Salvador Dali ranks with Picasso in the eyes of the public, yet is universally scorned in the art world. Sacha Craddock assesses the artist who seemed to paint our dreams.
THE first art star of this century is dead. Salvador Dali made Andy Warhol's self-publicity seem discreet. But there is an extraordinary gap between his reputation in the real world and the scorn he collected in the art world. No sensible art student would dare to mention Dali without betraying at best naivety, at worst ignorance. Dali's surfaces are slimy, his subject matter unpleasant, the colour filmic, and yet it is important to understand why he made such a success of his long life and why the lay person will think of Dali before Picasso when it comes to 'modern art'. Dali had the nerve to paint the ideas that used to surround art till they became real or plastic.
Dreams and nightmares, the regular stock of unconscious imagery, were vamped up by Dali. The surrrealists, and Dali was a true surrealist in the beginning, distorted and contrasted imagery, but Dali with his detailed skys and oozing clocks makes Magritte look weedy and dull. Contrast of light and dark, a sharp moulding from outline shows that his heroes were Velasquez and Vermeer, but somehow their almost clear outlines were misinterpreted by Dali to justify a photo realist effect. Instead of interpreting his dreams, Dali illustrated them. The penis in various stages of effectiveness, becomes the 'modernist' shape made three dimensional, it collapses and drips, under clouds and shadows painted with a sable brush, lascivious for detail. The father of record cover imagery and cinematic effect may continue to be scorned, except times have changed. Painting is moving away from the general and gestural, perhaps harsh outline and foul detail can happen again and soon. Dali has also been criticized for being both literary and academic — he is not. He is illustrative rather than academic. In 1949 Dali painted a picture called the Madonna of Port Iligat, what would be a straightforward copy of a renaissance madonna has the virgin splintered and moving forward over the sea and headland of his home on the Catalan coast.
Shells and bricks are revealed in a fake grand style and a Piero della Francesca egg hovers over her head. Dali is primarily concerned with special effects. His visual tricks sweep and hover with a virtuosity that creates a wholly over- elaborate scene. Modernism, the predominant art of this century, has been concerned with changing the way you saw and thought about things. Dali used traditional materials and traditional space to say something traditional, Why is it that other people's description of their dreams and imaginings sound like Dali's pictures look? Which came first? Dali gave a face to stoned visions. The melting clock and the forever receding landscape give a total vision, a picture that asks nothing in its limited presentation. Dali, in many people's eyes, cheated on the theories of his contemporaries, he made, modelled, and over-simplified what should have remained theory. He trapped it all into a pre-modern, respectable pictorial space.
The poster shop generation knows Dali well, but the scorn that 'serious' artists retain for him can be hypocritical. Warhol at least expresed his admiration and engaged in the Daliesque activity of signing blank pieces of paper, which would be instantly worth more money, A lot of the scorn retained for Dali hangs over from a time in which he was seen as a political betrayer. He fell out with Andre Breton, another of the Surrealists, for being a monarchist and supporting Franco. He worshiped the Spanish Renaissance and was a Catholic, much of his later painting dealt with religious imagery. Not excellent credentials maybe, but he was perhaps politically on a par with the Italian Futurists currently on show at the Royal Academy. Success and self publicity are still somewhat scorned; Andre Breton said that Dali was greedy for dollars, but that can't be the real reason why he was disliked. He gave art a bad name, he limited its range to the purely pictorial and he showed off like mad about it all.
© Sacha Craddock - 1989