The specialized sciences of our times are concentrating on the study of the three constants in life: the sexual instinct, the sentiment of death, and the anguish of space-time.
According to Ballard, the uneasy marriage of reason and nightmare which had dominated the 20th century has given birth to an increasingly surreal world. More and more, we see that the events of our own times make sense in terms of surrealism rather than in any other view - whether the grim facts of the death-camps. Hiroshima and Vietnam, or our far more ambiguous unease at organ transplant surgery and the extra-uterine foetus, the confusions of the media landscape with its emphasis on the glossy, lurid, and bizarre, its hunger for the irrational and sensational.
The art of Salvador Dali, an extreme metaphor at a time when only the extreme will do, constitutes a body of prophesy about ourselves unequalled in accuracy since Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents." Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infertile basis of our fears and longings, and our need to pursue our own psychopathologies as a game - these diseases of the psyche Dali has diagnosed with dismaying accuracy. His paintings not only anticipate the psychic crisis which produced our glaucous paradise, but document the uncertain pleasures of living within it. The great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century - sex and paranoia - preside over his life, as over ours.
Painter, writer, engraver, illustrator, jeweler, personality - Daly's polymath genius is on a par with Leonardo's. With Max Ernst and William Burroughs he forms a trinity of men of genius prepared to place their art at the total disposal of the unconscious. However, where Ernst and Burroughs transmit their reports at midnight from the dark causeways of our spinal columns, Dali has chosen to face all the chimeras of our minds in the full glare of noon. Again, unlike Ernst and Burroughs, whose reclusive personality merge into the shadows around them, Dali's identity remains entirely his own. Don Quixote in a silk lounge suit, he rides eccentrically across a viscous and over lit desert, protected by nothing more than his furious mustaches.
"The quicksands of automatism and dreams vanish upon awakening. But the rocks of the imagination still remain."
For many people, it goes without saying, Dali has always been far too much his own man. In recent years, after long period in the wilderness, surrealism has enjoyed a sudden vogue, but to some extend Dali still remains excluded.
"At the age of 6 I wanted to be a cook. At 7 I waned to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since."
Dali's chosen public persona - part clown, part muezzin on his phallic tower crying out a hymn of gobbets of psychoanalysis and self-confession, part genius with all its even greater embarrassments - i snot one that can be fitted into any handy category. Surprisingly, though, Dali's background was conventional. He was born in Figueras, near Barcelona, on May 11, 1904, the second son of a well-to-do lawyer, and enjoyed a permissive and well-loved childhood populated with indulgent
governesses, eccentric art masters, old beggar-women and the like. At art school he developed his precociously brilliant personality, and discovered psychoanalysis.
At this time, the late 1920s, surrealism was already an established art. Chirico, Duchamp and Max Ernst were its elder statesmen. Dali, however, was the first surrealist to accept completely the logic of the Freudian age, and to describe the extraordinary world of the 20th century psyche in terms of the commonplace vocabulary of every day life - telephones, wristwatches, fried eggs, cupboards, beaches. What distinguishes Dali's work, above everything else, is hallucinatory naturalism of his Renaissance style. For the most part the landscapes of Ernst, Tanguy and Magritte describe impossible or symbolic worlds - the events within them have occurred; but in metaphorical sense. The events in Dali's paintings are not far from our ordinary reality.
"After Freud it is the outer world, the world of physics, which will have to be eroticized and quantified."
