The Master of Surrealism

20 November 2009


Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1954

As it happens, the second most comprehensive Salvador Dalí museum in the world, The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, is only about fifteen minutes drive from the corner of Sunshine Drive and Friendly Way where I am currently staying. I went to the Dalí museum today and spent some time with the works of the Master of Surrealism. The museum has a great collection, only part of which is displayed. I was told that they own about 1,300 pieces, which is obviously more than can be displayed at once. A new and larger museum is currently under construction nearby. Although the present museum is not large, the collection is nicely shown and very accessible to the visitor. My only complaint is with the lighting, which glares on the large canvases and which could easily be adjusted to shine less directly on the paintings.

Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926) shows his talent and his early mastery of technique, but his distinctive aesthetic imagination is notably absent.

The earliest paintings of Dalí show him experimenting with the styles of art familiar in his time. There is a canvas that is indistinguishable from Monet, and another that could pass for Cezanne. I can’t imagine a better technique for a painter to gain experience and knowledge of both the medium and the tradition than by imitating the most advanced works of his time, and Dalí shows the technical precision of his talent right from the beginning. Probably everyone knows someone with artistic talent, who has a natural knack for drawing or painting. Obviously Dalí had talent. Beyond talent, one must acquire technique. These early canvases show Dalí working through his technique. Beyond talent and technique, the true genius will have the aesthetic imagination to employ his talent and technique in unique works of art. When Dalí passes into his definitively surrealistic maturity, he reveals at the same time his aesthetic imagination — at it is an imagination of the first order.

Dalí's Cadaqués of 1923 owes more than a little to Cézanne; it is an essay in the style of Cézanne.

What is surrealism? There are, of course, many answers to this question, and the very idea of attempting to capture something as resistant to rational formulation as surrealism is problematic. Nevertheless, surrealism does have its locus classicus, and its locus classicus is as surreal and as hallucinogenic as any later productions of the genre. This is Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, a truly bizarre and unclassifiable prose poem novel that contains, among other unlikely passages, this paean to beauty in the form of a litany (first in the original French):

La somme des jours ne compte plus, quand il s’agit d’apprécier la capacité intellectuelle d’une figure sérieuse. Je me connais à lire l’âge dans les lignes physiognomoniques du front: il a seize ans et quatre mois! Il est beau comme la rétractilité des serres des oiseaux rapaces; ou encore, comme l’incertitude des mouvements musculaires dans les plaies des parties molles de la région cervicale postérieure; ou plutôt, comme ce piège à rats perpétuel, toujours retendu par l’animal pris, qui peut prendre seul des rongeurs indéfiniment, et fonctionner même caché sous la paille; et surtout, comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d’une machine à coudre et d’un parapluie!

And in English translation:

The total number of days no longer counts when it is a matter of appreciating the intellectual capacity of a serious face. I am an expert at judging age from the physiognomic lines of the brow: he is sixteen years and four months of age. He is as beautiful as the retractility of the claws of birds of prey; or, again, as the unpredictability of muscular movement in sores in the soft part of the posterior cervical region; or, rather, as the perpetual motion rat-trap which is always reset by the trapped animal and which can go on catching rodents indefinitely and works even when it is hidden under straw; and, above all, as the chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table!

The last entry of this litany — the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table — was taken up by later surrealists as something of a one-line slogan and manifesto. André Breton, the surrealist’s surrealist, said that Maldoror was “The expression of a revelation so complete it seems to exceed human potential.”

Dalí's Morphological Echo of 1936 is a classic surrealist juxtaposition of unlikely objects found together in a shared space.

Dalí exemplified this conception of surrealism, though he did not merely exemplify a pre-existing tradition. Dalí was, to be sure, a surrealist, but he transcended, exceeded, and over-determined surrealism, as all great artists go beyond the cultural context that was their own conditio sine qua non. For the mediocre artist, one’s conditio sine qua non becomes conflated with one’s raison d’être; in the superior artist, there is always a profound disconnect between the two.

Earlier in the month, in Claude Lévi-Strauss, R.I.P., I wrote:

Freud and Marx, those twin fascinations of twentieth century European thought, are often credited with being structuralists, or, at least, following a structuralist method, and this is, in my estimation, a fair way to put it, despite the distaste most people have for using a label that ends with an “ism”. But if “isms” tend to over-simplification and schematism, and are often rejected for these reasons, the rejection of an “ism”, i.e., the rejection of a school of thought, can become as much of an intellectual fetish as the naming and labeling of a school of thought. Lévi-Strauss made structuralism explicit, he identified his work as structuralist, and he did not shy away from using the term not only in his writing but even in the titles of his books. Lévi-Strauss was not afraid of the label, and for that reason he rose above it.

Much of this applies, mutatis mutandis, to Salvador Dalí and surrealism. Dalí was a surrealist, to be sure, but he rose above the schematism of any label, he transcended and surmounted the label, and never attempted to limit himself to any particular school of thought. Dalí created his own motifs, symbols, and themes so that one recognizes internal references within the body of his work, the corpus dalícum, as it were.

One of Dalí's themes is his wife Gala, who appears throughout his work in many guises. This particular portrait at the St. Petersburg museum is quite small, less than 3 by 4 inches.

Dalí was no more merely a surrealist than his fellow (though adopted) Iberian El Greco was merely a mannerist — for artists of genius a particular style is never a container that limits creativity, but a springboard to greater things. Surrealism for Dalí was a point of departure (as I said Aristotle should have been for the Scholastics in Seeing the World for What It Is), just as the aesthetic traditions Dalí surveyed in his earliest works were a point of departure. He was not limited by the tradition any more than he was limited by the surrealist label.

In his Three Young Surrealistic Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra of 1936, as well as the titles of other works, Dalí did not scruple to employ the 'surrealist' label.

Dalí transcended the genre conventions of every style he adopted and made his own, and this holds in spades for surrealism. Dalí’s innovations in surrealism are profound, and worth considering in some detail. The Lautréamont passage cited above became a point of departure for Dalí as he not only employs a juxtaposition of individual objects, but (like a cubist) deconstructs individual objects and juxtaposes the parts of things. This is a mereological surrealism that surpasses the surrealism of Lautréamont’s sewing machine, umbrella, and dissecting table. In the mature Dalí one would expect to see, perhaps, parts of the sewing machine exchanged with parts of the umbrella, with both grafted in different ways on to the dissecting table.

The Hallucinogenic Toreador is a large canvas of great detail that repays careful study. No reproduction can go it justice: you must go to Florida and see it for yourself if you want to understand it.

Another extrapolation of surrealism made by Dalí involves an inversion of the surrealist juxtaposition. By this I mean the severing of conventional connections, the disconnection of that which is usually connected (in contradistinction to the connection of that which is not conventionally connected). This is seen, for example, in The Hallucinogenic Toreador, perhaps the pièce de résistance of the St. Petersburg museum, coming at the end as it does and forming the focus of the final exposition of Dalí’s works by both of the museum guides to whom I listened. The toreador that Dalí claimed to see in the Venus de Milo wears a traditional hat decorated around the brim with black balls of thread. These balls are transformed into the flies of St. Narrciso, but the flies are flying in an orderly geometrical formation. Dalí has taken the traditional elaborate decoration of the bullfighter’s costume and disconnected it from these origins in order to re-introduce it as a non-naturalistic invocation of a Spanish legend that makes a non-naturalistic use of nature. Here the world has been bent back on itself so many times that it scarcely makes any sense to invoke “convention” any more, since all conventions have either disappeared or have been iterated to a point beyond recognition.

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