In Hollywood, Dali's films are reappraised

A museum displays the surrealist's celluloid endeavors and delves into his relationship with the film industry.

Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, both the painter and the man, are familiar icons of 20th-century art. The madcap Catalan with the exclamation-mark mustache as well as his images of melting clocks are staples of pop-culture imagery. But his lifelong experimentation with cinema is perhaps less well known. Fittingly, in the shadow of Hollywood, this niche of Dali's studies is the subject of an ambitious new show, "Dali: Painting & Film," here at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Like most early avant-garde pioneers, Dali had "an intense dialogue with film," says LACMA director Michael Govan.

Curators from London's Tate Museum, Spain's Fundación Dali, and LACMA joined forces to bring the exhibition from London to Los Angeles (it heads to Florida and New York next year), where many of Dali's movie dreams played out (he was good friends with both Jack Warner and Walt Disney). The show assembles an extraordinarily large range of personal sketches, letters, and, of course, paintings in addition to a dozen or so films and videos. Curators hope visitors will take away a deeper understanding of the role film played in the evolution of Dali's surrealist aesthetic and, in turn, gain some appreciation of the impact this "proto-pop artist" had on the next generation. "There's very good evidence that Dali influenced many later artists," says Sara Cochran, LACMA's assistant curator of modern art. Many later filmmakers, including David Lynch, also felt Dali's influence.

Famous (and not so famous) films anchor each of the major areas, from Dali's early collaboration with Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel in the still startling, "Un Chien Andalou" (The Andalusian Dog), in which a razor slices an eyeball, to the artist's work with Walt Disney in the animated "Destino," and Alfred Hitchcock in "Spellbound."

The rooms devoted to "Spellbound" and "Destino" are intriguing bookends in Dali's rocky love affair with the industry. "Dali had his frustrations with Hollywood because he wasn't in charge," Ms. Cochran says. But, in the case of Hitchcock, the British director saw Dali's two greatest strengths as a perfect fit for his thriller: Dali was a master draughtsman in service of wildly creative and dreamlike imagery. Hitchcock sought both for his amnesiac protagonist, played by Gregory Peck. The actual film sets are on display, as well as copious sketches from the artist's design process.

For budgetary reasons, Dali didn't complete "Destino," an animated surreal love story. This version was completed recently by the original animator, John Hench.

These and more obscure works such as "Chaos and Creation," show why those "mysterious strips of hallucinatory celluloid," as Dali dubbed film, were so compelling to the Surrealists, who were already interested in the fluidity of subconscious thought, says Cochran.

The show concludes with a four-minute screen test Dali did for Andy Warhol, which is nothing more than a study of Dali's ability to hold his face frozen in the familiar image of mock surprise. Dali was a pioneer in the art of personality as performance art. He understood early on the power of imagery to persuade mass culture, says Juan Manuel, director of the Fundación Dali. Today's YouTube generation routinely has its Warholian minutes of fame every day. But, says Cochran, Dali was having his personal moments of fame long before Warhol ever painted a soup can.

The show has been largely well-received. Local critics laud the collection's breadth and the rarity of some objects. Indeed, the show makes the case that viewing masterworks in person should be a requirement, if for no other reason than offering a perspective on how mass culture alters our collective memory of an artist's work. "The Persistence of Time," sometimes called "Melting Clocks," that graces so many college dorm walls in large poster sizes, is unexpectedly tiny, almost a miniature at 10 by 13 in. But, even magnified, the painting is lucidly clear. "Dali has a carefully cultivated image of a madman," Cochran explains. But he was an influential figure who deserves a deeper look. "This is a chance to see the explosively creative mind behind all the folklore."

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