October 17, 2018

Abstract eye follows Dali in film at LACMA

Even by the standards of today’s overheated art market, few artists have been as excessively hyped and overexposed as Salvador Dali (1904-1989). There are museums dedicated to his work in Florida and Spain, and in London you can “be transported into a world of melting clocks and anthropomorphic sculpture” at Dali Universe. Add to that the endless reproductions in print and poster shops, lawsuits about fakes, and Dali’s own flamboyant personality, which gave him the notoriety we associate with Andy Warhol — indeed, Dali might well have served as a model for Warhol, with a shelf life far exceeding the cliché about 15 minutes worth of fame.

All this has made some of us tire of Dali’s overexposure, with knee-jerk reactions that make us roll our eyes when we note that Dali still serves as the quintessential modern artist for people who don’t like modern art. He is loved for making recognizable images for those who can’t handle abstraction, for those kinky twists that suck you into thinking this is really “far out stuff.” So, of course, there have been many Dali exhibitions at museums hoping to attract blockbuster-sized audiences, and now comes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Dali: Painting & Film,” opening Oct. 14.

Yet it looks like LACMA’s Dali blockbuster could make those of us who approach the artist with a sense of exhausted cynicism take a much more serious look at this artist whose work in film interacted with his work as a painter. The exhibition will surely interest those who care about film history, reminding us that the borders between media can be very indistinct for our most creative artists. That’s not news, of course — Leonardo da Vinci long ago taught us that creative genius isn’t easily pigeonholed. But today, technology is at everyone’s fingertips, so we almost feel as if we, too, are capable of making those transformations that turn the Governator from a human being to a fantastic metallic creature and back again, just by sitting at our computers. It’s the museum’s responsibility to ask us to reconsider that arrogant stance, to persuade us that there really is such a thing as an artist’s vision, and that no, we wouldn’t have been able to conceive of doing any such thing on our own.

Early in the last century, when film was a newer medium, many artists were intrigued by its kinetic visual possibilities, and for a fantasist like Dali, the opportunities must have seemed especially rich. After all, artists had long sought to convey various states of mobility in the static media of painting, and even sculpture limited the options. Moreover, we still admire earlier art works for their ability to communicate illusions about our actual experiences of the real world.

To that end, Dali collaborated with his countryman and fellow surrealist, Luis Bu?uel, on groundbreaking films (“Un Chien Andalou,” 1929; “L’Age d’or,” 1930), and the experience informed Dali’s paintings as well. The 1920s were especially rich in these efforts at creative filmmaking, and Sigmund Freud’s explorations and their impact were also still relatively fresh, so the imaginative opportunities were endless. To fully appreciate this exhibition will require watching these films, in addition to viewing the paintings, so plan to spend more time than the usual museum show allotment.

“There is a constant triangulation formed by the flow of film, paintings, and text,” Dawn Ades writes in one of several illuminating essays in the catalog accompanying the exhibition. This reminds us, too, of Dali’s role as a writer — manifestos were fashionable in his day, including statements about art and its relationship to everything else; in Dali’s time, artists played the role of forward-thinking visionaries. We no longer trust that sort of bombast, but we ought to remember that after the horrors of the Great War, artists may have seemed more perspicacious and trustworthy than those who conducted affairs of state.

But Dali was not entirely won over by the new medium; he complained that he didn’t “believe that cinema can ever become an artistic form. It is a secondary form, because too many people are involved in its creation. The only true means of producing a work of art is painting, in which only the eye and the point of the brush are employed.” Imagine what he might have done with Photoshop and all the other toys now at our disposal.

Ever the self-aware showman, Dali was lured to Hollywood in the 1940s, by which time he was already a famous artist and therefore a potential asset to filmmakers. As producer David Selznick wrote in a memo regarding the anticipated contract with Dali for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945), “if we make a deal for the celebrated artist we have in mind … we should not let this leak out in publicity, as I think we can get some sensational breaks on it.” Only Dali’s dream sequence survived in the legendary Ingrid Bergman/Gregory Peck film, but Dali also tried his hand, with limited success, at a number of other Hollywood film projects, including an once-abandoned and now revived Disney animated six-minute short, “Destino” (1946), and the video, “Chaos and Creation” (1960), directed by Philippe Halsman.

The interplay between film and painting makes this exhibition seem particularly well-suited to Los Angeles’ audiences, and will likely reinvigorate respect for Dali’s inventiveness and unique vision, especially among all the local film folks for whom this experience should provide a major series of discoveries.

Tom Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.