Thursday, January 22, 2009

Espace Dalí Montmartre

I am not particularly well-versed in visual art, but I can begin to understand those of my friends who are hopelessly smitten with Dalí. The subtleties of technique are often lost on me, but Dalí provides plenty to consider even when one is visually stunted. I admire the humor of his work, his witty overhaul of artistic tradition, and the articulation of a coherent set of themes and symbols. It is all too easy to rely on centuries-old associations, but Dalí created new ones, such as ants and mortality, while playing with the old, like an egg as a symbol of regeneration.

His influences range from classical art (his Venus sculptures), an English storybook (illustrations of Alice in Wonderland), to the great Spanish novel (illustrations of Don Quixote), to the Bible, to an American film star (Mae West’s Face); his media of choice include painting, sculpture, and new technology such as the hologram. A collection of his art gives the impression of a mind busily at work, transforming its surroundings and turning them out again as pieces of an artistic philosophy unexpected yet coherent. The curator weakly attempts to impose the theme of “Les illusions optiques” onto the exhibit as a whole, but where this theme breaks down, those inherent in Dalí’s preoccupations and techniques prevail.

Dalí was Spanish by birth, but while he lived in Montmartre Paris became an added influence on his mental syntheses. Most notably, Montmartre’s windmills reminded him of the futile battle of Don Quixote, and he began a series of illustrations based on Cervantes’ idealist. Paris’s power to awaken nascent images in his mind illustrates how fully he assimilated his environment in France and how seamlessly he connected his disparate influences.

Unfortunately, his much-vaunted daring did not extend far enough. Women for Dalí function as monolithic symbols rather than as individuals. Granted, the female form has more artistic tradition behind it for him to subvert, as he does in his refigurings of the Venus de Milo. However, Dalí missed the opportunity to create a new vocabulary of symbolism around something both omnipresent and underanalyzed: the male body. A distressingly predictable, narrow view of women comes into focus in one curator’s card that explains Venus à tiroirs as an assertion that “a woman’s most interesting quality is her mystery.” It is difficult to tell whether this is the artist or the curator speaking, or where one leaves off and the other begins, but its sentiment is all too consistent with the limitations of Dalí’s art.

Despite this significant shortcoming, Dalí succeed not only in bringing new ideas to 20th-century art, but also in creating a cult of personality around himself. He plays on his status most effectively in a series of photographs, unfortunately displayed in a frame without a title or any further identifying information, with question-and-answer captions in the style of a celebrity magazine. Its spirit lives on, with the exception of a rather conventional gallery of pieces for sale, in a small red museum at the top of several hundred stairs in Montmartre.

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