Sunday 14 June 2009

On Dali @ NGV

Everyone knows something about Dali, melting watches, curly moustaches, pouting lipglossed sofas, if you're a discerning art lover .  The problem with Dali is that the critical backlash where he is portrayed as kitschy quasi-fascist self-publicist is every bit as simple minded and reductive as his own eccentric artistic genius schtick.  To simply come to Dali from either position leaves us at an impasse. 

In 'Salvador Dali:  Liquid Desire' the NGV has put on an amazing show.  This is the official version of Dali, the lenders are the Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali,the private foundation set up to promote and defend Dali's art and stature and the Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Florida, a museum built on the private collection of the Morse family.  That means you have a set of works with encyclopedic depth and breadth but none of the iconic works such as 'The Great Masturbator',  'The Persistence of Memory' or 'Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)' in Madrid, New York and Philadelphia respectively.  The show is quite brilliantly staged, from its neon signatures to black and red velvet rooms and a continuing ant and rhino motif (go and see, it's so much better than it can ever sound) and the curators should be applauded and awarded.

'Soft Self Portrait with Grilled Bacon' might limply straddle the two conventional views of Dali.  Here he is deflated, hollowed out, an artist held up by nothing but the crutches of his artifice.  Dali as his own subject and object.  At the same time he's the realist surrealist, the creator of images that burn into the brain and make the skin crawl, the artist of universal neuroses.  It is interesting to think that Dali is so derided for a his self-obsession, a trait that found him a perfect marriage partner not in Gala but in Freud, in a society as enamoured of its own image as ours.  This exhibition does pose questions about Dali's value to the past and present of art, it offers an opportunity to move away from the knee jerk reactions that began when his raised eyebrow so enraged the very serious abstract expressionists.  Dali's crimes against an art establishment so excited by its splashes of rebellious abstraction were manifold.  He had a sense of humour and he believed in figuration and classical technique.

As a student of art, who genuinely loved his many sources, Dali is much more than a pasticheur.  On arrival of America he attempts, through an exhibition to ignite a passion for the renaissance in his new American audience with riffs on Durer and Raphael, in a quest that might be on a little less fantastic than that of another of his subjects, Don Quixote.  His series of illustration to 'The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini' are appropriate, an artistic genius but a renaissance bastard Cellini's autobiography is ocassionally a work of ego-serving lies and exaggeration.  Dali's illustrations are both fantastical and sordid, the grip of his art sometimes loosening on the appeal of fantasy.  

Nothing here is a better example of how Dali understood the power art than 'Archaeological Reminiscence's of Millet's Angelus', one of a series of works where Dali explored one of the nineteenth century's most reproduced paintings.  Here the figure of the man and woman looking at their poor harvest and praying for better has been transformed into a pair of ruined steeples on a desert plain.  The melancholy sky and shadowed earth set the mood as a father and his son, tiny in the foreground, look on.  In Dali's universe the scene is turned into one of predatory sexuality, elsewhere the woman in a locust, here as culture crumbles it still leaves a long shadow.  You do not have to subscribe to Dali's personal mythology of sexual predation and initiation to feel certain resonances.

'The First Days of Spring' is there at the beginning of what we would recognise as archetypal Dali, a vast horizon lays out before us meeting a sapphire sky.  The landscape is a set of enormous steps that might be the base of some totalitarian edifice, a slash of classical linear perspective through the middle of the canvass.  Dali is dipping into his Freudian bag of symbols, in a combinaton of collage (photographs painted into the surface of the picture).  Father figures, men who might be fighting or fucking, fish and genitals are all part of this dreamscape and it feels much more like a psychoanalytic journal, than a work capable of communicating universal neuroses.  Dali's signature style, the vast fleshy forms, twisting, limp, deflated are what we know him best for.  There is a reason these are so powerful, like the works of the early expressionists they show a physical world transformed by inner trauma, but here the feeling of flesh and nerve endings is so palpable they are far more effective.

To look at Dali's career longitidunally you see an artist searching for a style, who finds a voice somewhere between Freudian symbology and soft figurative cubism.  As this voice becomes a patented style he continues searching for visual analogues for science and spiritualism, but never manages to find that visual bridge between the deeply personal and the universal again.  His art does touch on universality, his themes reach beyond personal neuroses when he finds archetypes for disgust, regret, absence and lust.  In one sense they are lessened when each image is so closely cross-referenced with Dali's biography, surrealism ought to be best understood at a sub-rational level, our eyes and gut are probably the best judge.

The NGV show puts Dali in his place, both historically and geographically, it is not irrelevant. The two influences that come out most clearly here are Giorgio de Chirico and El Greco.  De Chirico's classicism and architectural enigmas, are a clear visual precursor.  These imagined landscapes might be successor's to the 'memory palaces' created by renaissance humanists, mysteries and treasures lie hide within.  

The Spanish landscape of 'Cadaques From Creus Tower' might be a view of El Greco's Toledo.  More strikingly if we think of the way that El Greco took a leap out from Mannerism into a world of writhing, spectral spiritual energy rendered in colours we see something of a very Spanish Dali.  No less Spanish are the repetition of food, blood and shit, these are typically Catalan obsessions. it's when you force yourself to realise that Dali is a very Spanish painter that his work starts to make sense again and take shape beneath the blur of hype.

Later Dali does lose its way, there is no denying that.  His experimentation seems restless and gratuitous, his atomic period might be an isotope of analytical cubsim but there are still lines of continuity.  His masterful draughtsmanship and facility for realism are still important.  But at some point he starts to explore his own image rather than his own psyche, and this is where powerful slides into interesting which finally deflates into kitsch.  Celebrity navel gazing can never be as compelling as his relentless exploration the anxieties of our bodies and of occupying our own skin (which is what so many of his successors have failed equally to remember).  This is essentially why at least a significant amount of his work has proven to be so powerful and so many people while so much of surrealism, as an abstracted writerly movement, withered on the vine.

Dali's late re-embrace of Catholicism is the final straw for many of his critics.  He would never have been a saint in their eyes anyway.  Put together with the sympathy for Franco and we have an ideological bogeyman for latter day critics.  But the weird moral universe of the art world is illustrated by the avant garde saint André Breton's expulsion of Dali from the surrealist group.  Of course Dali's real sin was public ambition and cupidity, obscene wealth in artists ought to come in a hair shirt (if you're Picasso) or an ironic theoretical justification (if you're a Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons).  Creative rebellion tends to like conformity much more than it ever dares to admit.

Dali attempted to paint a new mythology for the century of the Self, he tried to capture the rift between a man's psyche and his physical environment and for a period that many artist's would kill for he succeeded brilliantly.  Art can never exculpate its creators of their crimes, but if we insist on the ethical and ideological purity of our artists we will find lots of empty picture hooks on museum walls.  This show might not make you love Dali the man but it ought to make you think again about Dali the painter. 

1 comment:

  1. hhhmmmmm thanks John......I'm going this weekend, so I shall see how I feel ( Speaking as a Dali lover)......