Twenty-three years after its last Dalí exhibition, which still holds the record for the museum’s best-attended show ever, the Pompidou Center is doing it again. Two hundred works by the Catalonian painter are on view through March 25, including over a hundred works on paper from Spain’s Museo Reina Sofía and Florida’s Dalí Museum. Curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, the retrospective plumbs all corners of the artist’s work and personality. So the debate is renewed: Dalí, incredible genius or clownish exhibitionist?
Campy, provocative, megalomaniacal, politically ambiguous (e.g., his fascination with Hitler and his “understanding” with Franco), openly avaricious, self-centered to the point of filling his works with his narcissistic obsessions, and promoting a saturated, baroque, overblown aesthetic, Dalí still remains one of the most popular painters of the late 20th century, and the undisputed king of the dorm room poster. He was the champion of interviews and shocking sound bites, and the only person who could make the whole world want to buy Lanvin chocolate. By taking on the entire span of the artist’s career, the Pompidou Center offers several explanations of what we can take away from Dalí today.
A Painter of Instincts
Genitalia, sometimes female but especially male, are omnipresent in the artist’s work, either clearly depicted or disguised as a soft or erectile appendage. Even when you don’t see it, it’s hidden under the hat of Jean-François Millet’s “Angelus.” Dalí’s paintings treat eroticism, but also death (the decapitated head in the study for “Honey is Sweeter Than Blood”), decay (the recurring image of donkeys devoured by ants), the desire to stop time (the watches turned into elastic, elusive mechanisms), family, and childhood. The little boy who looks at the monster on crutches in “Specter of Sex Appeal” (1934) could be one of us, and the “Dreams of Venus” are ours.
A Classical Painter
Underneath its outrageous appearance, Dalí’s painting is reassuring. Even in the heart of his Surrealist period, he never gives up a certain academic style, both in his treatment of figures (such as the female face in “The Great Masturbator”) and his preparatory methods. Dalí thought out his paintings in the classical pictorial tradition, as shown by the numerous studies in this exhibition. He was fascinated by Raphael, Velázquez, and Millet, and the precision and meticulousness of his early works could give Flemish landscape painters a run for their money. His “Geological Future” (1933), depicting two golden skulls mounted on a steed without a rider, measures only eight inches. Other small works, including paintings, ink drawings, and gouaches, are on loan from private collections and reveal Dalí to be a subtle miniaturist, even trying his hand at a copy of Vermeer’s “Lacemaker.”
A Pop Painter
Dalí has often been called the father of Pop Art. His 1979 painting “Dawn, Noon, Afternoon, and Twilight” multiplies the figure in Millet’s “Angelus” in five colorful versions that recall Monet’s haystacks, Seurat’s pointillism, and Warhol’s portraits. Dalí lifted and copied icons. And, starting in 1948, when he theorized his “nuclear mysticism,” science influenced his work. He loaded on the visual effects, played with three dimensions, and created optical illusions (the exhibition completely reconstructs his “Mae West” room, modeled after the actress’s face, from the Dalí museum in the artist’s hometown of Figueres). He explored holography and stereoscopic vision — a whole technological visual register that leads to kitsch as its integrates and entertains the viewer. Dalí also made jewelry (which, unfortunately, is absent from this exhibition), appeared on TV, and made advertisements. He was an exhibitionist. He can certainly be irritating, but you can’t stop watching him.
A Painter In Love
Dalí met his muse, Gala, in 1929, when she was still the wife of poet Paul Eluard, and married her in 1934. Her presence is felt throughout his work; we find her in “Dalí Painting Gala From Behind” or standing next to him in a black-and-white photograph by Brassaï. The woman whom Dalí said he loved “more than his mother, his father, Picasso, and even money” stayed by his side until his death. There is something fascinating and ideal about this couple, who definitely contributed to the popularity of the artist’s work in the hearts of romantics everywhere.
To see works from the Pompidou Center’s Dalí retrospective, click on the slideshow.