View of “Salvador Dalí,” Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2005. Photo: Greydon Wood.

View of “Salvador Dalí,” Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2005. Photo: Greydon Wood.

Salvador Dalí

Hail to the newborn Salvador Dalí, so often scorned by the last century! Now resurrected in a retrospective for his hundredth birthday (in 2004), he is making a vengeful comeback that will open eyes both old and young. It turns out that he is not only still alive and well (the crowds goggling each painting were testimony to his miracle working), but he is also emerging as a surprisingly unfamiliar master whose work has yet to be integrated into art history.

My credentials for this overview are venerable. It was in May 1939, just before my twelfth birthday, that I rushed to Flushing Meadow to see the New York World’s Fair as soon as it opened. There, on the outskirts of this utopian hymn to progress, I stumbled upon something that transfixed me: Dalí’s Dream of Venus Pavilion, a bizarre grotto of erotic enchantment, with its slimy array of coral and submarine creatures, from mermaids and an enormous reproduction of Botticelli’s Venus to a cashier booth in the shape of a fish head. I was too young to be allowed inside the “adults only” interior, but again and again I stared at the facade, conjuring up early-adolescent erotic fantasies. Two years later, still a museum neophyte, I made one of my first visits to moma only to discover a double feature worthy of Frankenstein and Dracula: the concurrent Dalí and Miró shows of 1941. (With an inadvertent illiteracy paralleling Franco’s efforts to squelch Catalan language and culture, moma, in both the catalogues and the signage, omitted the accents on the final vowels of the artists’ names.) I of course recognized Dalí’s name (who didn’t in the 1940s?) if not Miró’s, and this time I could enter the enchanted territory the two had staked out. My jaw kept dropping, and I gave equal, breathless time to both of them, who for me had joined forces in opening a world of throbbing, quasi-erotic fantasies where tumescence and detumescence served as twin engines for the eerie humanoids who dwelled in this realm of uninhibited imaginations. The two Catalans, in fact, looked totally complementary to me, separated at birth but both obsessed with visceral blobs of desire and with hybrid creatures that root us in our biological origins and haunt spaces from bleak coastal shores and cosmic skies to the unfathomable depths of what we learned to call the id.

If Dalí and Miró seemed to demand equal time back then, things soon changed. In the ever-loftier pantheon of modernism, Miró was maintained as a deity, while Dalí was expelled as a rebel angel. Greenberg, with his customary papal authority, wrote a monographic paean to Miró in 1948; but he damned Dalí and his fellow Surrealists, calling the movement a “reactionary tendency” and complaining that Dalí attempted to “represent the processes and concepts of his consciousness, not the process of his medium.” While Miró seemed to be getting modernism right by becoming flatter and flatter, Dalí got everything wrong by becoming deeper and deeper—and, even worse, seducing viewers with crowd-pleasing jabberwocky narrative and hyperrealist illusions, anathema to the religion of modernism. Like Rockwell and Wyeth, his ability to entertain the unwashed masses who couldn’t understand Picasso or Mondrian made him a pariah for elite taste, while his ongoing dalliances with popular culture in a pre-Warhol age damned his reputation as a serious artist. From the late ’30s on, Dalí’s name got attached to just about everything and everyone outside the museum’s boundaries: Time magazine and the Dalí News (a self-promoting newspaper, its title a joke on the Daily News); Shirley Temple, Mae West, and Laurence Olivier (each the subject of a “portrait” of sorts); Hitchcock, Disney, and Schiaparelli (with whom he collaborated); TV commercials for Alka-Seltzer; etc.—all vivid proof of Dalí’s status as a charlatan/businessman/pop star. Although his miniaturist treasures of the ’20s and ’30s still had some respectability as historical emblems of Surrealism, his work gradually went off the screen of history, and the very different output of his later decades would only be exiled to an ever-more-distant planet.

The current retrospective, piloted by Dawn Ades and Michael Taylor, should change Dalí’s image drastically. The masterful catalogue entries, which uncover obscure sources with amazing erudition and offer surprisingly lucid and rational interpretations of once-enigmatic works, should alone revive interest in rereading even Dalí’s most famous icons. But the larger point is the chronological breadth of the show, which thoroughly rearranges Dalí’s role in twentieth-century art. To begin with, the ’20s, the decade during which Dalí magically distilled his signature, dream-photograph style with The Basket of Bread (a hallucinatory 1926 resurrection of the traditional Spanish bodegón), reveals an astonishing diversity of approaches that plug him into mainstream modernism. Like Picasso at that time, he could work in the shadow of Ingres and weighty classical sculpture but could switch to poster-flat Cubist styles that began to explore shadowy physiognomic and anatomical double images, which opened onto Freud’s lower depths. Most tellingly, the large 1928 canvas Four Fishermen’s Wives of Cadaqués—with its floating, blobby shapes evoking everything from creeping crabs to sexual arousal—could almost be attributed to Miró or Arp. Here, Dalí proves that he could easily have chosen to follow modernist orthodoxy, refusing, as it were, to puncture Greenberg’s inviolate picture plane. But he elected instead to flesh out these metamorphic dreamscapes with a staggering trompe l’oeil virtuosity that amplifies, rather than contradicts, Miró’s vocabulary of swelling and contracting protoplasm adrift in immeasurable space.

