Salvador Dalí

12 Jun

I often start writing by asking myself, “Why is this artist so popular?”  In the case of Salvador Dalí the answer is simple:  He wanted to be.

More than being a great artist, Dalí was a master showman.  Most Surrealists wanted to be on the outside looking in, but Dalí wanted to be the one directly in the middle of things getting all the attention.  Every public appearance he made throughout his life was designed to have the utmost dramatic effect, including wearing a cape and his ever-present walking stick.   How much of this was genuine eccentricity on his part and how much was orchestrated for publicity is hard to gauge, but there is plenty of evidence for both.  Dali even appeared on talk shows such as The Tonight Show and the game show What’s My Line.  Now to be fair in modern times an artist would rarely be a guest on such a show simply because our popular culture has been diluted to the point where art is considered too high brow for national television, but even at the time it was a bit extraordinary.

He was also a highly controversial personality throughout his life.  He worked with figures such as the Marx Brothers and Walt Disney but was shunned from the Surrealist movement led by Andre Breton, a movement he didn’t really join until late, anyway.  The main problem was his political views, which the left-leaning Breton took issue with.  Even if he wasn’t a very political man, he took great flack for his acceptance and even support of the Franco regime.

1931's The Persistence of Memory, now in the Museum of Modern Art New York

Besides his waxed, upturned moustache, the thing Dalí is probably best known for is his 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory.  You know, the one with the melting clocks.  The painting style is certainly realistic, but the subject matter is significantly less so.  There’s the aforementioned clocks, of course, but other nonsensical images include the sleeping figure in the center, and the ants crawling out of the pocket watch on the block to the left.  It was all part of Dalí’s obsession with dreamscapes.  Like all good Surrealists, Dalí took major inspiration from psychology, especially the psychology of dreams.

We like Dalí’s work because it’s completely fantastic, yet easily understood.  At a time when artists were creating more and more abstract works, Dalí continued with his surreal style.  People could at least find images they recognized in the scene, even if it didn’t particularly make sense.  This quality, along with the sheer number and variety of his works as well as his publicity-seeking personality keep him in the public eye even today, even when art historians remain divided on his merit as an artist.

Perhaps Dalí can best be understood by his appearance on What’s My Line.  As I already said, the mere fact that he was on the show is very telling, but his answers are equally interesting.  One could make the case that it was a case of bad translation, but he claims he is a performer and writer, even an athlete.  This is a man who is clearly at the center of his own universe, but those glimpses he left for the rest of us are rather interesting at times, as well.

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