Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Subject of Art #8: Salvador Dali - Visionary, Madman & Trickster All Rolled Into One!

Starting August 7th, The High Museum of Art in Atlanta will be hosting a retrospective of the later works by the Surrealist painter Salvador Dali, so it's worthwhile to take a look at this controversial and very popular artist and try to gauge his impact on our consciousness and appreciation of art as a whole.

Born in 1904 in the Catalan region of Spain, Salvador Dali's grandiose personality began to assert itself from early on in his artistic career and he was kicked out of the Academia de San Fernando for allegedly stating that his professors were all incompetent and had no business giving him exams. In truth, he did display a prodigious talent and mastered the skills to produce paintings heavily influenced by the meticulous techniques of the Renaissance style while simultaneously embracing Cubism and all of the most avant-garde trends of the time. The young artist met and made a good impression on Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, the two most famous Spanish artists of the Modern era and it was often thought that Dali would be the next in line of the great Spanish painters, a notion that he did nothing to dismiss!

Dali's fame and notoriety came about from his association with the Surrealist movement and, to this day, he is probably the most widely known of the Surrealist artists. In 1931 he painted his most famous work, The Persistence of Memory, which featured the iconic Surrealist image of melting pocket watches that challenged the idea of time as a known constant of reality. His masterful painting technique and wild imagination earned him world-wide recognition and helped to fuel his ego, bringing him into constant conflict with his fellow artists (many of whom had pretty big egos of their own).

His break with the Surrealist group came about due to his ambiguous stance on politics. Led by Andre Breton, the Surrealists generally adhered to a very leftist, socialist ideology, which Dali never fit into. He was kicked out of the official Surrealist group for his unwillingness to denounce Fascism, an attitude that would be troubling later in his life as he developed an uncomfortably friendly relationship with Franco, the Fascist dictator who ruled Spain with an iron hand through much of the mid-20th century. Nevertheless, Dali was unfazed by his expulsion, making the audacious claim "I myself am Surrealism" and continued onwards with even more extravagant and self-centered behavior. Nothing was more representative of his carefully constructed public persona than Dali's long pointy mustache, which he actually trademarked in order to insure that nobody could steal his unique look!

Apart from being a brilliant painter, Dali was never afraid to experiment with new media. From early on he took a great interest in film, collaborating with Luis Bunuel on the most well-known Surrealist effort, Le Chien Andalou. He also had an interest in photography, sculpture (his Lobster Telephone also become one of the most celebrated works of Surrealist sculpture) and the even more obscure medium of holography. Likewise, Dali's influence on new artists spread far and wide, earning accolades from Pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein while also re-invigorating the movement to return to the realist style of painting and a general trend away from abstraction and non-objective painting.

During his later years he became increasingly religious as a devout Catholic, and that sentiment worked it's way into into much of the work that he did in his later period. While his earlier pieces were small or modestly sized (The Persistence of Memory measured just 9.5" x 13") his later works took on a much more monumental scale that continued to keep pace with his growing ego and sense of importance, fueled by plenty of press and TV appearances and even an elevation to the noble class by the king of Spain! He died in 1989, leaving behind more than 1200 paintings and numerous works in other media for us to contemplate.

Salvador Dali's legacy is a mixed one. On the one hand, he was a powerful talent who had the ability to create art that captured the public imagination, as did many other artists of the 20th century, but many questions remain as to whether or not he was a real pioneer exploring unknown frontiers of artistic perception or if he, as some critics maintain, lurked just behind the true innovators and stole their best ideas, turning them to his own advantage (and fame and fortune) through the force of his personality. Dali's outrageous but charismatic way of being obscures his true motivations and sources of inspiration behind a wall of controversial statements and actions that leave many wondering if his entire life were just one elaborate theatrical performance. One may well think that that is exactly what Salvador Dali would have wanted!

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