Salvador Dalí at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Salvador Dali. The Lacemaker (after Vermeer) - Olga's Gallery

Salvador Dali, After Vermeer’s The Lacemaker (1955) oil on canvas; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Few reputations in twentieth-century art have soured more than that of the Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1904–1989). The image of Dalí as a flamboyant huckster with a knack for publicity has all but supplanted his accomplishments as an artist. Dalí: The Early Years seeks to rectify this situation, albeit in a roundabout manner. As organized by Ana Beristain, the exhibition focuses on the artist’s work prior to 1931, the year of his signature painting The Persistence of Memory. It portrays Dalí as a serious student of early modernism and, in doing so, attempts to free him from the taint of (as the introductory wall label would have it) “commercial pandering.” This may be easier said than done. At the museum gift shop, gallery goers can purchase a working “Softwatch Clock” for $169. Presumably, these are offered in the spirit of Dalí the modern master and not Dalí the Surrealist shill.

Dalí: The Early Years begins in 1916, when the twelve-year-old Salvador declared himself, not without a modicum of chutzpah, an Impressionist. The paintings and drawings of his youth evince a modest talent, but they are primarily of documentary interest. Portrait of My Father (1920), for instance, may provide grist for Dalí biographers, but it is still a clumsy painting. Dalí’s greatest talent may have been his sponge-like ability to assimilate influences: de Chirico, Morandi, Tanguy, Miró, and Picasso can all be traced throughout the early work. What he made of these influences is another matter. Certainly, the less said about his Cubist paintings of the mid-1920s the better. That Dalí labeled these works “academic Cubist” gives some indication that even this most convinced of egotists was capable of critical lucidity.

While making his forays into Cubism, Dalí also pursued a neo-classical realism. His realist paintings are the most straightforward in the oeuvre, unencumbered by contrivance or Surrealist hokum. In them, one feels Dalí’s admiration for Vermeer, whom he considered “the greatest painter who has ever been.” (The exhibition tips its hat toward the Dutch master—and steps outside of its time frame—by showing Dalí’s 1954 copy of The Lacemaker.) Dalí’s limitations as a draftsman are evident here, and his painting is often dry and flinty. But Basket of Bread (1926), Seated Girl Seen from the Back (1925), and, especially, Girl’s Back (1926) have an otherworldly, one might saysurreal, clarity about them that the well-known work can’t match. Indeed, devotees of Dalí the Surrealist are likely to be a bit bored by his neo-classical paintings, devoid, as they are, of theatricality and putrefact. Nevertheless, they are the pinnacle of his achievement.

The final gallery of the exhibition features Dalí’s trademark Surrealist paintings of the Twenties and Thirties. After the mish-mash of the early work, the familiarity of a painting like The Accommodations of Desires (1929) comes as something of a relief. Yet despite the skill with which his fantastic images are given convincing reality, Dalí’s realities never make for convincing paintings. Consequently, the willed eccentricity of his brand of Surrealism—was it Freud who claimed that Dalí’s conscious mind was of greater interest than his unconscious mind? —ends up being as dull and predictable as the surfaces of his paintings. His work tells us more about the half-life of public outrage than it does about the nature of art. Despite the efforts of its curator, “Dalí: The Early Years” is unlikely to thwart the downward spiral of his status as an artist. Dalí remains a curiosity in the history of modern art. In the history of celebrity, of course, he is something more.

© 1994 Mario Naves

Originally published in the September 1994 issue of The New Criterion.

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