Many are familiar with Savador Dali’s surrealist paintings. In particular, The Persistence of Memory has become a widely recognized hallmark not just of Surrealism, but of Dali himself. Having grown up in New York City, I had the pleasure of seeing this painting on multiple occasions. This past weekend in Paris, I saw some of Dali’s lesser-known work at L’Espace Dali in Montmartre. The small museum houses bronze sculptures, sketches in pencil, drawings in pen and ink, paintings using rhinoceros horn and ink (I kid you not), and mixed media collage. For the purposes of this short response, I will critically examine two contrasting pieces.
The first piece is a large bronze clock melting on a tree branch. The sculpture stands about 4 feet tall. My first thought was, “Cool!” – a response that would be probably be shared everyone and anyone who can draw a connection with this clock image to Dali’s famous paintings, most notably The Persistence of Memory. Dali forged these sculptures in 1960, decades after he first explored the image of the melting clock in the 1930s. It is not difficult to guess Dali’s intentions for the piece. I assume that by the 1960s the image of his melting clocks had become quite popular. Additionally, the exhibit’s informational plaques informed the audience that Dali engaged with the mainstream and the renowned later on in his life. For example, he designed products for Coco Chanel and did sketches for a Walt Disney movie (that was never launched). As such, I find it quite possible that Dali created these sculptures in part as a reaction to the popularization of the melting clock image. Casting the clocks in bronze was not new or revolutionary. If anything, it went further to making the image an art icon because it was an obvious reference to a popular earlier work. As a work of art in and of itself, I find it quite clear to read. The meaning is not obscured because the image is so well known. No boundaries are crossed and no discomfort is created. As a result, the piece is not very original; nor do I think Dali intended it to be original. I think he intended it to be fun and playful.
However, do not be misled-- the rest of his work was not at all easy to digest. Let us now consider a piece that I cannot fathom at all: a drawing of Alice In Wonderland. Alice is a female figure in white dress. She has no features. Her head and her hands are bouquets of flowers. She holds a loop that looks like a jump rope. She is alone in a barren desert landscape, save a male figure with a walking cane silhouetted in the distance. The stark contrast of red atmosphere in the background with white dress and black shadow in the foreground makes the setting seem inhospitably Martian. My reaction to this was, “Weird and disturbing”. The piece was not at all accessible. The only cultural reference I could draw was “Oh -- weird and dreamy and loopy -- very … surreal”. It seems as if Dali intended the piece to be difficult to understand. First of all, the meaning of the narrative is entirely obscured. The female figure is supposedly Alice from Alice in Wonderland, and the man in the distance with the walking cane is supposed to Dali, her protector. But what part of the story is it referring to? Is the man really her protector if he is so far away and silhouetted in black? I read it as sinister and predatory. This leads me to my next point. This piece is undoubtedly disturbing. What unsettled me most was Dali’s deliberate manipulation of linear perspective for dramatic effect. Dali actually drew in perspective lines – which, I have to admit, did a whole lot to make the landscape bigger and more desolate. As Dali seems to have intended this, the work is quite effective.
Ultimately, the visit to L’Espace Dali was no epiphany. Maybe I found this to be the case because the exhibit was haphazardly curated. Nothing was explained very well. Or maybe it is because Dali was so strange that any attempt to present his work in an accessible way would be in vain. This is less probable, but possible. I left the exhibit as I came, thinking, “Wow, this guy was CRAZY”. Mais, attends! Wikipedia quotes Dali as having once said, “The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad”. Go figure.