The Surreal life

Art critics are often dismissive of Salvador Dalí, but a new exhibition suggests he was ahead of his time.

When Salvador Dalí died in 1989, his reputation had plummeted from heights of renown in the 1930s to a low point. His outrageous antics made him one of the most widely recognized artists of the 20th century. But his relentless self-promotion, buffoonish declarations of genius, and right-wing politics alienated the art world. By the 1960s, critics dismissed his work, outside its classic Surrealist period of 1929-39. Dalí was considered a pathetic mountebank, a has-been.

Now, 101 years after his birth, the Philadelphia Museum of Art aims to reassess Dalí's contributions. Without the spectacle of the living (and leering) Dalí, the work speaks for itself in a retrospective titled simply "Salvador Dalí," on display through May 15. According to Anne d'Harnoncourt, museum director, the exhibition offers a chance "to encounter a complete and complex picture of the artist's oeuvre."

The show's curator, Mark Taylor, believes the artist deserves to be seen as more than a footnote in prewar art history. "Dalí's enormous impact on contemporary art has yet to be properly assessed. His late work ... redefined the boundaries of art, fashion, and popular culture in ways that we are only now beginning to understand." The retrospective, covering six decades of Dalí's achievement, aims to give Dalí "the proper recognition he deserves," says Mr. Taylor.

Salvador means "savior" and Dalí said he was "destined for nothing less than to rescue painting from the void of modern art." Dalí disparaged modernism (which he saw as lacking respect for craft) as a dead end. He rebelled by infusing contemporary art with virtuoso draftsmanship and painstakingly realistic technique.

He also injected a blast of color into the art world through the force and farce of his personality. With his floor-length capes, silver-headed canes, flowing ties, lacquered hair, and dashing mustache, Dalí was a dandy and a showman. He gleefully commodified his image, transforming his life into a series of brand-name events.

The Catalan artist spoofed the New York Daily News with a self-authored publication called the "Dalí News" and arrived for a news conference wearing green goggles and a boiled lobster on his head. On another occasion, he pulled up to a lecture at the Sorbonne in a white Rolls Royce stuffed with cauliflowers. Most notoriously, he made an appearance in London in 1936 in a deep-sea diver's suit with a jeweled dagger in his belt. As he delivered a discourse on mining one's subterranean depths for hidden imagery, Dalí exhausted his supply of oxygen and had to be extricated from his diver's helmet.

Dalí's plunge into show-biz commercialism won him the disdain of his early booster, the French poet André Breton, a founder of the Surrealist movement. Breton concluded that "Dalí is like a man who hesitates between talent and genius."

Dalí didn't care. He courted wealth and drew no distinction between high and low culture. In a 15-second commercial on French television, for which he earned $10,000, Dalí rolled his eyes and proclaimed, "I am mad, completely mad" over Lanvin chocolates. He collaborated with Chanel and Schiaparelli on haute couture; invented a hallucinatory dream sequence for Hitchcock's film "Spellbound," and sold calendars, ashtrays, and oyster knives.

It's impossible to separate the life from the art because Dalí's bizarre, mysterious paintings derive not only from his eccentric lifestyle but from his childhood traumas, phobias, and fantasies.

In 1929, at the age of 25, Dalí came into his own. In that year, he painted "The First Days of Spring." A collaged photo of Dalí as a child at the center of the canvas indicates the supreme position of autobiography as the fount of his disturbing imagery.

Surrealism's goal was to liberate the imagination by visualizing scenes dredged from dreams and the subconscious. Dalí shifted Surrealists' source of inspiration from a reliance on automatism, or generating imagery through spontaneous doodling without conscious control.

Ever a master of the double entendre, Dalí purposely misread images to discover alternative interpretations. He blended and blurred hyperrealistic technique with deeply illogical content, creating a new visual language. His painting "The Endless Enigma" (1938) functions as a kind of Rorschach test, where the viewer free-associates from one reading of a beach scene to six varying images. Embedded in the landscape, simultaneously emerging and dissolving, are figures like a recumbent philosopher, a horse, a greyhound, and a fruit bowl.

Dalí also popularized three-dimensional Surrealist objects, like his famous lobster telephone. At a 1938 exhibition, his "Rainy Taxi" was a huge hit. Anticipating installation art, Dalí exhibited an actual cab, garlanded with flowers and periodically inundated by showers. Inside, live snails swarmed over a mannequin's body. The public was enchanted.

"Best in Show" honors for the current retrospective go to "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)," Dalí's haunting evocation of the Spanish Civil War. In this antiwar painting, an agonized head screams to the sky. Its gnarled toes grip a desolate landscape. The distorted figure, its belly a void roughly the shape of Spain, hints at the cannibalistic corrosion of European civilization in 1936.

One could fault Dalí for constant trendiness, as his style hopscotched from one fad to the next. Dalí's output often seems like a refracted mirror of the Top 40 of Great Art. He mimics and puts his own spin on movements (like Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Neoclassicism) and masters like Vermeer, Goya, Raphael, and - above all - his countryman Picasso.

Yet it's not fair to say Dalí was a follower. Even though his influences were legion, as the Dalí scholar Dawn Ades, cocurator of the current show, says, "He was always plowing his own furrow." Metamorphosis was his game, and his coded subjects - regardless of the style du jour - were always the Freudian bugbears of death, sex, and family crisis.

And - when he wasn't hopelessly out of step, eschewing the 20th-century turn toward abstraction - Dalí was ahead of the curve. After the atomic bomb leveled Hiroshima, Dalí said the atom was his "favorite food for thought."

In an updated Old Master style, he disintegrated and levitated compositional elements - an homage to quantum mechanics. "The artist," Dalí insisted, "must express the cosmology of the epoch in which he lives."

Dalí's late paintings have the same jewel-like, meticulously rendered quality and nonsensical juxtapositions as his better known earlier work. But he constantly experimented with new techniques like Benday dots (well before Pop art), holograms, and video art. "It's very difficult to shock the world every 24 hours," Dalí acknowledged, but he never gave up trying.

After this retrospective highlighting the ambitious, large-scale late works, the popular understanding of the artist will change, says d'Harnoncourt. "There'll be a whole new Dalí."

Dalí the dreamer, the clown, the genius - he was all these simultaneously.

"Whatever happens, my audience mustn't know whether I'm spoofing or being serious," he said in 1968, "and likewise, I mustn't know either. I'm in a constant interrogation: where does the deep and philosophical Dalí begin, and where does the loony and preposterous Dalí end?"

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