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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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