Review: Dalí: Liquid Desire

Dalí: Liquid Desire
NGV International
13 June – 4 October

 There are such a vast number of objects in this exhibition, and it is so difficult to get close to the more famous ones, due to the milling hordes, that it is tempting to think that it is a typical touring exhibition where we have been given a lot of lesser work, (such as book illustrations), to convince us that we have got our money’s worth for a “blockbuster”. However, on reflection, a large number of the more famous (because widely reproduced) works are included and a second visit with greater persistence to get close to these is warranted. The famous works include Soft self-portrait with grilled bacon, Portrait of Gala with two lamb chops in equilibrium upon her shoulder, Galatea of the Spheres and The disintegration of the persistence of memory.  The other aspect which strikes you with Dalí’s work, (after you have given up trying to see the, often very small, originals and retire to the foyer where details of Three young surrealist women holding in their arms the skins of an orchestra appear as huge banners), is how well it looks in reproduction. (This ties in quite nicely with the assertion in Wikipedia that his early attempts at Cubist and Postimpressionist works were based on pictures in magazines, with no knowledge of the underlying theories. To some extent, much of his later work retains this glossy, almost cartoon-like appearance.) This, combined with his showmanship and tireless self-promotion, also help to explain his great popularity.

Dalí the showman is very much in evidence in this exhibition, from the well known photographs of him, such as Dalí Atomicus by Philip Halsman, (the one with the cats and water), to the installations and spectacles, (including one in New York in the 1950s which must have caused quite a stir due to the bared breasts), and the collaborations with Disney and Alfred Hitchcock. It is easy to spot influences, (or perhaps public relations lessons learnt) on later movements which used the shock of the “new” to grab the spotlight. The “spectacle” women with their bared breasts and fishnets, not to mention Statue of Liberty spiked mohawks, bring the early antics of Siouxsie Sioux to mind. The Surrealist/Dada sculpture Retrospective Bust of a Woman, (reproduced from a 1933 original) which presents a bust with food on top of it and ants on the face was also copied by Jordan, (the punk, not Peter Andre’s ex), for one of her looks.  Of course, I am not the first to draw a connection between Dada and punk – Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus is entirely on this topic. The collaboration with Hitchcock for Spellbound also suggests early New Romantic videos – quite disappointingly the special effects seem to have been much better 40 years before the imitators. What all this drives home, though, is that these works were designed to cause a sensation and draw an audience for the serious work, and, while it is historically interesting, it is perhaps unfair to critique Dalí based on such spectacles and on works which were intended by their very nature to be ephemeral.

With the serious works themselves, though, sometimes it is tempting to think, “so what?” This is particularly so with the trompes l’oeil and double images. An example of this is the well known Self-portrait (c.1948), with its two women painted in the 17thC Dutch style, which are also the face of a woman. Yes, they are clever optical illusions and often rendered with photo realism, but what does this convey? The inclusion of the “old master” pastiche along with Surrealist techniques in the one picture also raises another aspect of Dalí’s works that it is easy to dismiss in these post-postmodern times – he was painting postmodern pastiches and featuring commercial products and references to celebrities long before the terms Postmodernism and Pop were coined. He also famously designed the Chupa Chup logo, appeared in television commercials and collaborated with jewellers and others to make Dalí merchandise. He was therefore breaking down the boundaries between high and low art very early in his career. Because these were also clearly money making ventures for him, and because the fall of capitalism was part of the program of his Surrealist colleagues, these acts were more likely to have him condemned as a sell out, than praised as a pioneer, at the time. The NGV and others would have us see him as a “Renaissance man” on the basis of these works in other media, (he also wrote books, mostly about himself), but I think that implies that he was a master in any medium. It may be a matter of taste, but for me this is difficult to accept, in regard to the jewellery at least.

The early Surrealism is largely an investigation of the subconscious with an overlay of classical and biblical imagery. Apparently some of the biblical references were quite shocking in their time and the sexual imagery is no doubt still titillating, at least. Again, because of the passage of time, what was once shocking Freudianism has now become clichéd. It is unfair to blame Dalí for being copied and parodied to the extent where the original has that appearance. One thing which is striking is how the Surrealist imagery of Dalí has become the accepted visual simulation of drug experiences, (even to the extent that melting clocks appear in the Simpsons after Homer has one chilli too many). As my viewing companion asked, has anyone actually ever experienced a hallucination which looked like a Dalí? As with Dalí’s refusal to mouth the Trotskyite maxims of his Surrealist colleagues, given how at odds they were with his desire to make money, it can perhaps be seen as also simple honesty on his part to reflect his self-obsessed narcissism in his paintings at this stage. Dalí did quite often explain the symbolism he employed in particular works and also the mathematical precepts he was demonstrating. This provides a narrative interest and ties in with the added dimension that Dalí the man and Dalí-Gala the celebrity phenomenon provided at the height of their fame – but to some extent this seems to lessen the impact of the paintings themselves, now that we can no longer follow his antics, although, and he would probably be pleased about this, it is actually possible to follow him on Twitter. Of course, it is not necessary to accept the explanations of Dalí for his symbolism, and the visual overload of the Surrealist works provides rich pickings for both a psychological reading of the artist and for deeper meanings to ascribe to him. For instance, the melting clocks, such as those in The disintegration of the persistence of memory have been seen as a representation of the theory of relativity, (as Michael Stipe said, time is an abstract), whereas the original inspiration for them was apparently melting brie at a picnic.

Perhaps the most interesting ideas are displayed in his post WWII works which deal with what he called “atomic mysticism”. The discoveries about the nature of matter at the atomic level – that it is not solid nor static, but rather made up of orbiting atoms, could well have been seen by Dalí as vindicating his Surrealist works as an intuitive representation of the true nature of matter. The works from this period depict particle theory writ large – objects have no solidity but are made up of orbiting atoms. The objects and people in these works can never truly touch but are separated by equally powerful forces of attraction and repulsion. (The drama and narrative is created for the figures within the paintings themselves, we are not required to look outside of them to the events of Dalí’s life at the time to have an emotional response to them.) Again, it is impossible to view these works without being reminded of anime images of post-apocalyptic blurring of distinctions between people and objects and alternate universes which may only exist in the mind of a madman. The Path of the Enigma is particularly like the final scene of such animated films where objects often levitate due to some sort of mystical convergence of a scientifically altered universe and technology. (The sacks also suggested some of the more bizarre horror films which have come out of South Korea lately.)

All-in-all it is hard not to be awed by Dalí’s prodigious output, (and there is plenty of it to see in this exhibition), and, if you can get past Dalí the man, there is invention, technique and drama to be admired in some, if not all, of the work.

Brenton Lochert

By Brenton Lochert

Brenton Lochert

Brenton is a freelance writer, art collector and lawyer. Once upon a time he completed an Arts degree where he became fluent in art theory speak.