Salvador Dali, and his paintings
Salvador Dali's paintings immediately recall the personality of the artist and his eccentric behavior. History has taught us, however, that with the passage of time, the details of an artist's life and his opinions are forgotten, and his fame comes to depend entirely on his paintings. Thus, to have a clear idea of Dali as an artist, it is important to look at the paintings. There is no doubt that they have made an extraordinary impression. They have been violently attacked, but they have also been passionately admired, and they have fascinated the general public. They have been acquired by museums all over the world, and are often more popular than works of artists long recognized as the greatest.
What is about Salvador Dali's paintings that gives them this impact and that makes them immediately recognizable as his? Partly, of course, the subject matter, which is often weird and fantastic. But much more important is Dali's own highly personal quality. This is difficult to define. Its effect is both pleasing and shocking, a mixture of a clear, insistently present, almost tactile feeling of reality with a mood that is utterly unreal, impossible, often nightmarish, evoking something that we are conscious of but do not quite understand - perhaps would prefer not to understand. The painter almost succeeds in giving tangible form to dreams.
Salvador Dali arouses an exciting feeling of reality by his exceptionally sensitive rendering of the effect of light on surfaces, whatever they represent - skin, cloth, fur, sand, or stone. His ability to do this is exceptional. He reproduces textures in a startlingly life-like way, always bringing out expressive and unexpected details. Inner structure and solidity, on the other hand, are usually lacking, which brings out the liveliness of the surface even more.
Familiar surroundings are constantly reflected in Dali's paintings. The landscape around his house at Port Lligat recurs frequently, like the Montagne St.Victoire and Provencal pine woods in Paul Cezanne. Dali's wife reappears as model for most of his female figures. Her personality, so well known to us from photographs in the press, is difficult to dissociate from the artistic meaning of the pictures. But with time, this will change. We have only to think of how Helene Fourment's face and figure, appearing in every one of Rubens' paintings, mythological or religious, must have affected her contemporaries in seventeenth-century Antwerp. Today this no longer interferes with our appreciation of her husband's works.
The technique of the paintings contributes to making them attractive. Highly controlled, it takes full advantage of the many possibilities of the oil medium, and gives the pleasure that one derives from seeing good craftsmanship.
In Dali's case, this is even more impressive because of the contrast with the distressing lack of technique that mars the work of so many contemporary painter.
The strange mood of Salvador Dali's paintings result from the shock that follow this initial pleasure. These beautifully painted forms are treated in the most surprising way. Normal objects are found next to, or even growing out of, the fantastic creations of the artist's imagination - suggestive, erotic, and sometimes even repulsive. In some paintings, the eye suddenly discovers forms hidden within form to which they are totally foreign, seemingly the accidental result of changes of color or the effect of shadows, but really deliberate and full of subtle and disturbing meaning.
Much of what Dali does has its roots in the great traditions of painting, and the artist has always freely acknowledged his debt to the great masters, such as Raphael, Vermeer, and Diego Velazquez. His technique is traditional. His treatment of surfaces recalls Flemish painting of the time of van Eyck, and work of the Dutch little masters of the seventeenth century. He has painted still life resembling that of his great compatriot, Zurbaran. His drawing often has Renaissance qualities. His fantastic compositions have been likened to those of Hieronymus Bosch, and mythological and religious themes that he has used are centuries old. "Hidden forms" recur constantly in the history of painting, most recently in Redon and the Nabis, Bonnard and Vuillard. Some of Dali's later work, with splashes of paint or the effects of "shots" and "explosions", reminds us of what Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his "Treatise on Painting" quoting Botticelli, who said that
by throwing a sponge full of color at a wall it leaves a stain in which a fine landscape can be seen... as well as heads of men, animals, battles, rocks, seas, clouds and other things...In this you will find marvelous ideas because the mind of the painter is stimulated to new inventions by obscure things. ”
Despite his respect for the pasta and his attachment to it, Salvador Dali is essentially a man of the twentieth century. This is evident both in his state of mind as an artist and in his efforts to relate his work to the problems of our time. One of the characteristics of the last few decades has been revolt in every phase of human thought and action. This came naturally to Dali, a native of Catalonia, and, indeed, his first and most lasting success was as a leader of one of the most revolutionary literary and artistic movements of all time, Surrealism. In the early 1920's, the Surrealists proclaimed that all traditional rules and beliefs should be destroyed and new inspiration sought in the hitherto unexplored depths of man's mind and spirit. They took much of their material from the realm of the subconscious, of dreams, and of the instincts, normally repressed, which Freud was revealing to the world. This appealed powerfully to Dali's imagination, and his paintings were by far the richest and most exciting inspired by the movement. He has since broken with Surrealism, but it spirit has never disappeared from his work.
There are many other ways in which Dali shows he is intensely involved in his own times. He has been interested in many trends of modern thought, scientific, philosophical, and religious. His has been interested in many trends of modern thought, scientific, philosophical, and religious. His cult of originality at almost any price, though also a Catalan trait, is typical of today, and so is his desire for publicity. His analysis and "Paraphrasing" of famous paintings is also a phase of artistic activity shared by other modern artists.
In the future, when Dali's paintings have fallen into the proper perspective with the work of artists of all periods, much that seems significant to us today may lose its interest. However, he will always stand out as one of the very few twentieth-century painters who combines a profound respect for the traditions of the past with intensely modern feelings. People will always look at his work because of his extremely personal and always surprising imagination, for that is where his genius lies.
The secret of my influence has always been that it remained secret. ”