No place like home: Salvador Dali, Victor Hugo, Paris and the Jews

I had dinner with a friend last night who told me there is no excuse for the infrequency of my blogging as of late (though I do have excuses; he just wasn't interested in hearing them).

“Just post little things,” he urged. 

So in the spirit of maintaining constancy in light of my absence, I thought I'd share an interesting verse from Salvador Dali, which I discovered at a retrospective of the artist’s work at Centre Pompidou during a recent visit to Paris.

By now it is well known that Dali was fascinated by film and theater and had hoped to transpose his painterly gifts into storytelling on screen. Though he found limited success in that endeavor, it did result in some fruitful collaborations: first, with the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, with whom he produced two films, “Un Chien Andalou” and “L'Age d'Or,” both of which were formative influences in the surrealist film movement.

But true to his zealous, striving nature to achieve the pinnacle of success, Dali also turned his sights towards Hollywood, with whom he had a definite but vexing relationship. He spent considerable time in Los Angeles in the 1940s while collaborating most famously with Alfred Hitchcock, the outcome of which resulted in an edgy dream sequence for Hitchcock’s 1945 film “Spellbound” (several years ago, during their own Dali retrospective, LACMA devoted an entire room of the exhibit to this sequence).

In 1946, Walt Disney hired Dali to develop a storyboard for the short film “Destino” inspired by the hit Mexican song of the same name. Though Disney and Dali worked on the project for eight years, the Walt Disney Company became beset by financial difficulties in the aftermath of World War II which forced the project on hold; “Destino” was not fully realized on screen until 2003, when Walt's nephew Roy revisited the project. The film that resulted is a magnificent and wild, entirely un-Disney-like music video that tells a deep and daring love story, more provocative and sophisticated than most other Hollywood renderings of romance.

In the end, Dali's work on film was not deemed commercially viable enough to justify further investment, a harsh reality that deeply disappointed him. Then again, the self-declared megalomaniac (“I am surrealism!”) disdained any imposition of limitation on his talents.

Though much has been made of Dali's fascination with Hitler (the subject of many of his paintings but never his public reproach), Dali also had a mysterious relationship with Jews and Judaism. In 1967, he was commmissioned by Shorewood Publishers, a purveyor of art books, to create a series of paintings depicting Zionist history to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Israel. According to The Forward, the Emory University scholar David Blumenthal, a professor of Judaic studies, owns one of these paintings and several years ago undertook to investigating Dali’s relationship to the Jews:

He tested a number of proposed theories: Did Dalí secretly have Jewish ancestors? Did his wife, Gala? Did the artist feel some kind of empathy for the Jewish people? Or, conversely, was he simply trying to build a Jewish market, even exploit the Jews for commercial benefit? … And “Aliyah” is not his only Jewish-themed work: He produced other paintings, as well as two sculptures, “Menorah” and “Western Wall,“ whose images he licensed to a man named Jean-Paul Delcourt in 1980. Delcourt has since built a small industry of Dalí Jewish art products.

Which brings me to the passage I mentioned at the beginning. The following excerpt comes from Dali’s own writings and beautifully illustrates (as only an illustrator can) the importance of place — and not just any place, a particular place — in the formation of one’s identity. Naturally it recalled for me the Jewish tie to Israel:

Like a good workman, I tend to my field, my boat — that is the painting I am finishing — while striving for simple things: eating grilled sardines and walking along the beach with Gala at nightfall, watching the gothic rocks turn into nightmares in the night. I built myself on these shores. This is where I created my image, found my love, built my house. I am inseparable from this sky, this sea, these rocks: I am forever tied to Portlligat – which means 'tied-in port' — where I defined all my raw truths and my roots. This is the only place where I am home: everywhere else, I camp.

Dali’s last line makes a good case for capturing the essence of exile — another enduring Jewish theme. On that note, I offer a shattering passage from Victor Hugo’s pen, also discovered during my trip to Paris, in which he describes the 18 years he spent in exile from France after publicly opposing Napoleon III’s seizure of power:

A man so ruined that only his honor remains, so despoiled that all he has is his conscience, so isolated that only equity remains close, so rejected that only truth has stayed with him, a man cast so totally into the darkness that all he has is the sun: that is what it is to be an exile.