Friday, May 10, 2013

109 Surrealist Years: Salvador Dalí

A year from tomorrow, I guess we can anticipate there being something of an anniversary celebration. One hundred and ten isn't a particularly notable anniversary but it is more so than one hundred and nine.

On 11 May 1904, Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domenech was born. The people of the town of Figueres in Catalonia would have had no idea what this birth was to mean. The world didn't know what it was in for.

I try to imagine what the reaction to Dalí's "The Persistence of Memory" in 1932 would have been. Art critics were probably divided between those who loved it and those who hated it. The ordinary man in the street, had he even been aware of it, would surely not have known what to have made of it. But then experimental and surrealist art has never really been the stuff of the common man. Think Damien Hirst, for example.

But Dalí forged a place in the world of the common man. For students of the sixties and seventies, a Dalí poster (usually "Metamorphosis of Narcissus") was as de rigueur as one of Che Guevara or Jim Morrison. For mostly everyone else, Dalí was a total nutter, an eccentric of quite industrial proportions. He was, as he once insisted when being harangued by the rest of the surrealist movement, the only real "surrealist". His whole being was surreal, though to what extent it was all simply a front designed to attract publicity, fame and wealth is hard to say. It's difficult to believe that anyone could truly be as batty as Dalí was without some of it having been stage-managed.

Dalí, along with Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, formed a troika of Spanish painters who, in many respects, dominated the whole world of twentieth-century art. Though they were connected in their earlier years - Picasso was admired by Dalí, while Miró had recommended Dalí to Picasso - they went their separate ways. And Dalí went a separate way that was nothing like the quiet life that Miró found for himself in Mallorca.

What each of them achieved, with their varying and distinctive styles, was an opening of the mind. Though Miró was critical of the excesses of the surrealists, they, and Dalí in particular, exposed an alternative perception, one that was to later appeal to those who sought perception-altering experiences through LSD or magic mushrooms. Dalí claimed never to have taken mind-altering drugs. If he didn't, the mind boggles at how he came up with what he did and how he managed a painting like "The Hallucinogenic Toreador" in 1970 at a time when psychedelia and hippy culture were still very much in vogue. 

Dalí's work was fantastic, an adjective that can be taken in different ways: superb or bizarre. But it is a shame that his globe-trotting self-promotion and all-round lunacy got in the way of what he achieved. He is remembered almost exclusively for what he produced in the 1930s, yet even at a time when he was cropping up on the American "What's My Line" (look it up on YouTube), he was creating a piece as magnificent as the giant "The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus" in 1959. I look at this now and begin to understand where the KLF got the idea for their video for the "America" version of "What Time Is Love". And where pop/dance acts are concerned, few have ever been as batty as the KLF.

It was his obsession with his image and his own publicity that let Dalí down. To an extent, Picasso was also undermined by his ego as well as by his affairs, but he did continue to concentrate on his art, while Dalí concentrated on being bonkers. Of the great Spanish threesome, Picasso and Miró just kept getting better. The legacy of both these artists is vastly superior to that of Dalí's as a result, and while Picasso had those who criticised his desire for wealth and women, as a person he didn't come to be as divisive a figure as Dalí; George Orwell said of him that he was "a disgusting human being".

In part, this was because Dalí was generally supportive of Franco. Picasso most certainly wasn't, while Miró tried to avoid the subject (he had been a Republican sympathiser). So, as people, both Picasso and Miró left stronger legacies as well.

Whatever was thought of Dalí as a person, he was a remarkable artist. It is his 109th anniversary. Far from not being notable, Dalí would probably have approved of an eccentric number being chosen to commemorate him.

Any comments to please.

No comments: