Welcome back to Letters to Dead Artists, my theme for the 2018 Blogging A-Z April Challenge. Today, I’ll be writing to creative powerhouse, Salvador Dali (1904 -1989) and focusing on his most recognizable work: The Persistence of Memory, which will be accompanied by the theme song from Ghostbusters. While on first impressions, this would seem an unlikely combination, Salvador Dali or indeed the manifestations of any of his works, would definitely be classed as “something strange in your neighbourhood”!!
“One day it will have to be officially admitted that what we have christened reality is an even greater illusion than the world of dreams.”
To provide a brief biographical sketch, Salvador Dali was born in 1904 in Figueres, Catalonia, Spain. When he was 16, he lost his mother to breast cancer, which was according to him: “the greatest blow I had experienced in my life”. In 1922, Dalí moved into the Residencia de Estudiantes (Students’ Residence) in Madrid and studied at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. Dalí already drew attention as an eccentric and dandy. He had long hair and sideburns, coat, stockings, and knee-breeches in the style of English aesthetes of the late 19th century. In 1924, French writer, Andre Breton, published his Manifesto of Surrealism, which influenced artists and writers alike. In 1926, Dali visited Pablo Picasso in Paris and found inspiration in what the cubists were doing. Picasso had already heard favorable reports about Dalí from Joan Miró, a fellow Catalan who introduced him to many Surrealist friends. As he developed his own style over the next few years, Dalí made a number of works heavily influenced by Picasso and Miró. Consequently, Dali was influenced by Freudian theory and began studying the psychoanalytical concepts of Freud and metaphysical painters like Giorgio Chrico and surrealists like Miro, and using psychoanalytic methods to generate imagery. Indeed, Salvador Dalí frequently described his paintings as “hand painted dream photographs.” In 1929, Dalí collaborated with surrealist film director Luis Buñuel on the short film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). His main contribution was to help Buñuel write the script for the film. Dalí later claimed to have also played a significant role in the filming of the project, but this is not substantiated by contemporary accounts.] Also, in August 1929, Dalí met his lifelong and primary muse, inspiration, and future wife Gala, born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova. She was a Russian immigrant ten years his senior, who at that time was married to surrealist poet Paul Éluard. In the same year, Dalí had important professional exhibitions and officially joined the Surrealist group in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris. His work had already been heavily influenced by surrealism for two years. The Surrealists hailed what Dalí called his paranoiac-critical method of accessing the subconscious for greater artistic creativity. 2.
“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.”
However, in the 1930s Dali transformed from a key figure in the Surrealist movement, into its enemy when he was nearly expelled after a “trial” in 1934. His dismissal was due to his apolitical stance, his personal feud with leader Andre Breton, and his public antics. In July 1936, the Spanish Civil War started and Dali and his wife remained in Paris, where he continued evolving his artistic style. He was heavily influenced by the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, whom Dali met in 1938. In 1939 Andre Breton definitively expelled Dali from Surrealism.3.
“Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.”
In 1980, Dalí was forced to retire from painting due to a motor disorder that caused permanent trembling and weakness in his hands. No longer able to hold a paint brush, he’d lost the ability to express himself the way he knew best. More tragedy struck in 1982, when Dalí’s beloved wife and friend, Gala, died. The two events sent him into a deep depression. He moved to Pubol, in a castle that he had purchased and remodeled for Gala, possibly to hide from the public or, as some speculate, to die. In 1984, Dalí was severely burned in a fire. Due to his injuries, he was confined to wheelchair. Friends, patrons and fellow artists rescued him from the castle and returned him to Figueres, making him comfortable at the Teatro-Museo.
In November 1988, Salvador Dalí entered a hospital in Figueres with a failing heart. After a brief convalescence, he returned to the Teatro-Museo. On January 23, 1989, in the city of his birth, Dalí died of heart failure at the age of 84. His funeral was held at the Teatro-Museo, where he was buried in a crypt.4.
“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak…”
Andre Breton: The Manifesto of Surrealism 1924.
After dipping only the very tip of my little toe into Salvadore Dali tonight, I’m already overwhelmed by my ignorance. Am feeling quite the simpleton for loving his: The Persistence of Memory simply because of the melting clocks.
I’m an Australian and we get very, very hot Summers here, which do very nasty things to chocolate. Indeed, I’ve even seen candles bend over and do a complete U-turn in the heat. So when I see the melting clocks, I am reminded of chocolate coins melting in the heat.You know where the chocolate coin is housed in thick gold foil. You don’t have to be a child to fall under their spell.
Of course, when it comes to time itself melting away and evaporating completely, I’m no stranger to that either. Indeed, time seems to run out faster than my bank account. I know what it’s like to live on a tidal plain, and have to return home before the tide comes in. Or, to head out in the kayak, before you have to drag the beast home. In other words, you don’t need to remind me that “time and tide wait for no one.”
Of course, there’s that other aspect of time. How long is our personal piece of string and how much time do we have left?
For me, this question isn’t theoretical. Indeed, it’s breathing down my neck all the time. However, I’m now so used to it’s omnipresence, that I ignore it. Carpe Diem seize the day. Well, at least, I try to. That said, The Cough often has other ideas. Indeed, I think that cough thinks it’s Salvadore Dali himself craving attention and believing it’s the Lord of Heaven and Earth. However, just as Dali’s been cut down to size, I’m determined to deflate The Cough its all its dreams to extend my existence well past its expiry date, even if I have to climb an Everest of hurdles to get there.
While many view Dali as a genius, not everyone sees him that way. Writing in The Guardian, Australian art critic Robert Hughes, dismissed Dalí’s later works as “kitschy repetition of old motifs or vulgarly pompous piety on a Cinemascope scale.” Moreover, when Dawn Ades of England’s University of Essex, a leading Dalí scholar, began specializing in his work 30 years ago, her colleagues were aghast. “They thought I was wasting my time,” she says. “He had a reputation that was hard to salvage. I have had to work very hard to make it clear how serious he really was.” 1.
The Persistence of Memory
Returning to The Persistence of Memory, he based this seaside landscape on the cliffs in his home region of Catalonia, Spain. The ants and melting clocks are recognizable images that Dalí placed in an unfamiliar context or rendered in an unfamiliar way. The large central creature comprised of a deformed nose and eye was drawn from Dalí’s imagination, although it has frequently been interpreted as a self-portrait. Its long eyelashes seem insect-like; what may or may not be a tongue oozes from its nose like a fat snail from its shell.
Time is the theme here, from the melting watches to the decay implied by the swarming ants. Mastering what he called “the usual paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling,” Dalí painted this work with “the most imperialist fury of precision,” but only, he said, “to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.” There is, however, a nod to the real: the distant golden cliffs are those on the coast of Catalonia, Dalí’s home.https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/1168-2
Venus With Drawers (1936)
Given that I’ve already touched on the Venus de Milo and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, I thought I should also touch on Salvador Dali’s Venus With Drawers (1936):
Among Salvador Dali’s many memorable works, perhaps none is more deeply embedded in the popular imagination than Venus de Milo with Drawers, a half-size plaster reproduction of the famous marble (130-120 B.C.; Musée de Louvre, Paris), altered with pompom-decorated drawers in the figure’s forehead, breasts, stomach, abdomen, and left knee. The provoking combination of cool painted plaster and silky mink tufts illustrates the Surrealist interest in uniting different elements to spark a new reality. For the Surrealists the best means of provoking this revolution of consciousness was a special kind of sculpture that, as Dali explained in a 1931 essay, was “absolutely useless … and created wholly for the purpose of materializing in a fetishistic way, with maximum tangible reality, ideas and fantasies of a delirious character.” Dali’s article, which drew upon the ideas of Marcel Duchamp‘s Readymades, inaugurated object making as an integral part of Surrealist activity.
Dali was deeply influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, contending “The only difference between immortal Greece and contemporary times is Sigmund Freud, who discovered that the human body, purely platonic in the Greek epoch, is nowadays full of secret drawers that only psychoanalysis is capable to open.” The artist was especially interested in Freud’s interpretation of William Jensen’s Gradiva, a 1903 novel about an archaeologist’s obsession with an ancient relief; this curiosity coincided with his first explorations on the theme of cabinets—works such as the intimately scaled Atmospheric Chair (1933), in which a small cabinet seems to give birth to a maelstrom of vaguely human body parts. In other works, like City of Drawers (1936), Dali transformed the cabinet into a female figure, or, as he put it, an “anthropomorphic cabinet.” Venus de Milo with Drawers is the three-dimensional culmination of Dali’s explorations into the deep, psychological mysteries of sexual desire symbolized in the figure of the ancient goddess of love.http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/185184
Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), c. 1936.
While I was devouring Dali tonight like a voracious glutton, I came across another work which I wanted to add to the mix. That is Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), c. 1936. This anti-war piece was brushed just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The painting depicts a tormented figure tearing itself apart in what Dalí called “a delirium of autostrangulation.5” Australian art critic, Robert Hughes commented:
“Despite all bombast of the later work, Dalí’s greatest and most frightening painting is probably the Soft Construction with Boiled Beans – Premonition of Civil War (1936). With this single painting, Dalí moved into the territory of Goya. This monstrous Titan – its body is part-based on that of stringy Saturn, seen in the act of eating his child, in one of Goya’s Black Paintings in the Prado – is the most powerful image of a country’s anguish and dismemberment to issue from Spain (or anywhere else) since Los Desastres de la Guerra. And every inch of it, from the sinister greenish clouds and electric-blue sky to the gnarled bone and putrescent flesh of the monster, is exquisitely painted. This, not Picasso’s Guernica, is modern art’s strongest testimony on the civil war, and on war in general. Not even the failures of Dalí’s later work can blur that fact.6″
When it comes to trying to understand Dali’s works, I am very grateful to art critics like Robert Hughes, who can translate the many mysteries of the visual into something tangible. Of course, we can always have our own interpretations, but quite often a more detailed knowledge of the artist sheds some light. I also think that while many of us love art, we’re more of the dabbling kind and don’t have the time to develop the expertise required to become a walking art encyclopaedia.
That said, even in the brief weeks I’ve been hunkering down, I feel like I’ve devoured the golden calf. I’m just amazed at how much you can learn from your chair at home these days through the Internet. You just have to switch off the TV. Put Facebook on hold and you too could become a genius. There’s nothing stopping you.
Lastly, I should mention that Dali was also a writer and wrote several autobiographies. While I haven’t had a chance to read these, I really liked this little story, which he claimed to write as an 8 year old:
(Translation: “A night at the end of June, a child takes a walk with his mother. It’s raining falling stars. The child picks up one and carries it in the palms of his hands. At home he deposits it on the table and locks it in a reversed glass. The next morning, getting up, he lets escape a scream of terror: A worm, during the night, has nibbled his star!“) 7.
Letter to Salvadore Dali
Did your moustache keep growing after you died?
A Letter From Salvador Dali