Dalí's Late Work
At the High Museum of Art
by Robert Stalker
The current exhibition Dalí: The Late Work at the High Museum in Atlanta (Aug. 7, 2010-Jan. 9, 2011), the latest of several attempts to re-assess the post-Surrealist Dalí, places Dalí’s much maligned late work in the context of his interest in mass media and the culture of publicity. The exhibit’s curator, Elliott King, explains that we might better appraise Dalí’s late work once “we move beyond Dalí’s veneer of self-promotion or, better still, understand it as integral to his artistic project.” Comprised of approximately 100 works ranging from lithographs, video, film, stereoscopy, holography, and forty paintings drawn from all phases of Dalí’s career, the exhibit presents the post-1940s Dalí as keenly responsive to the opportunities opened up by various new media—opportunities for self-promotion as well as artistic expression. Situating Dalí’s painting within this wider interest in popular culture and mass media, the exhibit implicitly—and not altogether convincingly—positions Dalí as something of a proto-Pop artist.
The renewed critical interest in Dalí’s later work began formally with the symposium on “The Dalí Renaissance” that accompanied a retrospective concentrating on Dalí’s post-1940 work at The Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2005. The more recent Dalí: Painting and Film exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2008 focused on the artist’s lifelong love of cinema. The High’s Dalí: The Late Work builds on these earlier efforts, unabashedly presenting Dalí as an artist thoroughly enmeshed in the world of Hollywood films, new media such as holography and video, and what Dalí himself had extolled in 1928 as “[t]he anti-artistic world of advertisement.” For instance, the giant posters and billboards advertising the exhibit outside the museum and all around Atlanta reproduce not a Dalí painting but a photographic portrait by Phillipe Halsman (1906-1979), blown up to colossal proportions, of crazy-eyed Dalí sporting his impossible trademark mustache. The exhibit itself opens with a gallery devoted to Dalí’s collaboration with Halsman on Dalí’s Mustache (1954), a photographic interview staged between the two in which humorous portraits of Dalí provide comical answers to the interviewer’s questions. (For example, the photograph accompanying the question “Why do you paint?” depicts Dalí hilariously twisting his mustache into a dollar sign.) After moving through six or so galleries devoted to Dalí’s work in painting, design, film, video, and holography, the exhibit culminates with a meditation on Dalí as media star and spectacle, containing a wall adorned with reproductions of a couple dozen magazine covers parading Dalí’s all too familiar image.
The exhibit’s organization of Dalí’s late work within the context of his manipulations of his public image implicitly weaves together a narrative of Dalí as an early antecedent to Pop art. No doubt Dalí’s attention-grabbing shenanigans and brazen commerciality afforded artists such as Andy Warhol a model of artistic self-fashioning quite distinct from the earnestness of New York School painters. But the exhibit’s interleaving placards containing quotations from James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Dalí’s own pronouncements on Pop art suggest, less persuasively, that Dalí’s paintings themselves might have contributed formally to Pop. And while Dalí shared with the Pop artists an interest in popular culture and mass media, particularly cinema, Dalí’s own kind of photo-realism is driven less by an interest in scrutinizing the image saturated world of consumer culture than in developing a highly polished and undeniably impressive illusionist technique to capture his visions.
Of course, Dalí’s attraction to film reaches back to the very beginning of his career. It was, after all, not his paintings but his collaboration with Luis Buñuel on the stunning film Un Chien Andalou (1929) that first brought him to the attention of the Surrealists. And while Dalí’s second effort with Bunuel, the film L’age D’or (1930), would prove less personally fulfilling for Dalí, he would soon develop a genuine ambition to work in Hollywood cinema, writing enthusiastically in the late 1930s to a presumably much chagrined André Breton that he had contacted “the three great American Surrealists”—Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille, and the Marx Brothers. Eventually Dalí would indeed work with Disney on the animated film Destino (1945), and even with Alfred Hitchcock on the famous dream sequence of Spellbound (1946), though the extent of Dalí’s contributions to the latter remains in question. And while many of Dalí’s cinematic ambitions would remain unrealized, still and moving photography proved critical to his thinking about painting.
In his autobiography My Secret Life (1942), written during his transition from his Surrealist phase to what he would call his classical phase, Dalí repeatedly writes in photographic and cinematic terms. He records visions that come to him “as if my head had been a real motion picture projector.” He describes memories that stand out “with a photographic minuteness of detail.” He recounts “a reversed and speeded up motion picture of the ephemeral unfolding of a flower.” Such ideas about cinematic or photographic ways of seeing find their way into his paintings, as he developed what he calls in The Conquest of the Irrational (1935) the “[i]nstantaneous and hand-done colour photography of the superfine.”
