Sunday, 20 September 2009

   

 

BEFORE DAMIEN HIRST, THERE WAS SALVADOR DALI

 

When I visited the huge Damien Hirst exhibition staged by the Gagosian Gallery in New York, in 1996, one of the most striking pieces was a large glass tank full of live fish,. Dumped among the fish were an obstetrical couch, in a rather decayed condition, and various obstetrical implements. For some time after I had seen the show this image tugged at my mind. It reminded me of something - but of what? Finally memory dragged up the reference I needed: Hirst's piece was a direct descendant of Salvador Dali's installation 'Rainy Taxi', shown at the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris in 1938.

 

'Rainy Taxi' was a broken down old car, in which Dali placed two mannequins. One was the driver, who had the head of a fish. In the back seat there was a blonde woman in an evening dress, seated among lettuces and endives, under a pipe system that supplied a constant fine spray of water. Thriving among the vegetables were two hundred live snails.

 

The installation belongs to the very end of the period when Dali was still a member in good standing of the international avant-garde. As early as 1934 his painting 'The Enigma of William Tell', showing Lenin with a vastly elongated buttock, had caused a breach with the official Surrealist Group led by André Breton. Breton wanted to reconcile the Surrealists with the Communist party, and any mockery of Lenin stood in the way of this. Dali was expelled peremptorily from the Surrealist Movement, but continued to work on its fringes, and was included, because of his growing celebrity, in various International Surrealist exhibitions.

 

A great part of this celebrity was due to Dali's success in America. In December 1936 his portrait appeared on the cover of 'Time', the most influential news magazine in the United States. In 1939, he caused a satisfactory scandal in New York, by accidentally crashing through a window of the great Bonwit Teller department store, while re-arranging a surrealist window display.[1] By this time his estrangement from Breton and those who surrounded him had become final. Breton anagrammatically christened Dali 'Avida Dollars', and more or less washed his hands of him.

 

Art historians, until very recently, have been inclined to follow Breton's lead. Dali retained his popularity with the mass public, but intellectuals regarded him as an artist who has sold out. The time has come to revise this view - and to revise it in a radical way.

 

If one looks carefully at Dali's career, and especially at the latter part of it, he is clearly one of the true forerunners of the art world we have today. Even his personal character - a strange mixture of the snobbish, the exhibitionistic and the abject - brings him very close to some of the most successful and celebrated artists of the present time.

 

From the beginning of his career Dali was interested in popular forms. His two film collaborations with Luis Bunuel 'Un Chien Andalou' [1929] and 'L'Age d'Or' [1930] are the obvious precursors of the artists' videos popular today - for example Matthew Barney's 'Cremaster' series. His interest in film persisted almost throughout his career. In 1937 he visited Harpo Marx in Hollywood in order to write a scenario for him. In 1946 he worked with Walt Disney on an unfinished film called 'Destino' and collaborated with Alfred Hitchock by designing the dream sequences for 'Spellbound'. In 1953 and 1954 there were two more unfinished film projects, one called 'The Flesh Wheelbarrow' and another called 'The Prodigious Story of the Lacemaker and the Rhinoceros' [a collaboration with Robert Descharnes]. In 1967 he made a film entitled 'A Soft Self-Portrait' in collaboration with Jean-Christophe Averty. In 1975 his final film, 'Impressions from Upper Mongolia [Homage to Raymond Roussel]', made on video-tape, was shown on German television.

 

It was his time in the United States that offered him his real opportunity to engage with popular art. For the New York World's Fair Dali was engaged to design a pavilion that until recently remained virtually unrecorded in most accounts of his career. Situated in the 'amusement zone' of the Fair, it has been described contemptuously as "a publicity stunt with more or less commercial sidelines"[2]. The design of the pavilion, entitled 'A Dream of Venus', was highly original, though severely compromised by quarrels with his commercial partners. The architectural forms were influenced by Dali's admiration for Gaudi's Casa Mila in Barcelona. The interior contained foreshadowings of today's performance and installation art, with 17 'liquid ladies' enacting tableaux devised by the artist. There was a 36-foot-long couch where models impersonating Venus slept in six-hour shifts, while her underwater dreams were made visible in a nearby tank. In one scene a female diver played on the piano-keyboard body of a chained mannequin. These were only one small, ironic step away from the tacky amusements offered in various down-market American seaside resorts - and even smaller step from some of the Happenings created by leading American Pop artists in the 1960s.

