Surreal brilliance: Salvador Dali at the Centre Pompidou

“Every morning when I wake up I experience an exquisite joy – the joy of being Salvador Dali – and I ask myself in rapture what wonderful things this Salvador Dali is going to accomplish today.”
Any gentleman who manages to drop his own name twice, amidst a grandiloquent choice of words, is always going to be noticed. And if not, such a person is more than happy to stick his head above the parapet to get attention. To be dangerous has its merits. One needs to be remembered.
And Salvador Dali certainly is, as a captivating retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris reveals. A gargantuan exhibition – the biggest since his last significant retrospective in 1979 (Paris, of course) – there are over 200 works of art on show that perfectly encapsulate his brilliance, while also highlighting his obvious flaws.
Eccentric, flamboyant and supremely talented, the Spaniard is considered to be one of the greatest artists in the entire history of art, but, while much of his work is revered, his self-aggrandising character, at times vulgar and vacant, continues to taint his legacy.
His unique personality was perfectly suited to the zeitgeist of the twentieth century, which was all at once groundbreaking and beautiful, while also being malevolent and catastrophic. Dali was your quintessential contradiction.
“Until now, the mainstream critical judgement was that there was a good Dali – the Dali of surrealism – up until the end of the 1930s, and that after that he went bad,” said Jean-Michel Bouhours, co-curator of the show.
“He made money, he shot advertisements – worse still he became a political reactionary. But today we have enough distance to be able to stand back and look at the whole of his oeuvre.”
The exhibition, co-produced with Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum, has been carefully curated to include as many disparate works from his entire professional career, and stretches from the 1920s right up to the 1980s.
It is therefore a true synthesis of the various mediums he used. Though a painter first and foremost, Dali was nevertheless interested in sculpture, film – see the amazing short animation Destino he made with Walt Disney as a perfect example of this – and even literature.
So open was he to anything, that he even designed the logo for the well-known lollipop company Chupa Chups. For Dali, it was simply “Why not?” Yet, despite the obvious monetary value of being part of the mass consumerist bubble, Dali’s participation in it was not without irony. He was, in so many ways, ahead of his time, satirising this way of life long before pop art became a fully-fledged movement.
Take for example one of his stunts in 1965. For a brief while he began selling blank sheets of paper with his name signed on them for $10. It was a gimmick, it was a farce, it was a crazy way to make money, but it worked. People bought into it.
But, while they were clearly being robbed, they were simultaneously making quite a decent investment. As an original Dali work – said in the loosest terms possible – it was worth more than what people had paid for it.
For the most part, we all play by the rules. Our lives are not defined by the free choices we make, but the decisions that arise out of the confines of what we understand. While this is normal and nothing to berate, it can feel lacking. In some ways we’ve become far too scared to explore, to take risks, appeased by the promise of the unattainable.
Dali never wanted to conform, to stick with convention, to have an easy, regular life. He wanted to be talked about, he longed for immortality, and he wanted to dive deep into the dark recesses of the mind to find something unknowable. Life for him was an adventure, the world a big playground.
However, as this exquisite retrospective confirms, he was, above all the absurdity, serious about his art and its ability to provoke an emotional response. Good or bad, it didn’t matter. So long as there was something, then it had served its purpose.
“Just as I am astonished that a bank clerk never eats a cheque,” he once said in discussion of his famous work The Persistence of Memory (1931). “So too am I astonished that no painter before me ever thought of painting a soft watch.”
Salvador Dali at the Centre Pompidou in Paris runs until March 25th 2013.
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