Art Review: Salvador Dalí – The Late Work

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Forever Young, Outsider Dalí
Danced with Old, Sparred with New

When photographer and friend Phillipe Halsman asked Salvador Dalí during a photo shoot, “Why do you wear a mustache?”, he received the response, “In order to pass unobserved.”

Judging from the size of one of the massive crates required to ship his mural-sized paintings (revealed by an obliging museum guard in a behind-the-scenes peek) and the intense efforts Dalí expended to brand himself (long before anyone used that noun as a verb), he clearly intended that every endeavor generate attention, including the series of photographs that emerged from his work with Halsman.

Those Halsman-Dalí photos welcomed visitors to the High Museum of Art’s exhibit, Salvador Dalí: The Late Work.  They combined portraits of Dalí with accompanying repartee.  Following the question, “Why do you paint?”, and its answer, “Because I love art,” came an image of the artist with his mustache formed into an S turned into the American dollar sign with the addition of two paint brushes.  Coins framed the face.

For only a time a Surrealist but forever associated with that movement, and famous for the melting clocks of The Persistence of Memory (1931), Dalí fell from grace early on because of his unapologetic commercialization of art.  Assembled for the show at the High by guest curator Elliott H. King, a collection of Dalí’s late work aimed to situate this initiator of happenings and multimedia events, innovative sculptor, and expert draftsman and painter where he rightfully belongs: in the pantheon of great artists of the twentieth century.

In the first room of paintings, a vitrine contains Dalí’s copy of The Geometry of Art and Life by Matila Ghyka, opened to the page describing the Golden Section on which the book’s owner penciled notes that chronicled his efforts to understand it.  In The Study for Leda Atomica (1947), Dalí inscribed a couple of phone handsets, a fully inked swan and Leda/Gala within an encircled pentagram, the construction lines for which intersect to divide into segments that relate to each other in accordance with the Golden Ratio.

Such geometric magic along with other scientific interests figured prominently in Dalí’s peculiar thought processes.  The smashing of the atom, especially, captured his imagination and inspired depictions of disintegrating forms.  Conceptualizing matter as reducible to an invisible state of energy suited Dalí’s philosophical and artistic wanderings in the insubstantial worlds of fantasy, dreams and the unconscious.

In addition to his prodigious visual output, Dalí wrote extensively on his favorite subject: himself.  Among other topics, his musings expound upon his artistic choices, beginning with the paranoiac mechanism of his Surrealism days.  Caught up in a multi-tracked train of thought, Dalí arrived at his Paranoiac-Critical mysticism, the underlying inspiration for much of the work in this exhibit.

Writing about his unique view of the world, Dalí aligned himself with paranoiacs who, he observed take “…advantage of associations and facts so refined as to escape normal people [to] reach conclusions that often cannot be contradicted or rejected and that in any case nearly always defy psychological analysis.”1 Indeed, this artist found relationships few others saw, morphing one object into another with his deft wielding of pen and brush.

Devoted to Dalí’s expeditions into the graphic arts, two rooms in the exhibit contained an array of styles and modalities that served as a good introduction to his extensive accomplishments in this arena.  Unfortunately, late in his life he became fast and loose with his signature in a way that challenged future collectors and dealers in their attempts at authentication.  On display, engravings from Ten Recipes for Immortality (1973) and colored lithographs from Don Quixote (1957) (both series inexplicably absent from the catalog) demonstrated Dalí’s expert draftsmanship.  The High could do well to mount an exhibition devoted solely to this aspect of Dalí’s oeuvre.

Among the few early works included in the exhibit, Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone (1938) combined both Dalí’s paranoiac ability and his facility with both ends of a brush.  On a dark ground, the artist scraped off paint to reveal form-defining lights and applied small dabs of color as highlights on the horse’s rump.  With a radiator to its left, an automobile wheel in place of one of its forelegs and a fender over its other, this bio-mechanical animal bites down with a vengeance on a phone’s receiver, leaving the viewer to ponder what it might mean.

Dalí’s later works drew upon his fascination with quantum physics.  In his Mystical Manifesto (1951), he unraveled the secrets of the Paranoiac-Critical approach and rallied aspiring artists to perfect their craft.  When he wrote that the “mystical ecstasy is ‘super-cheerful,’ explosive, disintegrated, supersonic, undulatory and corpuscular, and ultra-gelatinous…,”2 Dalí included a reference to the quantum theory that energy exists in either wave (undulatory) or particle (corpuscular) form depending on the instrument used to observe it.

