Salvador Dalí: Exploring the irrational by Edmund Swinglehurst (1996)

This is one of those large-format art books (30 cm x 21.8 cm) which doesn’t have many pages (128) but is packed with good quality colour reproductions which you can spend all day gazing at, and also contains a surprising amount of text when you actually start to read it.

Art criticism is difficult, much harder than literary criticism (though not as impossibly difficult as music criticism). A writer can fairly easily weigh up how another writer uses words, it’s not that technically complicated. But describing a painting in technical terms i.e. the precise use of oil or acrylic or gouache or watercolour and how the artist deploys them or overcomes specific technical problems relating to them, this is not only a complex subject – potentially required for a critique of each individual work – but modern artists i.e. 20th century artists, tended to work across a broad range of media and channels, often deliberately transgressing traditional techniques, making the technical knowledge required to really assess their aims and achievements very complicated.

Therefore it is always easier to fall back on the notion that the Great Creator was obsessed by a number of ideas or ‘themes’ and to relate them both to his or her times, and to their personal biography, particularly – yawn – their sex lives.

So it is that you hear infinitely more about Picasso’s love life than you do about his innovations in print, lithography, or oil painting. It is easier to tell stories than to analyse. We like stories. We especially like stories about sex. Sex sells. Thus on page one of his text Swinglehurst explains that Dalí’s subjects were ‘sex and the subconscious’ (p.4) and his text goes on to bear this out with repeated analyses of the paintings in terms of their (often pretty obvious) sexual imagery or titles, underplaying Dalí’s phenomenal technique and inventive composition.

Dalí and Eliot

Now although there are some paintings with titles like ‘The Great Masturbator’, although Dalí (apparently) had an obsession with masturbating and feeling guilty about it, and although he had a consequent haunting fear of being castrated — all in the approved Freudian fashion – in actual fact, when you look at the 100 or so Dalí paintings gathered here, I don’t really think that summary – ‘sex and the subconscious’ – is true. Or not adequate.

There is generally a lot going on, visually, in any individual Dalí painting, and a review of these 100 works suggests that, although bare breasts are often present, there isn’t in fact a lot of sexual symbolism.

Indeed, you could argue the sex is the least interesting part of any of his compositions and of his oeuvre as a whole. Take Soft construction with boiled beans: premonition of civil war (1936).

Sure there’s a sort of female body and a soft female breast being squeezed by a craggy old man’s hand. Sure Dalí liked to brag that he ‘foresaw’ the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (in July 1936) in this and a few other paintings from earlier that year.

But, to put it politely, isn’t there a hell of a lot more to the painting than these overt and obvious meanings? The bodies make no anatomical sense. Why does smooth white flesh keep turning into gnarled old wrinkly hands and feet? Why is the body balanced on a chest of drawers? Who is the totally realistic figure of a man walking behind the hand at bottom left? Why are there perfectly conventional village buildings visible in the far distance? Why is there a sprinkling of beans on in the foreground and in the title?

It’s 80 years since the great Modernist poet T.S. Eliot wrote an essay on poetry in which he suggested that:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be … to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog. (The use of poetry and the use of criticism)

Eliot thought that poetry was in the music of words: the ‘meaning’ is just there to distract the higher, restless, journalistic parts of the mind, to keep your attention long enough so that the music can do its subtler work at a deeper, rhythmic, unconscious level.

Something similar can be applied to Dalí. The sexual images and all the other wildly improbable melting metamorphosing imagery he concocted is the stuff thrown at the busybody journalistic mind to hold its attention – while the real work of the painting is going on at a deeper level. I would argue that this real work, the real impact of Dalí’s paintings, comes from their tremendous technical facility, their finish and their completeness.

Dalí studied the Old Masters assiduously, not for their subject matter but for their technical mastery of painting with oil. He venerated the European tradition. He made a list of great artists which was topped by Vermeer, the Dutch master of exquisite finish and detail.

Certainly, a biographer and critic has to deal with the ‘sex and subconscious’ stuff, with the way some personal phobias seem to run through many of the works, and with Dalí’s overt references to Freud – in the works themselves, but also in the many essays, comments, catalogues and interviews he gave.

But, having assimilated all that, you could put it all to one side and argue that Dalí’s main achievement was continuing the Old Master tradition of classical painting well into the second half of the 20th century, well after almost all other major artists had long dropped it.

Surely it’s this – his technical mastery, the sense of astonishing, overwhelming perfection given by so many of his pictures, the complete command of the medium, the dizzying use of traditional perspective, the minutely realistic details  – that is the real secret of his enduring success.

This book includes plenty of examples but I was really electrified by the glasses on the table in Sun table (1936).

In one of his few comments on Dalí’s technique Swinglehurst says he used specially prepared canvases and a watchmaker’s eyeglass to paint in the finest of fine details. The tiles, the table and the three glasses are quite stunning, justifying the word the adjective super-real, not just surreal.

Similarly, although a naked woman is always distracting, for me the best bit of Leda Atomica is the beautifully depicted set square and its shadows, at the bottom right.

Gala and the 30s

Dalí’s life was transformed when in 1929 he met Gala (born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova) who was at the time married to poet Paul Éluard. She became his lover, muse, mistress, erotic subject, and – on the practical front -his business manager, home-maker, press and PR agent.

In the same year he officially joined the Surrealist movement and, from 1930 to the outbreak of the Second World War (the thirties, basically) was by far Dalí’s most creative and innovative period (i.e. from age 26 to 36).

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 coincided with a highpoint of paranoia, anxiety and inspiration. These were the years when his commanding technique and weird visions of melting forms set on immaculately painted, clearly lit perspectival plains, established Surrealist visual style, all accompanied by sundry publicity stunts which got him into the public eye (like giving a lecture at the Surrealist Exhibition in London dressed in a diving suit – that would get your photo in the London papers even today).

