Osbourne wrote:

"In a sense, communism was the grave that surrealism buried
itself in -- not only because it imposed a philistine realist
aesthetic at odds with surrealism's deepest instincts, but because
it also destroyed the primacy of the erotic interplays that made
surrealism's booming, narcissistic individuals tick. When Dalí
unveiled an armchair studded with glass vials containing milk,
[Luis] Aragon dourly declared that there were too many children
in the world who needed milk and that the armchair was politically

I guess in the context of continual Marxists bummers like that, maybe one would want to go against the grain. But Franco? No, that's too much. I'll still maintain that it's possible to make socially responsible art that isn't self-righteous or banal. Easy? No, but possible. Alas, even asserting socially responsible art sounds hopeless prim in our current cultural climate, doesn't it? But then Dalí's brand of surrealism is the one that prevailed in popular imagery and Marxism collapsed under the weight of it's own ugly concrete housing blocks. Sigh. Like the mother at the end of the film Goodbye, Lenin!, I awake from a coma to find a Coca Cola ad outside my window and statues of Lenin being taken away by helicopter. And I think: What was so wrong with thinking communally? Was there no other possibility besides the over-commercialization of every aspect of our lives? (But that's a whole 'nother post.)

Seeing the massive Dalí exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few years ago made me a fan again. I even enjoyed the optical illusion paintings that obsessed him in later life.

Of course there would be no Dalí without his wife Gala. Born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, Gala managed and harnessed Dalí's crazy gift. And apparently she was real good at negotiating contracts. Critics have speculated that she wrote the books published in his name. She certainly tidied up his bizarre French. He claimed that without her he would have faced only madness and an early death. He even signed many of his paintings with both their names. The story goes that Dalí met Gala while filming Le Chien Andalou. He was wearing girl's underwear over his clothes and liberally daubed with his own execrement. I wish I could remember where I read this because I'd love to credit the author. She wrote something like: It took real vision on Gala's part take this man by the hand, call him darling and make him an art star.

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