Review by Bois Poisson
The Unquenchable Contemporary Desires of Salvador Dali: The Making of an Artist
I dreamt that there were two Dalis. And such a dream became a reality. The first one, a young and sensitive lad, who had a craving for the image but discovered it in a drawn-out hermetic process, gradually arriving back to his dreams, childhood and imagination. The second Dali, mature and outrageous with decadent garbs and a trademarked moustache, was a spectacle, a monstrosity, he was the bigger-than-life image of an artist with the talent, skill and intellect to match his big bite. It is these two Dalis that I dream of, one that comes to me more as pleasant, soft fodder; whereas, the other strikes like lightning roaring me from a nightmare. It is these two dialectical paths of Dali that eventually emerges as the man becomes the artist and the art becomes his life, his total synthesis, that is thoroughly traced in the nine tactful chapters of Catherine Grenier’s Salvador Dali: The Making of an Artist. And it is the paradoxical polarity, the opposing two sides of a coin, reconciled through reflection and passionate practice that grips me into contemporary questions that arises my conscience of what does it means to be an artist today (not to say there is ever one answer)? In what ways would the systems in play of being an artist today, that which the second-dreamed Dali now stands as precursor as listed by Grenier with examples of Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Andy Warhol, examples that would stand in direct contradiction to his first self, that of delicate nature, introverted in solitude, and expansive in his pursuit of sights, history, and philosophical engagement that needed such necessary time and space to evolve his practice into the engrossing monster and mastery of genius obsessed with image he became.
I believe it is this first Dali, slowly encroaching the second, that Federico Garcia Lorca notes in a letter to his friend Sebastian Gash from around 1927, just a few years after Dali entered the Surrealist movement at the bare age of 24:
“Everyday I appreciate Dali’s talent even more. He seems to me unique and he possesses a serenity and a clarity of judgment about whatever he’s planning to do that is truly moving. He makes mistakes and it doesn’t matter. He’s alive. His denigrating intelligence unites with his disconcerting childishness, in such an unusual combination that it is absolutely captivating and original.”
Dali is perhaps the most iconic of the Surrealists and, at the same time, he might have been the artist that fell furthest from the Surrealist patriarchy tree. His nurtured sensitivity as a child enabled him to pour his passion into his paintings, not to mention his later impressive Picasso-ian list of achievements in set design, sculpture, film, fiction, photography, and, arguably, performance. All which have imprinted a lasting stamp on what is largely thought of as surrealism and stringing forth the artist’s immortality as is preserved and celebrated within multiple Dali museums around the world, circulating his unique style, and resurrected through continuing contemporary threads: the Dali Theater and Museum in Spain, the Dali Universe in London, Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fl, and Espace Dali in Paris, France.
It is his use of glorification of the artist and unabashed ruthlessness of his talent within commercial circles that in some ways stand in direct contradiction with the surrealist principles, and the surrealist act, which arose to disavow the former bourgeois operations of art; instead, André Breton’s Surrealists were interested in an investigation of how new formations of art that could shift the social and political atmospheres through modes of the imagination and discovery as largely tied to their fascination of psychoanalytic theories. Such a betrayal of the Surrealism movement towards shameless success and commercial ventures, mentioned briefly within the text though not in context to the larger principles of Surrealism, is most evident in Breton’s nickname for Dali as “Avida Dollars.” Dali, unashamed of his relationship to monetary success, turned the inflicted insult into another adornment to wear on his sleeve as he began using the nickname himself. As it has become Dali, the man and the artist, that would eventually merge into one and the same wound become full of his winning defiance and celebratory nature to take his illusions, that be of self or ego, to excessive heights to be worshipped today:
“Dali is a myth of the twentieth century, but he remains a living myth, one that can teach us much about our present day issues and desires,” writes Grenier on page 9.
But does Dali, myth or no myth, and his later obsession for success and claims for fame in itself need to be more seriously questioned in the telling of such an artist’s story? Does Dali standing as the defiant and dominance of a dogmatic style within Surrealism, a group that both cherished him as their anti-hero and outpouring king of imagination and outrightly dismissed him, need to be more closely roped back and examined in such a narrative?
This celebrated conversion, later fully taken up again with Allan Kaprow and many others, in alternate modes, I would argue, for me also becomes a point of contention towards the artist, his art, and posterity, at least when placed in context to the present moment seems excessive and worshipping of a personality cult of the art that ruthlessly seeks admiration and adoration to monetary expense of a celebrity that towers over the rest of humanity that are left out of the secrets of obtaining this Dali hyperreality. This critique of the artist is also a speculation and a question, one that will forever be doused in unknowns, but nonetheless one that is perhaps too easily compared to its contemporary parallels without question by Grenier.
Is there a difference? Is there a discrediting in Dali’s work that might eventually throw out morals or sense of responsibility, or, as consequence to such indifference, does such a stroke of defiance to a moral only of mirror leave us with the sticky residue that continues to haunt the art world today with endlessly regenerating spectacles of art personalities as glorified in the figures of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Richard Prince? What does this mean to the former Dali, the artist who carefully mastered and cherished the craft of his work, the fascination he held to dreams, the significance of the human eye when it came to the alienation of works today through factory-based creations that have followed him and cite himself as influences today?
These questions lead me to probe even further down the trail, without placing blame but mere questions, to ask a pressingly harder question of our work today: is all our work just public relations for a dead artist’s trust, for the commercial wheels to keep turning, and to rest in the success of our own tasteful delicacies, or at least for my one desired wish, and Andre Breton’s more-than-a-mutter in the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto where he cries to treat criticism as love. It is from this notion of love that I state my desired wish here in this artist book: that the beautiful prose and insight on Dali’s dear life could be equally juxtaposed, or at the very least mildly included, with a critical examination of Dali as a human, in a sphere of values, and ethics, which rise to just as significant, if not more so, for the surrealist movement that used aesthetics as a mode, to address their contemporary social and political times. How do we address such today? Do our new desires truly arise from the likes of Jeff Koons and Richard Prince? Is the artist no longer a citizen and therefore not faced, held, to any scrap of responsibilities?
Catherine Grenier, Salvador Dali: The Making of an Artist, (Flammarion, 2013)
Images: Cover and interior of Salvador Dali: The Making of an Artist