In an instructive example of his method, the Paranoic-Critical Study of Vermeer’s “Lacemaker” (1955), Dalí exploded his copy of the Dutch artist’s painting, at which he had spent an hour staring during a visit to the Louvre and then reproduced from memory (so the story goes).  Insisting that he found four rhinoceros horns in Vermeer’s small image, Dalí included those in his updated version along with a recognizable face surrounded by strands and corpuscles of color and light.

The title of Saint Surrounded by Three Pi-Mesons (1956) directly references subatomic particles.  Where others might see a person, Dalí utilized his paranoiac vision to reduce the holy figure to a mass of individual elements.  This relatively small painting, housed in a protective glass-covered frame box, revealed a deftness of touch in the artist’s application of mostly grisaille daubs of paint interspersed with strokes of occasional blue in the face area and bronze on the hands.  Golden tassels dangle at the bottom.  An entire world exists in this assemblage of forms; reproductions barely hint at the effort required for its realization.

A devoted classicist, Dalí took issue with the art trends of his time.  In a preparatory sketch for a page in his Fifty Secrets of Master Craftsmanship (ca.1948), displayed in the vitrine with the book on geometry, Dalí used parameters like “Grafmanschip, coleur, dessino” [all sic] to rate Mondrian, Picasso and himself alongside old masters such as Raphael, Leonardo and Velázquez.  Picasso faired all right.  Mondrian earned almost all zeroes, but so did Bouguereau.

Further expressing his negative feelings about nonobjective art, Dalí painted Fifty Abstract Paintings Which as Seen from Two Yards Change into Three Lenins Masquerading as Chinese and as Seen from Six Yards Appear as the Head of a Royal Bengal Tiger (1962), the name of which says it all.  In the same room as that statement hung The Sistine Madonna (Quasi-grey picture which, closely seen, is an abstract one; seen from two meters is the Sistine Madonna of Raphael; and from fifteen meters is the ear of an angel measuring one meter and a half; which is painted with anti-matter; therefore with pure energy) (1958).  A tromp l’oeil piece of paper and a cherry tied to the end of a string contrast in technique with the benday-dotted ear containing an image of a face.

Possibly one of Dalí’s most beautifully rendered paintings, The Madonna of Port Lligat (1950) showcases the wizardry with which this master could transform two-dimensional canvas into an imagined three-dimensional reality.  With invisible brush strokes, Dalí lavished the same attention to detail on each object pictured.  Brilliantly conceived, the Christ child that sits on the Madonna’s/Gala’s lap looks just like the neighbor’s kid, except for the end piece of a bread loaf that floats in the rectangular space carved into the youngster’s torso.

Two other floor-to-ceiling canvases deserve mention.  In Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951), Dalí depicts the crucified figure from above, within an equilateral triangle, and suspends the cross high above a boat anchored in a large lake.  Perhaps he intended the perspective to suggest God’s view of the event.

Using a photograph of a horse’s head as reference, paranoiac Dalí noticed that the highlight on the creature’s neck resembled an angel.  In Santiago El Grande (1957), the image reverberates throughout the huge painting.  Over a blue latticework background, a rider mounted on a rearing stead hoists a golden cruciform figure.  Fiery orange objects fly around in the uppermost lefthand corner.  In the lower right, shrouded Gala peers out from behind her partly hidden face, confronting the onlooker with her one visible eye.

Not the last artwork displayed in the show but definitely a coda of sorts, The Truck (We’ll be arriving later, about 5 o’clock) (1983) captures the devastation Dalí suffered when his beloved wife and muse, Gala, died in 1982.  Using a combination of oil paint and collage on canvas, this view from the inside of an opened-back truck alludes to “André Breton’s: ‘I demand that they take me to the cemetery in a removal van.’  The subtitle invokes Garcia Lorca’s ‘Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter’ (1935) refrain: ‘at five in the afternoon.’”3 Using a diluted brown and black wash, Dalí painted the interior with a seated figure silhouetted against a brightly lit exterior.  A much darker mass close by looks like the painter at his easel, capturing the love of his life for eternity.

After Gala’s death, Dalí slipped away from life.  His best work behind him, he spent the last years of his life an invalid.  In 1989 when his heart gave out, the world lost a unique and gifted madman–and genius.
1 “Selected Writings by Salvador Dalí,” Dalí, 2004, 550.

2 Ibid, 564.

3 Exhibit wall text.

Salvador Dalí: The Late Work
High Museum of Art
1280 Peachtree Street, NE
Atlanta, GA 30309

Catalog available.