America loved reactionary technique

Dalí and Gala fled to America at the outbreak of the second World War, basing themselves in California with frequent trips to New York. He ended up staying in the States for eight years, crystallising and congealing ‘Part Two’ of his life & career, creating the Salvador Dalí that I grew up knowing about in the 1970s, the millionaire showman and professional eccentric.

In America Dalí discovered that he was famous and popular and set about becoming more famous and more popular. And a key reason for his popularity was the conservativeness of his technique. The Abstract Expressionists and confident arrival of a new American art movement hadn’t happened yet. Instead, rich Americans were still buying up traditional European art. But whereas a lot of the modernism which had been coming out of Paris for thirty years or more was tricky and challenging, to millionaire businessmen from the mid-West, Dalí’s art – even if the subject matter was strange and unnerving – his technique, his polish and finish, spoke of the great European tradition and the valuable Old Masters. In America:

where traditional European art was sought after by the millionaire barons of commerce, Dalí was greeted with enthusiasm. (p.85)

Though their combinations may be outlandish, a lot of Dalí’s objects are themselves clear and accessible – and his pictures contain (mostly) recognisable objects placed in a (and here’s the key thing) recognisable perspective. His paintings are exactly the kind of ‘window on the world’ (albeit a deliberately weird world) which almost all other modern painters had rejected. He did perspective so well and painted the objects so immaculately, that the painted finished feel of them reassured rich Americans.

And then Dalí was a born self-publicist in a country obsessed with publicity and celebrity. Dalí threw himself into it with gusto and Swinglehurst lists an impressive range of activities, designing jewellery, high class shop windows, collaborating on movies (like Hitchcock’s Spellbound), designing sets for operas and ballets, and establishing a lucrative practice painting portraits of the American super-rich.

He stayed in America for eight years, hosting Hollywood parties, churning out works in an increasingly smooth and finished style, selling to naive Yanks who paid top dollar for anything he would produce.

Even before Europe went to war the leader of the Surrealists, André Breton, had expelled Dalí from the group for his divergence from Surrealist doctrine and his refusal to condemn Franco’s right-wing coup in Spain. Now Dalí’s long sojourn in America cut off his roots with European painters, writers, gallery owners, collectors, critics and curators. It is from his period that the divergence sets in between Dalí’s growing public popularity, becoming the king of student posters, appearing on game shows and numerous celebrity interviews – and his rejection by the ‘serious’ academic art world.

He continued painting prolifically into the 1970s and this book shows there were about four types of work:

Over-fluent surrealism Some of his most famous posters have an almost too-perfect fluency. Swinglehurst uses the expression ‘advertising graphic’ as a term of abuse for these.

Dalí’s involvement with so much commercial work in the United States did little for his imagination and affected the quality of his painting, which sometimes began to look like advertising graphics. Dalí himself referred to his work at the time as hand-made photography. (p.92)

Nazi kitsch The kind of super-realistic depictions of the human figure which are unsettlingly similar to the hyper-realism demanded by the totalitarian dictatorships of the mid-century, Hitler, Stalin. For some reason many of the later works featuring Gala have this feel of hollow perfection.

Physics The detonation of the atom bomb really traumatised Dalí and from 1945 onwards the problem of physics appears in many paintings, envisaged as the atomisation of reality, the disintegration of reality into atoms or particles. It coincided with a resurgence of his Catholic faith. The two are connected: a world blown apart by new nuclear knowledge also reveals hitherto unknown complexities, mysteries, spaces, in which maybe a subtler form of religious mysticism can take root.


Miscellaneous notes

His father was the town notary of Figueres i.e. the most important man in the town. Presumably this taught the young Dalí the workings of authority, power. His mother was a strict Catholic and brought her children up accordingly.

1904 born
1922 starts studying at  Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid
1925 holds  his first one-man show
1926 expelled from the academy for fomenting student unrest

1929
* collaborates with friend and fellow-Spaniard Luis Buñuel (b.1900) on the deliberately shocking b&w film Le Chien Andalus
* meets Gala his wife and muse-to-be
* paints some of the earliest works with the flat plane extending to the horizon, the plastic completeness

Swinglehurst points out the figures in the bottom right of invisible man denote Dalí’s lifelong guilt about masturbation and fear of castration (the benefits of a good Catholic upbringing), dealt with in numerous paintings of the time. No doubt. But isn’t the glaringly obvious thing about this picture not some aspect of his personal mythology, the staggeringly fluent use of trompe l’oeil optical illusion, which would become a massive part of his style?


Elements of Dalí’s vision

Trompe l’oeil Dalí early on developed a taste for clever and beautifully worked-out optical illusions in his paintings, cunningly constructed images which can be interpreted in either of two ways. He wrote that the use of optical illusion revealed the hidden meaning latent (to use Freud’s technical term) behind everyday images, or just the dual nature of the human mind, divided – in Freud’s theory – into conscious rational perception and unconscious, hidden desires. Examples include:

Crutches Nowhere in this book does it suggest what the crutches mean but they appear in loads of his 1930s paintings as a fundamental design element.

Lions heads Why?

Ants are a symbol of bodily decay and physical corruption.

Woman with desk drawers

Technical perfection But above all the superlative, breath-taking technical achievement and finish of his oil painting at its stunning best.

Brown After reviewing all hundred paintings I realise that brown is the dominant colour in his palette, especially in the post-war period. Consider the two religious paintings, above, and his masterpiece:


Credit

Salvador Dalí: Exploring the irrational by Edmund Swinglehurst was published by Tiger Books in 1996.

Related links

Dalí-related blog posts

Surrealism-related blog posts

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