Salvador Dalí: The Making of An Artist by Catherine Grenier

Hello, Dalí

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Salvador Dalí: The Making of An Artist by Catherine Grenier

“The master told me I had to subject myself to reality and that only later could one let oneself go. His idea was that one had to deal with the ugly first and then the beautiful. I took the firm resolution to follow this academic teaching with all my heart.”-Salvador Dalí, age 16

A most peculiar man.

If our age may be characterized by a fascination with the outsized personality, the shameless shaman-showman, then Dalí is the prototype. His expansive and persistent influence on contemporary art and culture remains obvious, and it is through his dark and unsavory peculiarities that we often see ourselves in his work.

Catherine Grenier’s excellent reappraisal does not attempt an exhaustive study of the artist; instead, she takes a new look at his work and personality, closely analyzing the interplay between them, to examine what the Dalí myth teaches us about present-day issues and desires.

Grenier, currently Deputy Director of the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Pompidou, approaches Dalí from her background as a curator and art historian. Tracing Dalí’s artistic development chronologically through successive periods of work, she parses her analysis into bite-sized essays on the various artistic, scientific and philosophical influences that, together with Dalí‘s innate brilliance and extensive eccentricity, formed a colossus of contemporary culture.

Supremely confident of his gifts, Dalí arrived at art school in Madrid at 18. He promptly set out to invent himself as the great artist fate meant for him to become. Grenier describes the evolution of his early style, as he commenced the process of turning his life into his art:

As soon as he arrived as a student in Madrid, he strove to make his public front coincide with the artistic front he was intent on presenting to his friends. It passed through several metamorphoses, each with its own costume and corresponding character traits. The shaggy Bohemian, the trendy painter — the slick-haired dandy — and the tango dancer. After meeting [Andre] Breton, the persona he composed was that of an “exotic society painter,” a figure that fitted in with what he thought the surrealists expected of him. Later on, two telltale signs of his status as unconventional appeared: his stylized Spanish costumes and his mustache, which would evolve from a discreet Errol Flynn pencil into the “radar mustache” of his final period.

In the same way, he invented his own way of talking, with an outrageous accent and pronunciation. In public, his French was almost incomprehensible, while he had actually mastered the language in early childhood. His writings transform a tendency to dyslexia into idiomatic and erratic spelling, and a style that teems with malapropisms and neologisms, all perfectly untranslatable. His artistic self thus invaded every territory in which a personality might be expressed: appearance, attitude, behavior, character, language and speech. Honed and oiled, the Dalí myth formed the cornerstone of his genius: a work of art that incorporated all the others. After Duchamp, he was the first artist who – without ceasing to create – turned his whole life into a work of art.

Through his life, all was in service to his art, all in outrageous service to Dalí. His intellectual curiosity seems profound—interests in psychoanalysis, Einstein’s theories of relativity, the complexities of the double helix and even catastrophe theory course through his art and life. But, more than anything else, his meticulous eye for the disquieting detail and the preternatural composition … along with the painterly skills he applied to classical forms … draw the viewer’s eye to his canvases.

While Grenier’s appreciation for her subject is evident, she remains objective. Noting the sharp divide among critics even early in Dalí’s career, she observes:

Lauding his talent and technical mastery, several commentators nonetheless reproached his works for being intellectual and cold. Such assessment seems astonishing in light of the subject treated, for the most part sensitive evocations of familiar, often intimatist scenes. The remark is understandable in the context of two of the painter’s more salient characteristics: a flexible attitude to style that shuttled between radically opposed types of representation, and the application of constructed form to elements on the living world – waves or the human figure – which he attempted, according to his own terms, to ‘crystallize’.

To this day it is tempting to dismiss much of Dalí’s work as intellectual and cold, astonishing technique and fascinating detail notwithstanding. In his conscious rejection of the anti-representational character of modernist art (except that of Picasso, whom Dalí held in the highest esteem and above all other contemporary artists … except himself, of course), Dalí’s work proudly evinces a rigorous adherence to classical academic technique and forms. He sets realistic images in jarring and bizarre juxtapositions, often cast upon vast spectral landscapes—eerie and unsettling, to be sure, and worthy of admiration for the sheer technical brilliance, but certainly not “warm.” But here lies the attraction: Dalí explores the darker reaches of our experience, a subject we seem to find all too fascinating.

Grenier’s examination of the evolution of Dalí’s creative methods proves particularly interesting. For example, early in life Dalí began to evoke visual images by pressing his palms to his shut eyes, elaborately mapping out figures and tableaux from the spitting squiggles and dots tracing the backs of his eyelids. He saw images in clouds, stains, in the common detritus of existence.