 

The reason why this 'pop' aspect of Dali's career has been neglected is partly because it was expressed through ephemeral means. 'A Dream of Venus' survives only in photographs, among them a recently rediscovered set of 24 colour slides made by a photographer called Eric Schaal, a German-born photo-journalist. Only three of Schaal's photographs were piblished at the time, in 'Life' magazine. The rest were unknown until recently.

 

At this period Dali also collaborated with a number of well-known photographers then working in New York. One was George Platt Lynes, who made a photograph showing Dali's head pressed against the hip of a nude model with a lobster concealing her pubic region. Another was Horst P. Horst who did a feature for Vogue centred on the idea of seafood as fashion. In one shot the model wears a necklace of shellfish, and an eel belt. Dali has of course collaborated previously with the Parisian couturière Elsa Shiaparelli, designing accessories such as hats and buttons. In 1943, he designed a series of jewels in collaboration with Duke Fulco de Verdura. There is even a series of perfumes created by, or in honour of Dali: Daliflor, Dalimania, Dalimix and Dalissime.

 

The link between contemporary art and fashion was then relatively new, though designers such as Paul Poiret had of course been extensively influenced by the Ballets Russes before World War I, and the Russian emigrée Sonia Delaunay worked as a designer of avant-garde clothing during the 1920s. Yet it was really Dali who comprehensively broke down the barrier between the two fields of activity.

 

Through his collaborative activity in creating photographic tableaux, he also did something to promote the idea that photography could be fine art on the same basis as other forms of visual art activity. American historians of post-war modernism have gone so far as to suggest a comparison with the work of Cindy Sherman.

 

The paradox is that Dali also seems to be the precursor of another and very different current in today's art - the return to 'classical' archetypes. His first work of this type was the 'Madonna of Port Lligat' [1949], which, at  3.70 x 2.50 metres, was also much larger than his previous work. It was quickly followed by other ambitious works on religious themes, such as 'The Temptation of St. Anthony' [1950] and the celebrated 'Christ of St. John of the Cross' [1951]. Though these proved immensely successful with the popular audience Dali had now built up for himself, they were regarded as a betrayal of Modernism by professional commentators on contemporary art. These commentators tended to link Dali's change of direction to his increasingly conservative political attitudes. His support for Franco after the Spanish Civil War was one of the things that most excited hostility towards him among the predominantly Marxist membership of French Surrealist Group. Later Dali was credited with getting his one-time collaborator Luis Bunuel chased out of the United States - Bunuel settled in Mexico and made a new career as a director there.

 

In fact, Dali, like his Italian contemporary Giorgio de Chirico, now seems like the prophet of certain increasingly visible Post Modern tendencies. Many avant-gardes have contained a 'retro' element. For the 19th century German Nazarenes and British Pre-Raphaelites, for example, going backward seemed like the only means of going forward. A similar spirit manifests itself in a number of currently active art movements today - in the Novia Akademia ['New Academy'] in St. Petersburg, for instance, and in the artists associated with Pittura Colta ['Cultivated Painting'] in Italy. This impulse manifests itself in Dali's late work just as it does in de Chirico.

 

The verdict must surely be that Dali, though a very imperfect human being, was an extraordinarily prescient creator, and this prescience manifests itself in the late work perhaps even more clearly than what he did earlier. We cannot celebrate artists such as Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Matthew Barney without celebrating him as well.

 


 

[1] It must be remembered that Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol all worked on window displays for New York department stores at the beginning of their careers. So Dali was also a precursor in this respect.

[2] Sheldon Nodelman "Disguise and Display, Art in America, March 2003, p.58

 

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