It’s an irony of sorts: Dali, probably the most famous Surrealist on earth, was kicked out of the movement for not being a true Surrealist. Yet exhibit halls continue to mount shows of his work in the name of Surrealism.
I’ve talked about this before, but given that Dali-as-a-Surrealist shows keep coming, here comes more talk about it.
The latest example is the National Arts Club’s presentation. NAC Chair Dianne Bernhard is quoted in press releases this way:
“Surrealism was an intellectual and artistic movement that was grounded in the psyche of man. Dali expressed what the unconscious mind was thinking in order to simultaneously liberate and expand culture. The works in this exhibit are a product of that thought process, free of restraints.”
No. There’s nothing unconscious about Dali’s work. His “surrealism” didn’t even fit his own description: a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge.” His imagery is too rationalized, too accounted for, to suit Surrealism’s leader Andre Breton, who defined it as “psychic automatism.”
In fact, Dali’s brand of surrealism is what turned the Surrealists against him. They wanted to change the world. He wanted to enjoy it. He relocated to the U.S. and made a mint. Breton dubbed him “Avida Dollars” coined from the French avide a dollars (greedy for dollars).
No exaggeration. Dali sold his signature on blank pieces of paper, giving rise to a flood of fakes and a $1 billion counterfeit-print industry. His indifference to truth-in advertising created a market for his work as slithery as his melting watches.
Breton’s nickname for him could have been worse. Dali, you see, was an infatuated with Adolf Hitler and in ’39 he painted “The Enigma of Hitler,” which hangs in the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in Madrid. What you see is a postage-size image of the Fuhrer lying on an empty plate in barren landscape. A solitary figure stands off to the side – a likely icon for the last person left on a decimated earth. A giant telephone receiver hangs from a dead tree branch dripping with blood like an emblem for the end of contact with the human race.
Dali said he felt the painting was prophetic. Foretelling the consequence of Hitlerism sounds right, but calling Hitler an enigma doesn’t. There’s nothing enigmatic about a man responsible for Dachau and Buchenwald. Can you imagine Picasso’s anti-war painting “Guernica,” which described Basque townspeople getting bombed on by German and Italian warplanes, titled “The Enigma of Fascism”?
But again, Dali had little interest in social problems. Referring to Hitler, he said, “He attracted me only as an object of my mad imaginings and because I saw him as a man uniquely capable of turning things completely upside down.”
Even while Dali’s politics got him ousted from the Surrealist movement, his exhibitionism, his self-promotion, not to mention his fixation on sex and scatological imagery, and his lack of seriousness when it came to politics didn’t mesh with his colleagues’ larger view of the world, either.
George Orwell had a few words to say about Dali’s lack of interest in WWII. Faulting him for “scuttling off like a rat as soon as France is in danger,” he said, “When the European War approaches he has one preoccupation only: how to find a place which has good cookery and from which he can make a quick bolt if danger comes too near.”
So enough with calling this guy a Surrealist already!