Film nut Salvador Dali was crazy like a fox, writes Rachel Campbell- Johnston
SALVADOR Dali, it seems, is in hot demand on the screen. Only a couple of weeks ago it was announced at Cannes that three biopics are simultaneously in production and that Johnny Depp, Al Pacino and Peter O’Toole are all up for the part of the Spanish surrealist.
The mustachioed maverick, no doubt, would have relished this homage from Hollywood. Born in 1904, he was one of the first generation to be nurtured by the screen’s unfolding fantasies. He certainly had a cinematic imagination. His paintings are like stills from some movie that unspools inside the unconscious. The eye moves across them like a camera across a landscape, panning outwards to take in the entire panorama, zooming inwards to follow some bizarre narrative sequence, pausing to focus on some miniaturist’s detail before cutting abruptly to another part of the picture.
Dali is an artist whose fantasies are constantly in flux. His images, for all that they have fixed themselves in the modern canon, are constantly morphing. And maybe this, in part, is why it is not only Hollywood that is mesmerised by his visions. Anyone who had presumed that Dali could be dismissed, rolled up and forgotten along with those teenage posters of floppy watches and staggering elephants, was forced to think again in 2004, the centenary of his birth, when the man who produced among the most memorable images of a century showed that he could still pull the crowds into galleries.
But the latest show at London’s Tate Modern, Dali and Film, is more than a mere crowd- pleaser. This self- promoting surrealist’s achievements may seem overshadowed by his blatant showmanship, but the scholarship that went into the production of a host of centenary exhibitions has reawakened a more serious critical interest. Tate Modern offers a focused, intelligent and illuminating appraisal that should refresh the vision and remind us that Dali was more than just a phenomenal show- off.
This cultural outlaw’s fascination with cinema was profound and persistent. On a superficial level it’s hardly surprising. By the 1920s Hollywood was setting the world alight. And how could the fame- hungry Spaniard resist? The man who was later nicknamed Avida Dollares ( an anagram of his name that translates as ‘‘ greedy for dollars’’) must have been dazzled. This after all was the artist who, having at last found fame, was happy to put his image to commercial ends and appear in advertisements for Alka- Seltzer ( which he declared ‘‘ a work of art, truly one of a kind, like Dali’’) and proclaiming himself ‘‘ mad for’’ Lanvin chocolate.
Unfortunately these quirky snippets don’t appear in the new Tate show that, focusing on a rather less flippant attraction between this artist and the cinema, displays his canvases alongside his completed film sequences and his notes, sketches and storyboards for the many cinematic projects that he planned but which, for one reason or another, never came to fruition.
Here are Un chien andalou ( 1929) and L’age d’or ( 1930), those strange efflorescences of irrational images that arose from Dali’s collaboration with Luis Bunuel, as well as a re- creation of a scenario for a film of his novel Babaouo, a film on which he started work a couple of years later, going so far as to produce a poster before it was abandoned, in large part because Bunuel by that time had moved on.
Here are the goofy visions of giraffe footmen that he created for the Marx Brothers, whose slapstick he adored; and disquieting little sketches for Moontide , the disturbing vision that was to be directed by Fritz Lang. Neither project was completed, in the latter case because, barely a fortnight after filming began, the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. But still, Moontide was a precursor to the magical dream sequence that Dali was creating in 1944 for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Sadly, by the time it was finished it had been scissored as ruthlessly as the eyeballs of its opening shots by a producer who was as artistically sceptical as he was financially stingy.
The factory of dreams was obviously a bit edgy about Dali’s nightmares. Disney certainly was. In 1946, exploiting the Spaniard’s fashionable nov- elty, Disney commissioned Destino . A brief animation of ‘‘ a simple love story’’ was expected, but the end result — a surrealistic desert trip that, though basically lyrical, has a decidedly sinister side — appalled the creator of Mickey Mouse, who aborted the project ( even though 10 years later he returned to Dali to discuss an adaptation of Don Quixote ).
These films are explored alongside an impressive selection of paintings and sculptures that have been lent by collections the world over. Several of Dali’s most famous pieces are included: the lobster telephone, for instance, and the huge slumbering tadpole of The Persistence of Memory which, with its clocks melting like the cheeses that inspired it, is probably Dali’s most famous image.
Alongside these are a number of lesser known works, including such pieces as Morning Ossification of the Cypress , which, despite its characteristically cumbersome title, has a visual daring that cuts through the psyche.
This show emphasises what the paintings and the filmic works share. It points out how a master, who while still a student had run through the gamut of modernist innovation before discovering a style of his own, explored cinematic practices as a demonstration of his contemporary credentials. It also explores the debt that he owed to the stark lighting and shadows of the film set, to the camera’s framing devices and to special effects.
But this show is not about a painter employing filmic tricks. It is about a master with a seething mind who would scavenge from anywhere, borrow any medium, as a means to an end. He would do anything to bring his ideas to visual life. The spectator will see the same images recurring again and again in this show, adapting themselves to a variety of manifestations — the same rotting donkeys, dismembered bodies, soggy timepieces, melting rocks and milling ants. Dali is prepared to try anything in his attempt to ‘‘ systematise confusion’’; to turn paranoia into painting and Freudian theory into an art form; to make the dream more vivid than the everyday.
Perhaps this is why the films are less effective than the paintings. Dali’s work depends on a reciprocal relationship with the psyche of the viewer. The camera is too didactic. It guides the eye across the surface of the screen. But the paintings we are left to read by ourselves, guided only by our fears and obsessions and fantasies. Dali and Film is at Tate Modern, London, until September 9.
Hello Dali: A study for the dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound , 1945
Cinematic imagination: Salvador Dali