Salvador Dali: Inveterate Clown Or Timeless Genius?

Dali in his suite at the Hotel Maurice in Paris
Dali in his suite at the Hotel Maurice in Paris
Bernard Genies

The Pompidou Center's current Dalí retrospective sheds light on one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, whose eccentric escapades have long obscured his talent.

PARIS - It's with time that legends are usually made, either forging their destiny as heroes or demonizing their very existence. Salvador Dalí didn't have the patience to wait. He made his own path: He was the incredibly talented painter that became a clown.

At the dawn of the electronic age, he knew how to use the power of the media – to submit to it. He was easily capable of playing to the crowd, notably with a quick twitch of his moustache in France's Lanvin chocolate advertisements in the 1960s, while also being able to take on a more serious tone, by participating in American quiz shows, taking thoughtful care when answering the questions.

As a young man, he was passionate about the Bolshevik Revolution. As an old man, he declared that "Franco was a saint" in October 1975 and that Spain was going to become "a country where there are no more terrorists because they will be ground up like rats." He also added that, "Freedom is shit." Nevertheless, he was remarkably intelligent, and he would return to his teenage passions, arguing, "Lenin once said: "Freedom is worth nothing."

The master of the double image

Dalí led his life according to one central theme than ran through his early works: that of the double image, or a representation of an object that, closely observed, also reveals another representation. Dalí was the master of this art form, and he led his own life in this multi-faceted manner, in which his eccentric and loud personality often outshone his artwork.

This could, perhaps, explain the long silence that has surrounded Dalí since his death in 1989. His last retrospective in France was shown in 1979: the gigantic Kermesse héroïque (Grotesque Carnival - the title of the huge installation he exhibited in the forum of the Pompidou Center), in which he was the ill-treated protagonist. On the day of the inauguration, the doors to the exhibit remained firmly shut after staff walked out on strike. Once the conflict was resolved, the event received an unprecedented amount of success with 840,000 visitors flocking to Paris's Pompidou Center to admire the installation.

Dalí as a pioneer

Dalí demanded that his works be hung on the periphery of the room, in order to leave an empty space in the center. The request was denied. Four years later, Jean-Hubert Martin, the Dalí retrospective's head curator, answered the artist's wishes, and only hung the small paintings in pop-up “kiosks” in the center of the space.

Another difference between the 1979 exhibition and today’s retrospective is that the former focused on the artist's later years, whereas the 2012 version aims to be more expansive, showing works from his youth up until his very last painting, la Queue d'aronde (The Swallow's Tail), created in 1983. The display allows the audience to appreciate Dalí for being an incredible painter and for being an inspiration to the biggest names in art today: Wim Delvoye, Matthew Barney, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami and even the architect Zaha Hadid.

Fascinated by the "Picasso machine"

Dalí also enriched his own talent by acquiring inspiration from other artists, whether they were his contemporaries or his predecessors. As a young man, he was inspired by the Impressionists, post-Impressionists and the Fauvists. Around 1921, he took inspiration from Raphael and created a self-portrait. Then he revisited Cubism (with his "Cubist Self-Portrait") and passed through the New Objectivity (with his portraits of his father, sister and Luis Buñuel). As a lover of cinema, he wrote Départ in 1926, as well as Homage to Fox Newsreel, a compilation of multiple entries, as a nod to Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau in which he played himself dressed up as a child in a sailor uniform, sat on Venus's lap.

Dalí learned fast, very fast. He looked to Miró, Chirico, Tanguy, and Picasso of course. When he returned to Paris in 1926, his first visit was to see Picasso, telling him, "I have come to see you before visiting the Louvre." Flattered, Picasso said to him: "You're quite right."

Dalí was fascinated by the "Picasso Machine," and by his capacity to explore the history of art and to repeatedly call into question his own forms of expression. Picasso, his elder by 26 years, however never did cross the final frontier into surrealism. Dalí, on the other hand, threw himself into surrealism, attracting attention from the likes of André Breton and his accomplices. How could he not have welcomed with open arms this manipulator of dreams, who had already succeeded in creating scandal?

In 1929, he created a devastatingly provocative work, entitled Sometimes, I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of my Mother– angering his family. In the same year, he painted The Great Masturbator, his seminal work, whose symbols and erotic impulses (one can see, amongst others, the face of a woman who is seemingly in the act of fellatio with a man whose head is invisible) mix feelings of death and of devouring. In this work, one's focus is consistently challenged, straying between the figure of a lion with its phallic tongue, and a tiny, intertwined couple, appearing to evoke the artist's parents. Is it a hallucination? The dreamlike dimensions, or what we call "spectral," are what most strikingly represent his works of this period: elongated bodies, decapitated heads, objects floating in space, both male and female genitals, enormous, anthropomorphous rocks based on the rugged coastline that he knew as a child. The world according to Dalí is a floating world; it is erotic, threatening and sinister.

During this celebrated period, he is a true, great master of painting, both precise and meticulous. Like the Renaissance masters that he emulated, he also painted miniatures (the most famous is The Persistence of Memory, which is but a mere 24 cm by 33 cm). He painted on wood, on plywood and on canvas. Sometimes, he would use materials such as sand - such as for The Stinking Ass, in 1928.

However, Dalí could not be sustained by painting. He was also an avid reader. His discovery of Freud, and then the earlier works of Jacques Lacan in 1932, guided his work towards new ways of complex representations that would allow him to elaborate his "paranoiac-critical method," which, briefly summarized, means to interpret reality from a psychic perspective. He was a pioneer, not only in his work, but also in the manner in which he conducted himself. Dalí stepped out of his paintings to walk in the street - or even to take his anteater for a walk!

He was also an artist devoted to cinema and -- along with Luis Buñuel, Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock -- he designed the sets for numerous dance and theater productions. We are also indebted to him for having pushed the art of performance to its limits, whether that is for the best or for the worst. Addicted to creativity, he was as much a determined, tireless painter as he was an inveterate clown. Yet, everything that has come after him seems to pale in comparison to his orchestrated madness.

It is fair to say, Dalí is not dead.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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