Dalí: The Late Work includes a number of early surrealist works, such as Morphological Echo (1936) and Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image (1938), that seem to press in the direction of the cinematic and photographic. Both paintings represent what Dalí referred to as “the most imperialist fury of precision,” a technical virtuosity for rendering life-like imagery combined with an almost overwrought surface finish that Dalí developed through experimentation with various resins. The glossy, glass-like surface polish of these paintings, so out of step with modernism’s interest in the materiality of the painting surface, captures what Dalí called in “The Poetry of Standardized Utility” (1928) “the impeccable finish of mechanical perfection.” Moreover, the doubling of images in these and many other paintings suggests, as the art historian Dawn Ades has observed, an interest in developing in his paintings images that suggest “that process of transformation which came to be achieved on the cinema screen by dissolve or montage.” As Dalí moved away from his “official” association with Surrealism, his interest in film and Hollywood persisted, even deepened, as did his interest in pushing his painting in the direction of still and moving photography.
Dalí’s shift from Surrealism to classicism in the late forties and early fifties coincided with his embracing of Catholic doctrine and cutting-edge science which merged into what he dubbed “nuclear mysticism,” an idiosyncratic combination of Catholic mysticism and nuclear physics which Dalí outlined in his “Mystic Manifesto” (1951). The religious paintings he began producing, the Madonna of Port Lligat (1950), the Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951), the Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapilazuline (1952), and Santiago el Grande (1957), all included in this exhibit, struck one critic at the time as “vulgarly pompous piety on a Cinemascope scale.” While this judgment seems hardly complementary, this critic captures what is perhaps most interesting in Dalí’s post-Surrealist work. The gigantic Santiago el Grande, for example, with its brilliant blue background and remarkable verism seems eminently cinematic. And while it predates the debut of Cinerama by just a year, the horse and rider depicted in the painting do possess a kind of momentum and outward thrust that seems as if they are about to leap off of the picture plane and into the space of the viewer in ways that anticipate the insistent illusionism that Cinerama marketed as the new technology’s “participation effect.” And, while it might be sacrilegious to depict The Christ of St. John of the Cross from the perspective of what could arguably be described as a crane shot, it certainly wouldn’t be beneath Dalí, that admirer of the “American Surrealist” Cecil B. DeMille, to do so.
As the exhibit makes clear, Dalí maintained throughout the second half of his career a keen awareness of various developments in media such as film, video, holography, and even animation. And, while Dalí shared with Pop artists an interest in these developments, only two paintings included in the exhibit, The Sistine Madonna (1958) and Portrait of My Dead Brother (1963), arguably reflect a genuinely Pop sensibility. The earlier of the two has its origin in a photograph of the Pope in the magazine Paris Match. Dalí blew up the photo to an enormous size, transferring just the Pope’s now giant-sized ear in the Benday dots pattern of the newsprint onto the canvas with oil paint. Inside the Pope’s ear, Dalí painted, also in Benday pattern, a reproduction of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (c. 1514). Along the side of the painting, in his unmatchable trompe l’oeile technique, Dalí painted a piece of folded paper (the same folded paper that appears in The Christ) with string and ball. The result is perhaps the most successful of Dalí’s later works, conveying a haunting mystery that persists well after our marvel at Dalí’s technical triumph has receded. Marcel Duchamp thought enough of the work to include it in an exhibition of Surrealist art that he organized, much to the mortification of Dalí’s former Surrealist colleagues who had long since grown tired of the antics of the artist Breton had anagrammatically dubbed “Avida Dollars”—avid for dollars.
By placing Dalí’s painting alongside his work in various media such as film, video, design, and holography, Dalí: the Late Work attempts to situate Dalí as an important precursor to Pop artists such as such as Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and even Sigmar Polke (who passed away last June) not to mention more contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons (who will speak at the High in October about the influence of Dalí on his own work). Dalí’s “hand-done colour photography of the superfine” reflects less a Pop interest in interrogating the image soaked world of commodity culture than a refinement of the nineteenth-century academic painterly technique that Dalí so admired. Perhaps more than any formal qualities of his painting, what Dalí truly bequeathed to future artists was an ironic, at times even flippant, attitude toward art and the art world, and a masterful exploitation of the culture of publicity in crafting what is arguably his most recognizable work of art—the indelible image of Salvador Dalí.
Dalí: The Late Work is at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. from 7 August, 2010 - 9 January, 2010.
Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina, 1952, oil on canvas 90 1/2 x 56 3/4 inches Coleccion Masaveu © 2010 Gonzalo de la Serna © Salvador Dali, Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali / ARS 2010
Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.