Right into the ’30s—the decade of his most famous and infamous canvases—Dalí’s preoccupations kept tangling with those of other major figures, such as Picasso. Like his fellow Spaniard, Dalí became obsessed with the image of sleep, which he unforgettably materialized (or dematerialized) in a painting of circa 1937 in which a sagging monumental humanoid, supported only by the most spindly, gravity-defying crutches, is on the brink of passing into a state of weightless somnolence. The canvas is almost a synthesis of Picasso’s various efforts in the early ’30s to represent the corporeal and psychological transformations from wakefulness to sleep in his depictions of Marie-Thérèse Walter, catnapping or falling into deep slumber. Yet another dialogue with Picasso in the ’30s can be discerned in Dalí’s fascination with anthropomorphic furniture. In both two and three dimensions, he could transform the human body, whether the Venus de Milo or a heroic academic nude, into a chest of drawers with nipples for knobs—a kind of humanoid carpentry also explored by Picasso, not to mention Goya, in one of his most famous Caprichos, which depicts foolish women wedded to chairs placed upside down on their heads. (Later, in the ’70s, Dalí would actually do many variations on the Caprichos, a continual source for his mutations of the human body.) And, of course, both Dalí and Picasso responded to the Spanish Civil War and World War II, which cast lethal, barbaric shadows on their work from 1936 to 1945, a time when each artist sought inspiration from both Goya and the news of the day. (In Dalí’s case, even Hitler and Chamberlain make appearances.)

Dalí’s work of these years also evinces endless resonances with his native visual culture, rooted in the grotesque imaginations of Catalan ancestors Antoni Gaudí and his disciple Josep Maria Jujol. Anyone who has been to Barcelona has been startled by the way the city’s rational grid plan is suddenly interrupted by abrupt glimpses of seemingly time-weathered domestic architecture suitable for troglodytes or views of an unfinished cathedral that rises from the ground like a volcanic apparition. Dalí would later pay explicit homage to Gaudí in his 1933 article for the Surrealist magazine Minotaure, “On the Terrifying and Edible Beauty of Art Nouveau Architecture”—a tribute that he paid again and again in grotesque constructions that often look like fantasies straight from Gaudí’s own atelier. Moreover, Dalí often resurrected his predecessor’s major innovations in the decorative arts, whether in the melting watches that evoke Gaudí’s gilded wooden wall clock with a spiraling face, or the human/furniture hybrids that recall the architect’s earlier transformations of desk legs into bones and chests of drawers into torsos. And speaking of Catalan ancestry, it might also be noted that a prominent Barcelona painter of Gaudí’s generation, Modest Urgell, had made a name for himself through eerily empty landscapes with uninterrupted horizons, which are echoed in the haunting vastness of not only Miró’s early landscapes but also Dalí’s many miragelike voids, such as The Phantom Cart, 1933.

Although Dalí seems already to have settled into his mature style by the ’30s, the decade still witnessed unexpected flashes of innovation that pointed ahead to the postwar developments of a younger generation. For instance, the shaped canvases of 1936, their frames conforming to anatomical contours, might be perceived as unexpected foreshadowings of Frank Stella; and the Mae West Lips Sofa of 1938 would look quite at home in a Claes Oldenburg retrospective. But the major revelation of the Philadelphia exhibition was Dalí’s postwar work, which brims with totally fresh inventions, rooted in, yet very different from, his classic icons. This material also constantly surprises us by intersecting with the art of the later twentieth century, a time when few paid heed to what Dalí was up to, as was the case with the now-rediscovered late work of Picabia and de Chirico.

Of these unexpected discoveries, perhaps the most precocious are The Sistine Madonna, 1958, and Portrait of My Dead Brother, 1963, in which painted screens of benday dots (some made of cherries!) veil phantom images, including a fragment of Raphael’s religious icon afloat in a giant ear and the ghostly head of Dalí’s brother, also named Salvador, who died nine months before the artist’s own birth. These ambitious paintings seem simultaneously to belong to the Surrealist past and to the young art of the ’60s, acting as premonitions of Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke, and Chuck Close, not to mention Op art. This language of atomic modules recurs in an unexpected revival of Seurat’s Pointillism, Dawn, Noon, Sunset, and Dusk, 1979, where a phantom figure from Millet’s Angelus, 1857–59, a recurrent pictorial fetish for Dalí, reappears five times in a sunburst spectrum of colored dots. Another surprise is an exact replica of Vermeer’s Lacemaker, 1954–55, made for the collector Robert Lehman, who had expressed his regrets to Dalí that he hadn’t been able to acquire a Vermeer. Here again, Dalí suddenly takes a place in late twentieth-century art, offering a preview of younger generations of artists who would clone art history like George Deem, Elaine Sturtevant, and Mike Bidlo. And who knew that Dalí also made holograms? Check out his delirious revolving cylinder containing a spectral vision of a bejeweled Alice Cooper biting the head off the Venus de Milo. Post-Hiroshima atomic physics captured his soaring imagination, too, producing giant, sky-bound heads that explode in a whirlwind of infinite particles. And there is also an awesome anthology of religious icons that, with neo-Baroque perspectival tricks, revive the Catholic mysticism of Counter-Reformation art. No matter where we look, Dalí’s universe keeps expanding. And should we travel from Philadelphia to his hometown, Figueres, to see the Dalí theater museum, with its fantastic realms of pulsating jewelry, installation art, ceiling frescoes, and garden sculptures, his still-unexplored legacy would stretch even further.

Robert Rosenblum is a contributing editor of Artforum.