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August 01, 2007

Christie Davies realises that only drunkards will ever fully appreciate Dalí: Dalí at Tate Modern

Posted by Christie Davies

Dalí at Tate Modern
Tate Modern, London
1st June - 9th September 2007
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm (last admission 9.15pm)


The problem with having an exhibition about Dalí that links him to film is that Dalí though an enthusiast for film, was not a great creator of them. He made two black and white arty, anti-art films Un Chien andalou (silent) and L'Age d'or with Luis Buńuel, both of which I was able to watch in their entirety within the exhibition; they are tedious.

Later Dalí went to Hollywood. He contacted Harpo and wrote scenarios for the Marx brothers, but nothing came of it. He worked with Alfred Hitchcock, but Hitchcock used only a few minutes of Dalí's work in his 1945 film Spellbound, the section in which Gregory Peck described his dream to a psychoanalyst. It is but a fragment. Dalí, the arch showman's main utility, was to enable David O. Selznick to employ him extensively in the publicity for the film. Dalí also worked with Walt Disney, whom he greatly esteemed, but all that survives is another fragment, a piece of grotesque animation that Disney the Schmaltz would never be able to show. Thanks to computer enhancement we are able to see it in the exhibition.

Dalí also admired Cecil B. DeMille whom he saw as a great surrealist. In a way he was right. A clerihew of the time said:

Cecil B. DeMille
Much against his will
Was persuaded to keep Moses
Out of the Wars of the Roses.
Just imagine Dalí's treatment of Warwick the Kingmaker dancing around a golden calf or the Duke of Clarence being drown in a Red Sea of Malmsey wine.

Disney and de Mille were the two titans of Hollywood crassness; everything gold that they touched from the Bible to Winnie the Pooh was turned to dross. That Dalí admired them is an indication of his obsession with their purely technical skill and his inability to go beyond such a judgment. Or perhaps he was just a poseur or even plain greedy.

Finally, Dalí made his own film, Impressions de la haute Mongolie about an expedition to find a giant white mushroom that produced the finest of hallucinations. Unlike the usual jabbering Frenchman, Dalí the Catalan declaims in French slowly and clearly and in a manner that made the audience laugh. The English subtitles are not funny at all. Yet after a time even this film palls.

Is it worth trekking through seedy Southwark or boring Blackfriars to the Tate Modern just to see Dalí's films? The curators try to rescue the situation by also showing many of Dalí's paintings and drawings and claiming that you can see the influence on Dali's work of the films he watched from the Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd era. You can't.

The Bleeding Roses 1930 shows a woman on top of a skyscraper whose side wall drops steeply to the sea beneath. She is naked and tied to a pillar like Saint Sebastian and has the kind of huge breasts you rarely see except on the top shelf of down market newsagents. Her guts flow out of a savage wound to form a bunch of red roses dripping blood. Her head is thrown back in an ecstasy of martyrdom. The curators expect us to look at all this and to think of Howard Lloyd, mainly because he was filmed on equally vertiginous buildings.

The theory is that Dalí used "double imagery" in his paintings, such as The Invisible Man 1930, when a landscape or an object will merge with the outline of an individual person, because he saw this technique being used in films. There are two flaws in the argument. The first is that this is what most of us do when we doodle. We sketch a face, to which we attach a benzene ring or a helicopter using single components to construct all three.

The second difficulty is that films operate over time, whereas Dalí's pictures are as still as his melting, or to be more accurate softening, watches from The Persistence of Memory 1931.

Sometimes Dalí makes us laugh because his incongruities are linked by a discernable pseudo-logic, in the same way that the punch line of a joke falsely resolves the incongruous story that precedes it. Dalí's collage of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Malenkov, in which he argues that the decline of Marxism was due to the gradually disappearing facial hair of its proponents has an absurd logic running through it, rather in the way that I have argued that the success or failure of British political leaders depends on whether or not they are going bald.

Indeed I suspect that "Dave" Cameron may be going thin on top or even wearing a secret toupėe. How else can you explain his humiliation in the by elections?

Often Dalí's incongruities are merely arbitrary and it is difficult to see why we should invest time in deciphering them. Do we really care what Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by her own Chastity 1954 signifies? It does not follow that we should not take delight in, say, Figure on the Rocks Penya Segats 1926, Sleep 1937 or Dream caused by the flight of a bee round a pomegranate a second before awakening 1944, but what distinguishes these works is their uncluttered simplicity. For once Dali knew when to stop. It is almost worth going to the exhibition just to see these items, the pinnacle of Dali's art.

Equally delightful are his early ink wash creations such as Brothel 1922, Summer Night 1922 and especially The Drunkard 1922 and Madrid Suburb 1922-3. The latter two are a perfect portrayal of intoxication and the drinker's delusion that the world is going round and round with him at the centre. As Will Fyfe put it:

I belong to Glasgow,
Dear old Glasgow town;
But what's the matter wi' Glasgow,
For it's goin' roun' and roun'!…..
There no harm in taking a drappie,
It ends all your trouble and strife;
It gives ye the feeling that when you get home,
You don't give a hang for the wife!
A Glasgow art gallery ought to buy Dalí's drawings. Only drunks really understand the surreal, that world in which the dream and the material merge.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations and of the surreal tales of Dewi the Dragon.


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