This reflects Dali's total involvement in Freud's view of the unconscious as a narrative stage. Elements from the margins of one's mind - the gestures of minor domestic traffic, movements through doors, a glance across a balcony - become transformed into the materials of a bizarre and overlit drama. The Oedipal conflicts we have carried with us from childhood fuse with the polymorphic landscapes of the present to create a strange and ambiguous future. The contours of a woman's back, the significance of certain rectilinear forms, marry with our memories and desires. The roles of everything are switched. Christopher Colombus comes ashore, having just discovered a young woman's buttocks. A childhood governess still dominates the foreshore of one's life, windows let into her body as in the walls of one's nursery. Later, in the mature Dali, nuclear and fragmentary forms transcribe the postures of the Virgin, tachist explosions illuminate the cosmogony of the H-bomb, the images go atomic physics are recruited to represent a pietist icon of a Renaissance madonna. Given the extraordinary familiarity of Dali's paintings, it is surprising that so few people seem ever to have looked at them closely. If they remember them at all, it is in some kind of vague and uncomfortable way, which indicates that it is not only Oedipal and other unconscious symbols that frighten us, but any dislocation of our commonplace notions about reality. The latent significance of curvilinear as opposed to rectilinear forms, of soft as opposed to hard geometries, are topics that disturb us as much as any memory of a paternal ogre. Applying Freud's principle, we can see that reason safely rationalises reality for us. Dali pulls the fuses out of this comfortable system. To describe the landscapes of the 20th century, he uses its own techniques, its deliberate neuroticism and self-indulgence. Behind these, however, is an eye as sharp as a surgeon's.
In addition, Dali's technique of photographic realism, and the particular cinematic style he adopted, involve the spectator too closely for his own comfort. Where Ernst, Magritte, and Tanguy relied on a traditional narrative space, presenting the subject matter frontally and with a generalised time structure, Dali represents his paintings as if each was a single frame from a movie. Filled with a disquieting light that is more electric than solar, his paintings are like stills from some elegant but unsentimental nesreel filmed inside our heads. Taken together, Dali's work shows a remarkable degree of homogeneity, an unfaltering freshness and power of imagination. Above all, Dale is faithful to his obsessions, holding nothing back, even an occasional sickness or absurdity. of Dali more than any other painter it can be said that the whole man is present in his art. This honesty marks him out as a true modern. Tracing the development of his paintings, we see that they fall into a number of related groups:
1. The classic Freudin phase. These trauma of birth, as in the Lugubrious Game and the Persistence of Memory, the irreconcilable melancholy of the exposed embryo.
|The Lugubrious Game (or The Mournful Game, 1929. Salvador Dali. Private Collection.|
|Salvador Dalí, 1931. Museum of Modern Art, New York City|
2. The metamorphic phase. A ploy-perverse period, a free-for-all of image and identity. From this period, which began during the 1930s, come Dali's obsessions with Hitler (the milky breasts of the Fuehrer compressed by his leather belt) and with Lenin, as in Vision of Lenin, who is shown with buttock elongated like an immense sexual salami. Also most of the nightmare paintings such as Autumn Cannibalism, which anticipate not only World War II, but the metamorphic horrors of heart surgery and organ transplantants, the interchangeability and dissolving identities of our own bodies.
3. The religious phase. By the middle -1940s, after such paintings as Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, came the end of what might be termed the period of explicit surrealism. For the next 20 years the great themes of Christianity preoccupied Dali, as in Christ of St. John of the Cross. After the small canvasses of the early surrealist period, with their often deserted terrains, Dali embarked on a series of enormous paintings, crowded with incident and detail, such as Oecumenical Council.
|Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí, 1951.|
|"Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man" by Salvador Dali (1943)|
|The Ecumenical Council by Salvador Dalí, 1960.|
4. The nuclear phase. Dali's marriage with the age of physics. In addition to his religious preoccupations, Dali was fascinated by new discoveries in atomic physics. Many of his most serene paintings, such as Raphaelesque Head Exploding, date from this period.
|Exploding Raphaelesque Head by Salvador Dali, 1951.|
Here the iconography of nuclear physics is used to invest his madonnas and religious heroes with the unseen powers of the universe. The strong element of humor in Dali's appraisal of himself and the world around him - an ironic, perverse but wholly serious serious commentary -reminds us of the generous and unflagging way in which he has entertained us for almost half a century, and in the face, moreover, of a usually hostile and derisory audience. But his place in the pantheon of master-artists of the 20th century is already secure, reserved from the moment he completed his first masterpiece, the classic Persistence of Memory, with its soft watches and flaccid embryo expiring on a fused beach. At their best, Dali's paintings reveal in the most powerful form the basic elements of the surrealist imagination: a series of equations for dealing with the extraordinary transformations of our age.