New York

“Dalí: Painting and Film”

The Museum of Modern Art was the last stop of a four-city tour for “Dalí: Painting and Film,” a voluminous show that included paintings, drawings, films, and film treatments. Originating in London (at Tate Modern), the exhibition moved on to Los Angeles (to LACMA), a natural setting for the show given that it was in Hollywood that Salvador Dalí worked with Alfred Hitchcock on the filmmaker’s 1945 thriller Spellbound—at MoMA, Gregory Peck’s dream sequence, which features Dalí’s huge smoky backdrop, was projected onto a nearly wall-size screen—and on Walt Disney’s deservedly forgotten Destino (1946), an oversugared confection in its posthumous completion in 2003. Dalí and the Marx Brothers were mutual fans. Dalí sent Harpo a harp with barbed-wire strings. Harpo sent back a glossy of himself with bloodied fingers.

The Dalí Museum in Saint Petersburg, Florida, was also a stopover. And finally New York City, the site of numerous Dalí commissions and stunts—broken store windows, tabloid scandals, and Aquacade extravaganzas—timed to the World’s Fair of 1939. Fascinating studies for an unrealized film called Les Mystères surréalistes de New York remain.

A crack curatorial team led by Tate Modern’s Matthew Gale rethought Dalí’s stylistic development, nailing his films not strictly to the two crosses of André Breton’s Surrealist manifestos but to an expanded field of popular entertainment. This fresh view renders more palatable much of the kitschiness of Dalí’s work from the 1940s onward and reinforces the values of that sector of fans who, while loving the artist, otherwise detest modern art.

Breton’s first manifesto, of 1924, is the epoch-marking apology for an art of pure psychic automatism—of which artists such as Joan Miró or André Masson are far better exemplars than Dalí ever was. Still, there are one or two wacky paintings that are almost Miró-like in their bald materiality. The Feminine Nude (Final State) of 1928, for example, a startling collage of paint, cork, and string contradicts any anticipation you could possibly have regarding Dalí’s fabled virtuosity. The second manifesto, of 1931, admits the potential of a poetical free association of representational imagery and places Surrealism at the Service of the Revolution. The Dalí-Buñuel collaboration Un Chien andalou, 1929, falls between the twin towers of Breton’s essays. The film’s petrifying, castrating eye-slash—among other notorious Freudian displacements (the mouth in the hand, the ants in the palm of the hand)—marks it as the most Bretonized of Dalí’s motion pictures.

L’Âge d’or, 1930, the pair’s next outing, is more complex and less fun, as it echoes the restive Fascism in Spain and Germany—Italy had already capitulated to the extreme Right in 1922—not to say the ideology of Fascist sympathizers in France. The anti-Semitic League of Patriots, for example, succeeded in having L’Âge d’or suppressed in France for more than a half century. To be sure, there is lots in the film to inflame “family-values” and Church-as-State reactionaries, for example the proletarian Mallorcan Bandits—one of them Max Ernst—who troll an eroded landscape reminiscent of Dalí’s beloved Figueras, or the erotomania of husband and wife ecstatic at having killed the kids. The heroine’s toe-suck of Diane Chasseresse (a famous classical sculpture) and her swooning embrace of the aged orchestra conductor—Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde comes in for heavy weather in both Dalí-Buñuel films—are gerontophilic surrenders far more shocking than the dutiful anticlericalism of the film’s conclusion. In this version Jesus plays Master of the Orgies for the Divine Marquis’s Cent-vingt journées de Sodome. Both films are early expressions of a favored Buñuel trope, The Exquisite Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

This relocation of Dalí’s stylistic development to film depoliticizes the long Liberal disdain for the artist, born of the painter’s growing Falangist sympathies—his love for the Loyalist poet Federico García Lorca and his inspired collaboration with then-Stalinist Buñuel notwithstanding. Avida Dollars, Breton’s sobriquet for Dalí, stuck for decades. Impressions of Upper Mongolia—Homage to Raymond Roussel, 1975, like all of Dalí’s late films, is marred by the artist’s quixotic hectoring as he searches for the great white mushroom of forgetfulness.

Robert Pincus-Witten