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Dalí: Painting and Film

The Museum of Modern Art, June 29 – September 15, 2008

Although he once denounced film as an inferior form of expression, few artists have experimented more with the medium than Salvador Dalí. Throughout his career, the artist collaborated with the likes of Luis Buñuel, the Marx Brothers, Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney to create fantastic visions that played out on the big screen—and which are now the subject of “Dalí: Painting and Film.” The show debuted at the Tate Modern in collaboration with Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí in Figueres, Spain. It traveled from London to L.A. to St. Petersburg, Fla., and now it’s at MoMA, where it was coordinated for the museum by curator Jodi Hauptman.

Film as such was introduced to Dalí’s Spain in his first year of life, 1904, when a cinema-theater opened in Figueres, the artist’s birthplace. He was a member of the first generation of artists who grew up under the direct influence of cinema and tried to express themselves in that medium. Indeed, Dalí spent years trying to create “a visible subconscious state” that he believed could only be expressed by film.

Luis Butler's,
Luis Butler's, "Un Chien Andalou." Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art.

The idea of self-producing movies initially came from Buñuel and Federico Garcia Lorca. In 1927-29, Buñuel came up with part of a script and financial support—miraculously supplied by his mother, who scratched together enough money to back a collaborative project with Dalí. Both artists were infused with the surrealist mission to exploit dreams and repressed desires through nonlinear scenarios. Today, their motion picture work has not lost its power to provoke or to liberate desire, serving as a perfect complement to dreams and the misty realm of the subconscious.

The title of their first masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog, 1929), was actually a glancing reference to a slang name for students from that region, (Lorca was an Andalusian), used in cosmopolitan Madrid’s Student Residencia—the cradle of early Spanish surrealism.

In the first gallery at MoMA, visitors encounter dvd screenings of the two famous Buñuel-Dalí productions, Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’or, the latter more anti-clergy and polemical. Their unsurpassed dark and menacing images convey the restlessness of a time witnessing the rise of fascism. At one early showing of L’Age d’or in Paris, the right-wing League of Patriots and the Anti-Jewish League rioted and destroyed the paintings accompanying the screening. After a 10-day run, the film was banned in France for the next fifty years.

In his 1983 autobiography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel recalled that the duo established one important rule for their collaboration: that no idea or image with any rational explanation would be included in the work. Dalí would first paint the concept, and Bunuel would transform the image into such memorable scenes as the disembodied hand in a box lying on the street, or the swarm of ants crawling out of a beautiful nude. Putrefying donkeys, the notorious razor slicing an eye, melting watches and groups of eyes bulging from a suspended curtain have all since become universally recognized surrealist symbols.

“Unsatisfied Desire” (1928), a work of “mysterious kitsch,” painted with oils mixed with sand for texture and brushed onto cardboard and seashells, is a most “surromantic” (a word I invented specifically for Dalí) composition of sensual forms and surfaces. “Illuminated pleasures” (1929) depicts elements such as bicycle riders with bread on their heads, which were later used in a 1932 poster for the movie Babaouo, an unrealized script written by Dalí and finally filmed by Manuel Cussó-Ferrer in 1998.

This show includes the fruits of a recent chance finding in Hollywood of long-forgotten films and film sets. An unreleased 40-minute Disney movie, along with outtakes from Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), was found in an old vault at 20th Century Fox studios. There was also the six-minute Destino, another collaboration with Disney based on Dalí’s drawings, which was started at the end of 1945 and then lay dormant for almost 60 years until it was finally rediscovered and finished five years ago.

The exhibition’s more than 100 important paintings, drawings, manuscripts, photographs and films by the eccentric, self-promoting Dalí describe the cross-fertilization of cinema and visual art in Dalí’s experimentation and expression. In his painting and film work, Dalí reveled in the elongation of space in time via depictions of decay, of bulging human forms and soft amoeba-like shapes mounted on spindly crutches. In paintings such as “The First Days of Spring” (1929), “The Persistence of Memory” (1931) and “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus” (1937), images seamlessly dissolve into one another as they do in both the subconscious and motion pictures.

Dalí’s fascination with Freudian theories of personality, dreams and the subconscious is evident in paintings completed before he started working on films, such as “Apparatus and Hand” (1927) and “Inaugural Goose Flesh” (1928); amazed and mystified as he was by film, the often-contradictory Dalí wrote in 1927, “The best cinema is the kind that can be perceived with your eyes closed.” Nevertheless, the painter translated his enthusiasm for film’s potential in a flood of scripts such as the one for Babaouo, echoes of which appear in a shadow box depicting one of its scenes.

The artist’s first encounter with Harpo Marx was at a party in Paris, where they quickly confessed a mutual admiration. Then Dalí sent Harpo a Christmas present: a harp with barbed wire for strings and spoons for tuning knobs, wrapped in cellophane. Harpo was delighted and sent Dalí a photograph of himself sitting at the harp with bandaged fingers. Dalí painted Harpo the following year, naked and crowned with roses, a mad faun in a veritable forest of harps, caressing a dazzling white swan like a modern Leda and feeding it a statue of the Venus de Milo made of cheese. The clearly enchanted Dalí made two other beautiful drawings of the comic sitting at his harp, grinning beatifically with a lobster on his head.

Dalí’s later collaborations with photographer Philippe Halsman produced the scenario for Chaos and Creation (1960) and a video address to a convention on visual communication in New York, in which Dalí incessantly declaims Piet Mondrian’s name: “PIET, PIET, PIET…. NIET!” It was one of the first artist’s videos of that time, concurrent with work by artists like John Cage, Allan Kaprow, Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely.

Impressions of Upper Mongolia – Homage to Raymond Roussel, made in 1975 for Spanish television (directed by Jose Montes-Baquer), is a faux documentary about a search for hallucinogenic mushrooms that actually examines the oxidation of the brass on a ballpoint pen doused with urine (Dalí’s own)—oscillating abstract colors that predate Andy Warhol’s own “Oxidation” painting series by three years. Warhol himself represented a direct link from Dalí to pop-surrealism, and in 1966 he persuaded the elder painter to be the subject of a one of his Screen Tests.

Along with the films on continuous display in the galleries, from September 10th to the 15th, the museum will present a series of motion pictures by and about Dalí that is organized by Anne Morra, an assistant curator in the Department of Film. The selections will include: Dalí’s Dream of Venus (1939); Salvador Dalí Happenings (1963-64), directed by Jonas Mekas; Dalí in New York (1966), directed by Jack Bond; Maysles Footage of Salvador Dalí (1966), directed by Albert and David Maysles, and The Death of Salvador Dalí (2005), written and directed by Delaney Bishop.

Dalí continuously incorporated new visual forms into his creations, making use of cars, telephones and other mass consumption items as a response to a new age. His direct participation in cinema, animation, video and photography were decisive in breaking down the barriers between high and low culture. That transition toward the postmodern is made clear in this haunting show, which also serves to prove how supremely relevant Dalí remains in the 21st century.


Valery Oisteanu


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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