Grenier flashes insight into the early development of his visual imagination and powers of observation:

Dalí’s early school years at school were characterized by a patent lack of interest in learning to read or write, which contrasted with a penchant for critical observation and for building castles in the air. During the 2 years at school spent staring out the window during class, he developed his imaginative facilities by way of a method of creation he dubbed “false memory” – graphic and precise representations of often absurd or monstrous fantasy scenes. E.g., he would observe clouds or a damp patch on the ceiling. Then he would assemble the objects or backgrounds he imagined into elaborate full-fledged stories, in which the boy himself played the starring role. Squirreled away in his memory, these pictures and narratives could later be conjured up at will, and many remained fixed in the artist’s mind throughout his life.

From early years, Dalí was possessed of great visual inquisitiveness. Galvanized by the tiniest details and able to memorize vast numbers of images, he positively absorbed each everyday situation taking place around him. His private journal, as well as The Secret Life [his autobiography], abound in descriptions, while his pleasure in capturing a site or conveying an atmosphere in his writings, in particular by adding countless touches of color, is palpable. One of his sister’s anecdotes demonstrates Dalí’s precociously perceptive eye. One day their father noticed a counterfeit bill among a wad of money which had been presented in settlement of a debt. Handling the banknotes over to his son, Dalí, though extremely young at the time, immediately spotted the fake. His sister stresses the importance for him of the Gowans collection of art pocket books, describing her brother as ceaselessly turning the pages and familiarizing himself with the masterpieces from the past.

This fondness for detail, for meticulous description, for visually exploring images in all their depth, was to remain one of Dalí’s most salient characteristics and had major repercussions in later life—particularly in the sexual department—as well, of course, for his art. One important result was a propensity—which he was later to theorize and turn into one of the mainstays of his artistic methodology—to extract images from chaotic or ambiguous shapes and to discern similarities in very different forms and objects. Descriptions in his adolescent writings are peppered with details of similarities spotted by his eagle eye and developed by his vivid imagination.

Approaching his art with a rigorous intellectualism, Dalí developed elaborate theories through which to process the creative act. Grenier reviews the development and application of his “paranoid-critical” method of artistic creation, whereby Dalí allowed, or trained, his imagination to interpret the most commonplace manifestations of everyday reality through his … that word again … peculiar prism:

Rooted in the observation of his own paranoid tendencies and their effects on the relationship between psychic life and reality, the paranoid-critical method is presented as a tool for understanding the world. Unlike with surrealist automatism, Dalí is not interested in the passive exploration of the irrational by, for instance, writing down whatever the unconscious dictates. Instead, he advocates an active apprehension of the world based on a “particular perspicacity of attention in the paranoiac state.”

Dalí published his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, in 1924, at age 20. “An unpredictable, faithful and objective hazard seems to have systematically singled out my life,” Dalí wrote, “to make what are normally uneventful incidents violent, phenomenal, and memorable.”

The Secret Life reads as a stunningly literate exercise in naked narcissism and abject candor. Grenier observes:

He devotes a brief but lyrical chapter to the glorious event constituted by his birth: “Look! Salvador Dalí has just been born. No wind blows and the May sky is without a single cloud.” The majority of the deeds he lists in the pages of his autobiography are not to his honor: he is violent, deliberately behaves oddly, and derives pleasure from sadistic and masochistic games. The portrait he paints of himself pulls no punches: as a child, he is useless at school, antisocial, unpredictable, and since he knowingly deploys these shortcomings to reinforce his originality, they worsen as he grows up.

Presenting himself as an anti-hero, Dalí lays bear his weaknesses and inabilities, the most irrational fears and openly avowing his sexual impotence. His account of his childhood serves as a brilliant introduction to the development of a wide range of pathologies: phobias, nervous fits, paranoia, and hypochondria.

The portrait Dalí develops is that of an indifferent and egotistical being who refuses to take any stance at all before sanctioning a totally unacceptable cause in the form of the Franco regime. This entire autobiographical enterprise can be seen as a process for sublimating shame.

Thus, she notes, Dalí’s public self-shaming effaces his private shame. Yet Dalí rode this relentless egotism and shameless self-absorption to the height of influence on Western culture. Grenier condemns Dalí’s unbowed support of Franco—which he held in opposition to virtually all of the intelligentsia of the day, including, notably, Picasso—yet there seems to be little explanation for this gross moral miscalculation. Perhaps it is simply in keeping with the willful enigma he cultivated.

