Thursday, January 22, 2009

Persistence of Dali's Conversion

Natalia Duong
January 20, 2009

When one conjures up images typically associated with Salvador Dali it is likely that melting clocks, amorphous hairy blobs, and iconographic ants are summoned from the stew of the effervescent lake and transient skyline comprising Dali’s most famous painting The Persistence of Time. Yet, while Dali’s famous oeuvre remains mounted on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Espace Dali in Montmartre prides itself on the fact that it exhibits Dali’s lesser-known works, ones that the magical Google image search engine fails to retrieve. The curatorial theme Les illusions optiques (“Optical Illusions”) fails to serve as a coherent thesis throughout the exhibition. Furthermore, the collection of works exhibited reveals an unfamiliar side of the infamous artist, a side that is perhaps lesser known for a good reason.

Much to my initial disappointment, the museum lacks most of Dali’s large-scale paintings other than Sting Caused by a Bee; however, images characteristic of renowned Dali paintings can be found in different media throughout the exhibition space. A collection of three melted clocks from Persistence, which are cast in bronze using the cire perdue or “lost wax” technique, are exhibited like fondue cheese over limbs of bronze trees. Though the image is notorious, the three dimensional medium forces the viewer to focus explicitly on the clock and its seemingly pliable form. The way the numbers stand out above the clock’s surface, the dark crevices of bronze contrasted with the smoothed shiny protrusions, each detail explicitly conceived and placed. The choice of bronze as a medium of creation stands in stark contrast to the work’s commentary about the malleable characteristic of time. There is an inherent duality between the enduring metal and the visual imagery of decay.

One begins to notice that all three clocks display the sixth hour; perhaps it is for visual symmetry, but more likely it evokes an important time (as Dali’s choice of imagery is rarely without symbolism). After doing a bit of research on the subject matter, I discovered that the sixth hour often has a religious connotation: a time when Catholic priests undergo prayer practices. Furthermore, according to a website explaining the symbolism of hours in Christianity, it is in the sixth hour that “Saint Peter received the vision that all nations were being called to salvation.” {Footnote:The Monastery Christ of the Desert, “Benectdine Abbey of Christ in the Desert: Symbolism of the Various Hours of the Divine Office” 19 Jan. 2009 .} This religious theme is not completely far-fetched because Dali often created religious themed works such as the collection of sketches based on stories from the New Testament that line the walls behind the sculpture.

Upon closer examination, the limp silhouette of the clock recalls the form of a lifeless body draped on a tree. While I don’t mean to imply that Dali intended to render a lynched corpse in his Melting Clock sculpture, I maintain that Dali would condone the free association of the body and the clock in the context of understanding the work’s surrealist undertones. A fan and follower of Freudian theory, Dali aimed to make physical the metaphysical and make seen the mementos of dreams. Thus, conceiving the image of a melting clock draped on a tree as a corpse reinforces the underlying theme of the ephemeral quality of time. Moreover, the images of the clock might well be a direct reference to the crucifixion as it predates the more explicit portrayal of The Crucifixion of St John of the Cross by several years. With this concept, the characteristic image of a melting clock is more than an eccentric surrealist motif. It instead becomes a testament to the pervasiveness of religion within one’s subconscious. Moreover, the painting of Persistence was created in 1931, post World War I and on the cusp of the Second World War. Contrastingly, the sculpture series were made as a part of a variation titled The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory in 1954—a response to his earlier painting. During this period of his career, Dali converted to Catholicism and the presence of religious themes became pervasive in his work starting in 1949. After converting, the artist himself claimed, “My painting in the future will be an amalgam of my Surrealist experience and the classicism of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Renaissance.” {Footnote:“The Religious Affiliation of Surrealist Painter Salvador Dali,” 3 December 2005, From: John Baxter, Bunuel, Carroll & Graf Publishers: New York City (1994), page 238.} This conversion was not well received by his surrealist counterparts who praised him—like many contemporary viewers do—for his departure from the images and subject matters known to the artists who preceded him.

Yet, by superimposing religious underpinnings onto Dali’s work, does one undermines the novelty for which Dali’s surrealist images are known? The subject matter he portrays is no longer only a figment of his imagination but also an addition to the canon of religious representations. Moreover, how can an artist who portrays such phallic symbols laden with sexual innuendo also pay tribute to the most censored and pristine of topics? The artist himself begins to answer that question in his collection of sketches based on the New Testament. The sketches are ink drawn images that are birthed from what appears to be inkblots on the paper. Thus, the outlines of religious figures, ranging from Noah to St. Peter, are made up of little more than ink dispersed on a page. Through these works, one is provoked to consider Dali’s other surrealist works within a religious context. However, it was not that Dali intended to subconsciously convert his audiences through religious subtext in the way that a Flemish Baroque painter might use well known iconography. Nor is Dali the first to join sexual innuendo with religious themes as seen in Bernini’s orgasmic rendering of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Instead, what makes Dali unique is his invention of new iconography from images that don’t exist in the natural world in order to refer to religious concepts. Essentially, Dali manages to take an ethereal concept—such as religion—and reconsider it, not through the recognized images of the religious art canon, but rather through images that are foreign and supernatural in themselves. Thus, while the aesthetics of the art on display at Espace Dali are not as intriguing as some of his other works, the exhibition space allows one to contextualize Dali’s most famous works, if absent, through the mélange of ideas present in his other work, themes undoubtedly present when he created his recognized masterpieces.

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