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On babies, rats, skulls and toreadors

Salvador Dali's work has confused, puzzled, and haunted me for the better part of 35 years, ever since I saw The Persistence of Memory in an art survey course during my senior year in college. The art professor had rounded up slides of the usual suspects and was showing them on a projector. I wasn't into it, nor was I tuning out. But then the slide with the melting clocks popped onto the screen, and everything changed.

Before that, when I'd find myself trapped in conversations about paintings, I would use the words "realism" and "realistic" and then try to change the subject to something I was familiar with, like hockey. Since then, I have read about Dali, pored over his works, and interviewed the curator of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Peterburg, Fla. I was at the museum to do a newspaper story, so I also had permission to set up a tripod to photograph some of the works. The curator was noticeably standoffish until my questions showed her I knew more than a little bit about what I was asking about.

My biggest prize came a couple of years later. The museum's PR director, whom I had worked with during my previous visit, gave me a private showing of a major exhibition—before the exhibition had even opened. Many of the paintings were from collections in Europe and hadn't been seen in this country in 50 years or more, and here I was, walking around the exhibit room with the paintings on the floor, leaning against the walls behind them.

The museum's collection of Dali's painting is unrivaled anywhere in the Western Hemisphere; in fact, only the The Dalí Theatre and Museum in his home town in Spain has a larger collection of his work. If you're ever in St. Petersburg, it's worth a stop. The collection is in a brand-new museum, which I haven't seen; that's on the list for my next trip to Florida.

Anyway: If the Six's bureau in Lakeland, Fla., alerted me today to the titles of three Dali works I had never heard of. One of them was "Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat," and here it is:

title or description

It doesn't take much to shock me, so perhaps you don't find this image as repellent as I do. To me, though, it's not a work void of merit, because the painting in and of itself is a definition of what surrealism is, or a facet of the definition, anyway. I'm not even sure if there's a definition of surrealism that would suit everybody, considering the question.

Dali once said something like "The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad," although plenty of people might dispute that after seeing the baby eating the bloody rodent. And my reading about him over the years left me thinking he was on one hand a disturbed, unbalanced and probably unpleasant man who was, on the other hand, coldly calculating with his épater la bourgeoisie act, which he used to constantly call attention to himself as a marketing ploy—and he was very good at it. I've read that his act worked so well that Dali became one of the 20th century's three best-known artists, along with Picasso and Warhol. But I was willing to trade the lunacy for the sheer brilliance of paintings like The Hallucinogenic Toreador:

title or description

This painting, it should be pointed out, is 13 feet by 10 feet. It is breathtaking when viewed in person. I must confess, though, that I did not see the toreador until the tour guide pointed it out.

My opinion of Dali changed, though, after I read an essay about him by George Orwell:
(Orwell drops the hammer)

Orwell goes nuclear on Dali. Here's an excerpt after he has spent several hundred words on Dali biography and some of his works:

"The point is that you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency; and even — since some of Dali's pictures would tend to poison the imagination like a pornographic postcard — on life itself. What Dali has done and what he has imagined is debatable, but in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist. He is as anti-social as a flea. Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it."

I know many paintings by Dali that were intended to shock and titillate, "Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano" being one example:

Anyone who spends time looking through, say, a coffee-table book of Dali's work will find plenty of phallic images, male and female genitalia, excrement, blood, semen, death and decay in paintings with titles like "The Great Masturbator." That's all part of the deal: If you like or respect Dali, you have to put up a defense for those elements of his work.

I think we tend to view Dali through the prisms of the late 20th/early 21st centuries, when it takes much more to shock us than "Bulgarian Child." But Orwell, I think, gives us a strong idea of what the moral mindset was in the '40s, when he wrote the essay. And he doesn't write a blanket condemnation of the artist. In fact, he is careful to note, "He is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings." He also notes what a superb draftsman Dali is.

But later in the essay, Orwell drops the big one when he says Dali has "a dexterity that goes no higher than the elbow." It's too bad he's not around today to comment on what passes for entertainment and culture.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 13th, 2013 02:41 am (UTC)
I love well-thought-out art criticism just because it's so rare.
Aug. 14th, 2013 02:35 am (UTC)
Thanks! Dali is the only artist I feel comfortable writing about, though.

Aug. 13th, 2013 01:38 pm (UTC)
This was fascinating to read. I'm not that familiar with Dali's work, but you have me curious.

Have you seen Erik Johansson's work? If Dali and Escher had a child, it would be Johansson's photography.
Aug. 14th, 2013 02:38 am (UTC)
I just did a quick Google image search for Johansson. Oh my—I can see myself spending lots of time getting to know his work. Thanks for the tip.
Aug. 14th, 2013 01:18 am (UTC)
"It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential-Hans Asperger

I have worked with 3 Autistic children in the past two weeks all diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder. A part of the Autism Spectrum Disorder. All highly intelligent from their IQ levels and showing an ability to be linear thinkers with often severe twists to the abstract thrown into that linear thought process…I’m not particularly knowledgeable about art or Dali, But from my exposure to these children and many others I have met I’ll lay money on a strain of Autism running through Dali…one young lady showed me a piece of her art and a piece of her writing. I asked her how long each piece took to create…she replied not long…it was all together in my brain. I just put it down. Think Einstein who disproved almost every one of Newton’s findings in physics because he thought in pictures…imagine Mozart with a symphony in his head where he can hear each individual instrument play in his head and can then put them all together to hear a complete work…see Dali more deeply as he mixes mundane, linear back drops with fantasmagoric splashes of the surreal and bizarre that draws the viewer to really make a decision as to what the piece of art is to him/her on their own level…if Dali wasn’t Autistic…he was pretty darn close and in his own right created genius from a genetic aberration. Too bad most us can’t draw outside the lines like Dali. Holiday
Aug. 14th, 2013 02:29 am (UTC)
Dali, autistic? I'm not sure I've ever read anything to that effect, but then again I may have and it just didn't register.
Aug. 14th, 2013 03:35 pm (UTC)
I was looking at this on my kindle -- small screen -- so first I get the instantly recognizable Dali crazy eyes, ditto for the 'stache, then the beauteous necklace -- what a great photo. Then I scroll down and get this lovely, cherubic baby, then the rat guts... and I burst into uncontrollable laughter. I couldn't catch my breath for about 30 seconds. I somehow don't think that was the reaction Dali was hoping to elicit when he painted that thing, but there ya have it. I wonder why it was a Bulgarian child as opposed to, say, Lithuanian or Ukrainian.
I don't know much about art, but I have always wondered how it is that someone can create something in their mind's eye and then transcribe it to something tangible that others can see too. Even a bizarre mess like a Jackson Pollack -- I could throw paint on the floor for hours and never get something that translates as "art." I tend to like abstract stuff like that - things that you look at and say, "Hey, I could do that!" but you really can't.
A while back (and I mean a while) there was an article in Time about some artist whose paintings featured, exclusively, men's robes. Bathrobes or maybe "smoking jackets," criss-crossed in front with a sash belt. The article waxed eloquent about the different "moods" of the various paintings, this one is angry, this one is melancholy... As far as I could see, they were all exactly the same except for the color. I just didn't get it. Which brings me back to Dali -- I don't "get" a lot of his paintings, but they tend to be mesmerizing in a way that defies description. He was one wacky dude!
Aug. 15th, 2013 03:47 am (UTC)
The reason I like much of Dali's art is that it knocks our filters down, messes with our sense of reality, before we realize that's what he's trying to do. We are transported briefly to a world of non-sense.
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