Dalí died in 1989 (age 85), a popular mass sensation, though scorned and ridiculed by the cultural elite. Grenier carefully documents the slow but steady resurrection of Dalí’s influence in contemporary culture:

The retrospective devoted to his work the Centre Pompidou in 1979 remains unsurpassed today in terms of visitor numbers and media exposure. However, at the same time, Dalí was falling foul of the art-critical world and was being blithely ignored by the upcoming generation of artists. This discredit concerned not only the opprobrium he had long received for his support of Franco and the escapades of one who looked increasingly like an aging clown; it also affected his work, at that time judged as reactionary and kitsch. In a context where surrealism sui generis was regarded as a form of art whose objectives were outmoded and forms backward-looking, Dalí seemed to provide the perfect illustration of how an avant-garde movement could end up in irrelevance. Still today, Dalí’s work remains paradoxical, and major museums are split between the temptation of guaranteed public success – exhibitions now marketed as “blockbusters” – and the fear of having their fingers burned on contact with his sulfurous personality and oeuvre.

In the twenty years that have passed since his death, however, Dalí’s stock among contemporary artists has risen enormously. There are today, many artists who acknowledge unreserved admiration for Dalí as a brilliant manipulator of images and inventive creator of an alter ego. In very different ways, from Jeff Koons to Damien Hirst, a host of artists now see the artist’s oeuvre as a seedbed of inspiration. Among the newest generation, similarly, taboos have fallen and the styles of modernity are being reconfigured, a process that has spawned “soft” forms and double images, symbolically functioning objects and anthropomorphic furniture [hallmarks of Dalí’s distinctive style].

A brief capitulation of some of the focal points of contemporary art will make clear the topical nature of some of Dalí’s ideas: the interest today exerted by Warberg’s methodology of rememoration; reflections on anachronism and alternate or counter-factual histories; explorations of gender and queer studies; the fascination with themes of the clone and the monster [vampires and the undead, anyone?]; the interaction between the artist’s senses and psyche and the era. Melancholy, irony, and the recourse to disordered mental states as well as to the irrational as instruments of knowledge and interpretation are also echoed by those many thinkers and artists who see art as the ultimate litmus test of the psychological states and pathologies of the present age.

Grenier effectively credits Dalí as the seminal inspiration for the entire artistic and cultural avant-garde of the last half-century: Andy Warhol, David Bowie, John Lennon, David Lynch, Jeff Koons, Madonna, Damien Hirst, Zaha Hadid, Lady Gaga, Takashi Murakami.

Of Koons:

The iconic dimension of Koons’ oeuvre and his propensity to assume and even glorify the pleasure of regression and childhood overlap with the uninhibited expression of infantile impulses Dalí asserted in images of universal appeal. The unflappable assurance with which Koons transforms into artistic statements “shameful” desires (to be famous, to earn money, to pander to the taste of the widest possible audience) is close to the spirit created by his Spanish predecessor. Often asked about the impact of Dalí on his work, Koons has singled out the artist and reproductions of his paintings he saw while a child in magazines as the origin of his artistic vocation and of his “personal understanding of art.”

Dozens of sumptuous reproductions complement this text, and the color reproduction is lovely. Many of the images come from private collections, spanning Dalí’s entire career, and Grenier uses them effectively to illustrate her points.

From 1923 to 1925, he tried his hand at all Picasso’s manners, starting with the Blue Period and neo-classical works, then cubism in all its incarnations. In 1926 [a student aged 22], while visiting Paris in the company of his aunt and sister, he met the artist through Manuel Ortiz [a cubist painter from Granada]. In his workshop Dalí saw recent canvases by Picasso, whose new tendencies he ready know from art journals. The impact of these neo-cubist compositions was immediate. Following the visit to Picasso, he executed several figure compositions juxtaposing planar and constructed space. Experimenting with diverse complex special constructs, Dalí also overlapped different aesthetics, combining the graphic narrative style of the late cubism characteristics of paintings he had seen at Picasso’s with geometricized neoclassicism inspired by [Picasso’s] The Race (1922).

Reproductions of four Dalí canvases of the period accompany this text; they show the obvious debt to Picasso, but also undeniable originality.

Catherine Grenier’s monograph, deeply researched and rich in thoughtful (if sometimes bookish) analysis of the creation and perpetuation of the myth of Dalí, superbly appraises our first cultural “superstar.”

Is this term accurate? Dalí certainly courted fame and notoriety with an abandon equaled by few outside professional wrestling. Yet he also had the master chops to back the hype and to generate staying power. Grenier reveals the artist as a complicated enigma, the source of his greatness.

The Making of an Artist is a beautiful addition to our knowledge of one of the century’s most important people. The pictures aren’t bad either.

Mark Baker is a lawyer, musician, art collector and dog-lover in Atlanta. He last wrote for Paste in 2011 on David Bowie.

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