Wednesday, March 02, 2005


Dalí’s Photoshop is a phrase that kept running through my head as I wandered through the immense – and densely, brutally packed – Salvador Dalí retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dalí would have loved that software program – at least up to a point. It would have enabled him to execute his dreamscapes with even greater photorealism, a condition that he obviously concluded early on was required in order to address the unconscious.


I say up to a point because the other side of Dalí, beyond wild surrealist of the trademark moustache & melting watches, the avant-gardiste as public joke – a role Dalí shared much of his adult life with Gertrude Stein – is a remarkable fidelity to painting as a classic craft. It comes out in detail, in perspective, in the degree to which his oils mute their strokes – the antithesis of abstract expressionism. Many of his most famous & complex works are small, some very nearly miniatures, including the Persistence of Memory (not, alas, included in the show, but viewable at MoMa in New York). The painting Basket of Bread above was painted when Dalí was all of 22, the same year he was expelled from art school for insubordination, claiming that none of his teachers were fit to judge his work. He was already a close friend of Lorca, enamored of Picasso & only a few years away from his admittance – temporary as it turned out – into Breton’s surrealist cabal.


Dalí was born the same year as Louis Zukofsky, which is to say that he was born an entire generation after Stein. Yet as a result of his exile to the U.S. during the Second World War, the ever publicity-conscious Dalí paralleled Stein in his years of greatest notoriety. I underscore that connection because in the 1960s – the absolute heyday of the Abstract Expressionists (tho the Pop Artists were already starting to make their move) – the one person whom I heard publicly defend Dalí – going so far as to call him the greatest painter of the 20th century – was also the only person I heard defend Gertrude Stein – the poet Robert Duncan.


Dalí called his method handmade color photography – how Photoshop is that? There is a late painting of a dream of his partner Gala in which two tigers are leaping from the mouth of a snapper, which itself is leaping from a giant pomegranate hovering over the sleeping figure of the naked woman. The tigers were copied from a Ringling Brothers circus ad! Not collaged – meticulously recreated through draftsmanship.


What Duncan claimed he liked most about Dalí was that his paintings were, in Duncan’s words, “multistable.” What I think Duncan meant by this is the phenomenon of double images that occurs in Dalí’s work from the 1940s onward in which a face might be constructed with a pair of salt shakers (or Dutch burgers) for eyes, a pre-Escher, post-trompe loeil device that mimics the process of metaphor. In such works, there can be no correct image on which the eye should settle, but rather the process sets up a constant shuttling back & forth between effects.


Yet this device is a relatively minor one for Dalí, even if it has been mimed by a zillion lesser painters (some of whom may have signed Dalí’s name to their work). The Sistine Madonna, a late work from 1958, presages everyone from Roy Lichtenstein to Chuck Close by putting the mother & child into a blown up photograph, its pixels the size of dimes, of the pope’s ear. Dalí throws off new devices like this almost casually during his entire career. This is, after all, a man who worked at different stages of his career with Bunuel, Hitchcock & Alice Cooper.


In the 1960s, when Duncan proved his defender, Dalí offered the scandal of commercialism for serious art, doing commissioned surrealist portraits of rich folks (there is only one serious example in this exhibit, tho in a couple of different stages), turning out surreal clothing & industrial design, making outrageous statements in the press, a medium that could not tell when he was or was not being serious. At one level, he was doing what artists have always done to make a living. In the age of capital & Hollywood, he figured, one needed to promote oneself with a certain flair. But it alienated one possible audience – serious thinkers about art – even as it attracted buyers. Toward the end of his life, this got way out of hand, and galleries were discovered to have signed sheets of blank paper around just waiting for Dalí prints . . . or Dalí forgeries.


Unlike the rest of his generation of surrealists, Dalí never made Paris his permanent home. Spain, on the other hand, had a particularly unfortunate 20th century, its role as a major western nation virtually erased by the Civil War in the 1930s – a war in which Dalí remained officially neutral to the outrage of his surrealist peers. When Dalí & Gala decamped to the U.S. during the Second World War, it meant making a living not only in a new land, but in one where Dalí had no particular reason to believe would become the center of the fine arts in just a few years. His antics ensured that he would thrive financially, but they came at the cost of not being taken seriously for a long time.


One problem that Dalí shares with both Robert Rauschenberg & Gerhard Richter is the direct result of his virtuosity. Dalí may well have been the finest realist painter of his day – none of the Wyeths could hold his paintbrush – yet he was not a realist as such & he lived in a milieu, first within surrealism and the other modernist genres, then later as a counterpoint to abstract expressionism, when realism itself was not valued in painting. His student work – the earliest paintings here were done when he was just 13 – shows that he was adept at any of the impressionist devices – he could do Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall, Miro, Millet, Picasso the way Kevin Spacey does impressions. The result is precisely that he makes it look too easy, especially since his style, at least once he left school, was to mute his strokes so that the eye never focuses on the paint, but rather at the referential imagery.


With over 200 works of art, this is the largest Dalí retrospective in the U.S. since 1941. The exhibit began in Venice, but has no other stops and runs through May 15. Timed tickets are necessary but be forewarned. What I say about the dense brutal packing of viewers is literally true. Try to get there for the opening of the day, so that lingering viewers don’t crowd you beyond claustrophobia to points of dizziness & nausea. Even with timed tickets, it took us 45 minutes in line to get into the show.