22 August 2009

'Salvador Dali: Liquid Desire'

I will shell out an exorbitant amount of money to see a Dali exhibition (there seems to be one every five years or so), based on an assessment of how many pictures it contains of that period before 1940, before his thirty-fifth birthday, when Dali’s corrupt imagination burned with a peculiar, stinky intensity.

The good news is that ‘Salvador Dali: Liquid Desire’ at the NGV contains many choice morsels and a good many even older pictures when the little creep was just a teenager. There is bad news, but more of that shortly.

It contains a number of juvenilia, pictures done as he was chewing his way through diverse influences as a teenage prodigy.

It seems that he landed on a selection of Renaissance and Mannerist painters, especially Caravaggio with his ability to concentrate the eye on symbolically loaded detail with deep shade and theatrical light; and Velasquez and his bravura technique (that Dali regarded as a personal challenge) and domestic surfaces picked out in raking light, rendering them su(per)real, like the crustiness of peasant bread, the lustre on a terra cotta milk jug, and the ancient ruin of a crumbling block of cheese.

And of course the peculiar mix of sacred subject matter and perversity found in artists like Parmigianino, whose ‘Madonna with the Long Neck’ (1534) he imitated in an early self-portrait.

Wall texts in blockbuster exhibitions are always slightly dubious. There is often a sense of a curatorial barrow being pushed, or else I sometimes suspect pressure has been brought to bear by lenders to stick to an approved line. (I have no proof of this, and I’ve never even heard it complained about, but then if it was happening, the borrowers aren’t likely to complain too loudly.)

The man’s peculiarities were evident from an early age but the text in this exhibition is often coy about the nature of the imagery. ‘Portrait of My Sister’ (1925) and ‘Girl’s back’ (1929) both fetishize his sister’s hair, an obvious erotic trigger for him. The latter is a peculiar inversion of a salon portrait, the subject is turned from us, her suggestive ringlets hanging down and rendered in expert chiaroscuro. 'Portrait of My Sister' has a hard-edged eye for detail, like the early Miro, set in an uncanny de Chirico space, but those ringlets over the subject's shoulder are pure Dali.

The text plays a straight bat, waffling about their neo-classical pedigree, with the names of Ingres and Vermeer invoked, but the weird intensity of focus is already Dali’s own, and its nature is unmistakeable. The paintings virtually throb with it.

Later, the game gets funny when attempting to say something apropos about ‘Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano’ (1934). Needles to say, things are kept nice.

I’ve always appreciated Robert Hughes’ comment that Dali had a mind “like a gland, irritated by constant scratching.” It neatly suggests the sense of morbid pathology that the early paintings radiate. That is their lasting power as works of art, and what makes them key objects of the 20th century – objects of any kind.

The work ‘Suez’ (1932) is strange and unsettling, maybe because its restraint is so unlike his hysterical signature style. The famous canal was being constructed at the time and perhaps the idea of a huge trench linking two continents had some unusual connotations for him. An elongated spoon, liquid as if hot from the forge, reaches out from one wall of the canal towards an odd arabesque object, which emerges out of the other wall, the two forms forever in an unconsummated coupling. The image is suggestive and pathetic at the same time.

He was constantly registering new objects as fetishes loaded with unlimited sexual potential no matter how unlikely the resemblance. I was keeping a mental list while moving through the exhibition, which included:

Bones, beans, crutches, spoons, pianos (soft), violins and cellos, ants, knives, skulls, lamb chops, shoes, keys, lobsters, watches, keyholes, telephones, milk, trees, cannon, wheelbarrows. The list is evidently limitless and unconstrained by any obvious (to the rest of us) sexual connotation.

I was stopped in my tracks by a picture so unlike what had come before it, ‘Telephone in a Dish with Three Grilled Sardines at the End of September, 1939’.

This sombre image, heavy with grief, represents a path not taken. Again the mesmeric concentration on domestic objects but this time stripped of artifice, carrying their symbolic load with dignity. I was put in mind of Picasso’s paintings of the war period when he was shut up in his studio, the curtains drawn, anxious and cut off from his supporters and seemingly at the mercy of the occupying Nazis (who never in fact came knocking). He turned to still life in browns and greys, pictures of skulls and bulls’ heads, bizarre disjunctions of imagery telling their own suggestive story about what was going on outside.

For me this was the point of eclipse for Dali, after which he descended into mediocrity and confusion and an increasingly desperate chase after celebrity. By the late 40s he was already a full blown reactionary. His stated ambition was to be a ‘Renaissance painter’, whatever that meant, when he left Europe for the US, claiming he was leaving surrealism behind.

Needless to say he came back to it shortly after; that’s where the money was of course: baguettes and circuses. There was no way the American media or art establishment was going to let him get away with that. “So what kooky surrealist outrage are you going to foist on an art-hungry (and newspaper-buying) American public now, Mr Dali – walk down Broadway with a leopard on a chain? Give a lecture dressed in a diving helmet? Oh, Mr Dali, you are a card!”

And so the moustache grew in inverse proportion to any actual artistic achievement until it looked like a pair of tusks; classic sublimation, which as a good Freudian, Dali should have realised.

The only objects worth a damn in the latter part of the show (which goes on forever) were a couple of the jewels he made in the late 40s, just as I had given up hope and thought the show had hit a new low, with crude rehashes of his best imagery done in gold as indescribably tacky brooches and pendants.

There is only one object that for me suggested he still had his sense of humour about him. A ridiculous beating heart in rubies and gold, for the new Queen Elizabeth II, which actually throbs by means of a tiny motor, hitting just the right note if he was attempting to perpetrate an elaborate joke, which I’m not at all certain was his intention.

There is a section of the show dedicated to ‘Destino’, the animated film on which he collaborated with Walt Disney, left unfinished but completed (I assume faithfully) by Roy Disney in 2002. What a natural collaboration Dali and Disney turned out to be, Disney the entertainer anxious for high artistic credibility, and Dali the freak European aesthete who after all just wanted to play to the gallery.

I have my doubts about the success of the finished film. It’s hard from this distance to know how surprising it would have seemed to an audience at the time, but I doubt it would have really have satisfied anyone. It is too formless and lacking in narrative for a general audience, and too ‘Disney’ to satisfy the art crowd.

Given it was never finished, it looks like the evolution happened anyway. Less than ten years later, Terry Gilliam had started to make his surrealist cut-out animations for British TV, with a similar stream-of-consciousness (lack of) logic, and certainly advertising was well on to Dali much earlier than that. The fact that none of this would have happened had it not been for him is no criticism, but merely to say that he had anticipated himself way back in the 1930s. The rest was repetition.

I left the show feeling slightly sad and deflated, and the usual tacky merchandising outside the entrance was for once not a great break from what had immediately preceded it.


emily said...

Fantastic review. My friend Francis is a curator at the Queensland Gallery, and he tells me that Dali used to 'marinate' rolled up breadcrumbs under his foreskin. Oh yes. And Francis said that was certainly the kind of detail that he would have like to include on the interp labels, had he been writing them.
When are we going to catch up by the way? Our blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys are both getting older!

dan said...

Interesting. We had a much better experience at the Los Angeles Dali exhibit a while back.

There are images about that at: