Last Friday, I attended the press preview for Cezanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibit opens this week, and my story on it will appear in TIMEOFF March 6. In the meantime, I’m reminiscing about the wonderful Salvador Dali exhibit there in 2005. Here’s what I wrote about it then (titled “Interpretations of Dreams,” the story won first place in arts and entertainment writing that year for the Suburban Newspapers of America contest):
The waxen wily whiskers of Salvador Dalí seem to be popping up everywhere these days. Thanks to an advertising blitz that began early last fall, it’s no secret that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is hosting the most comprehensive retrospective ever mounted on the King of Surrealism, spanning his career as a painter, draftsman, object maker, ballet designer, filmmaker and writer. In honor of the centenary of Dalí’s birth – he died in 1989 – the major international exhibition makes its only stop in the United States, with more than 200 works culled from around the world.
The last Dalí retrospective in this country was held more than 60 years ago, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“We all think we know (Dalí), but this is a chance to rediscover him, to think and explore his enigmas and grasp his impact on contemporary culture,” says Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “He is one of the more original artists of our time, and this is an extraordinary opportunity to see him whole, and take him and his impact on our lives seriously.”
Like Leonardo da Vinci, Dalí adapted his multifarious talents to a wide variety of media while remaining true to his vision. From an early age, his parents encouraged his interests in painting and drawing. Born in Figueres, Spain (today the site of Teatre-Museu Dalí, created from a former theater to house his work and personal collection), the artist and his family would summer in nearby Cadaqués. The charming beachside town is today a popular tourist destination and is reached by a road that winds through the cliffs like a roller coaster.
The terraced olive groves, hills and secluded bays surrounding the Mediterranean coast were among Dalí’s earliest subjects. He also painted numerous portraits of his family – his domineering and powerful father with jowls, a gold watch hanging over his barrel belly – and himself, developing his bohemian persona.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this show is the earlier, less familiar work. In “Self-Portrait with the Neck of Raphael,” Dalí is already developing an awareness of his idiosyncratic physical presence, haughtily sporting the throat of his favorite Renaissance painter. In another portrait, we meet the artist’s mother, a soft-looking woman with dark hair in a bun whose eyes are cast downward. She died from cancer when Salvador was 16. “Portrait of Grandmother Ana Sewing” puts Grandma beside an enormous window overlooking the Mediterranean.
“He had an antagonistic relationship with his authoritarian father, who was inspiration for his Freudian imagery,” says co-curator Michael Taylor. “Although he acknowledged his talent, (Don Salvador) opposed his son’s determination to be an artist.”
“Voyeur,” painted in 1921, has in its foreground a reclining figure in blue shadow on a balcony. Alongside him on a small table is a cup and saucer, a spoon and a bottle, and he is gazing at the building across the way, where illuminated windows reveal a couple in an embrace, a woman in a nightdress fixing her hair, a pair of legs protruding from behind a curtain and another woman pulling on black hose.
By 1922, Dalí was using vivid Fauve-like colors and loose impressionistic brushwork, assimilating the avant-garde movements of the previous two decades, says Mr. Taylor. At the same time, he was developing friendships with the poet Federico García Lorca and filmmaker Luis Buñuel, with whom he ultimately collaborated on Un Chien Andalou, a classic of Surrealist cinema. There is a sketch of Lorca with a guitar in a café and an oil portrait of Buñuel whose shadowed eyes pop out of his forlorn face.
Perhaps the strongest painting from this period is “Figure at a Window” (pictured at top). His younger sister, Ana María, who served as his model, leans out a window to view the sea. We see her from behind so we can share her view, says Mr. Taylor.
In 1926, the rebellious student was expelled from the prestigious San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts after declaring that none of his professors were competent to judge his work in the summer exam. His career was already well on its way, and the expulsion did little to hinder that.
“He was capable of major stylistic shifts,” says Mr. Taylor. “He was already experienced with Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism even before his formal training. He was determined to be a great artist.” His painting “The Basket of Bread” was so realistic that when it showed in Pittsburgh – the first time the artist exhibited in the U.S. – he was compared to Caravaggio and Velasquez.
Dalí considered Picasso his artistic father and visited him in 1926. Picasso, in turn, was enchanted with Dalí and gave him a wide-ranging lecture on art. Picasso encouraged Dalí to break out and follow his own path.
As he started to paint from his dreams in a trompe l’oeil, meticulous realism, he coined the term “hand-made color photography” to describe it. Andre Breton, who founded Surrealism in 1924, based in part on Freud and his psychoanalytic theory, welcomed Dalí into the movement.
“His work matures and he comes into his own,” says Mr. Taylor. “Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ changed his life. He developed a pictorial vocabulary in which a lyre became a symbol for his father, a big man with a booming voice.”
In 1929, Dalí met Gala Eluard, wife of the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard, who would become his lifelong companion. “Russian-born and 10 years his senior, she was to become his wife, business manager, model, muse and cook,” says Mr. Taylor. “She was his savior and took him through his sexual fears.”
Gala, in turn, would be eternally memorialized in Dalí’s work, known as the woman who never ages.
Gala was sexually uninhibited, which at first frightened Dalí. She “succeeded in building for me a shell that protected the tender hermit that I was,” Dalí wrote.
Apparently, Don Salvador was not as smitten with this mystical muse and expelled his son from the house for having an adulterous relationship. To protest his banishment, Dalí shaved his head and buried his hair on the beach at Cadaqués, where Buñuel photographed him with a sea urchin balanced on his head, a reference to William Tell. The Swiss legend of the man who shot an apple off his son’s head was, for Dalí, a castration myth related to his own relationship with his overbearing father.
Dalí invented the “Paranoiac-Critical method” to investigate the mystery of the subconscious, in which he invested myths and legends with disturbing psychological meaning. These often had to do with his estranged relationship to his father and the early death of his mother.
“In the language of psychoanalysis, paranoiac was someone who misread the world and interpreted it with his own impression,” says Mr. Taylor.
Alfred Hitchcock hired Dalí to make the dream sequence for Spellbound, with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. “Everyone went through psychoanalysis in the U.S. in the ’50s as a result of this kitschy corny presentation,” says Mr. Taylor.
Dalí launched an effort in 1931 to convince friends and colleagues to produce erotic Surrealist objects to awaken the repressed desires of viewers. He produced his iconic “Lobster Telephone” and pink “Lips Sofa,” inspired by Mae West’s luscious set. Museumgoers can purchase a reproduction of the pink lip-shaped sofa in the gift shop for $850.
During his lifetime, Dalí participated in the production of 10 films, nine ballets, three theater productions and two operas. The exhibit concludes with his hologram, “First Cylindric Chronohologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain,” featuring the bejeweled rock star sitting cross-legged on a rotating base as he holds a sliced-up “Venus de Milo” statuette.