By Dee Dee Vega

My exhausting quest to The Philadelphia Museum of Art's Salvador Dalí centennial retrospective began with a congenial Pennsylvanian on the phone reporting that due to popular demand, the museum had extended the exhibition dates and would be staying open until midnight to accommodate visitors. "Would you like to see the show at 9:00 or 9:30 p.m.? Wait, no, we've had cancellations for the 7:00. Forty-six dollars, please. Debit or credit?" Any lack of enthusiasm about seeing the mustachioed madman had evaporated in my overachiever's desire to get tickets to anything selling out fast. Dalí has always been an anomaly to me. He was a master draughtsman swept into an artistic sea of über-conceptualism, exquisite corpses and disjointed poetry. He is by far the least cerebral and most adolescent of the chic-shock factory that was Dada and Surrealism. But, somehow Salvador keeps packing them in. If Breton had thought of melting clocks, would pedestrian art viewers be lining up for him or is it Dalí's explosive personality writ large in the iconic portraits of his carnivalesque face that stays in our creative consciousness? Being the artistic hero of every male under the age of eighteen is a dubious distinction, but Dalí's unrelenting self-promotion and cupidity during his life seems to imply that he would be happy with any and all enduring fame.

It's only recently that Dalí is getting the attention of critics who have long dismissed his work as psychedelic eye-candy best enjoyed when inebriated. However, there is no denying his near omnipresence in the contemporary sensibility. After all, Dalí was no more megalomaniacal than Julian Schnabel and no more sex-obsessed than say, Eric Fischl. So why string up the Spaniard? Because it is widely perceived by critics that Dalí tragically lacks sophistication and supplies an otherworldly ability to render with painstaking detail in the place of intellectual concept. Perhaps Dalí said it best himself, "The secret, the best-kept secret, is that the most famous painter in the world, which I am, does not yet know how to go about painting." However, the Philadelphia Museum's exhibition, helmed by curator Dawn Ades, may change that perception. Ades is an eminent scholar who has routinely contributed superb text to the academic community, especially her assessments of Latin American modernism. So, Senor Dalí is certainly in capable hands and it certainly helps that Ades acknowledges that the critical deck is stacked against him from the start.


It was nice to see that not only was the conquistador of kookiness given a full eighteen gallery treatment, but every last art lover, Dalí enthusiast or not, came out to give Salvador the sensational showing he would have always wanted for the exhibition's only United States tour date. In a time of declining patronage many institutions have been bolstered by blockbuster exhibitions such as the recent Matisse/Picasso exhibition at MoMA or the Manet/Velasquez show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But, Dalí managed to stand solo. There are formal qualities of his work for which he should receive due credit. Dalí is a nearly flawless artisan able to not only produce photo-realistic works in rich color completely free of any visible painterly touch (i.e. brushwork and medium), but he can execute these startlingly "untouched" works in painstaking miniature. Dalí, understandably, encountered many problems dealing with professors in art school since he felt none of them worthy to judge his work. Probably, he could render better than they. But, it's really a shame that he didn't appropriate the advancements that his friends, namely the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and filmmaker Luis Buńuel—both geniuses, were making in creating a vivacious and daring new verbal/visual vocabulary during the 1920s. Some of the most genuinely brilliant of Dalí's accomplishments, such as the monolithic film Un Chien Andalou, and numerous works completed during the intense beginning of his friendship with Lorca, were shining examples of how good he could really be when someone else was lending their brain to the operation.

This point cannot be taken too lightly. Understandably (and thankfully), most of the viewers of the Dalí exhibition were not art historians. However, it is striking to anyone with a survey understanding of Western art history that Dalí's works can scarily often be read as direct appropriations of other artists' work ranging from Renaissance art to his contemporary, Picasso. No artist lives in a vacuum, but Dalí is the Clown Prince of mimesis. He simply seems to have been born with the preternatural ability to consume other artist's style, fracture it in his psychic blender and regurgitate it onto the canvas. Much like Kevin Spacey doing a Christopher Walken impression, at first you're impressed, but come on, everyone can do a little bit of a Walken impression. Dalí just does the impression better than anyone. There is something to be said for that. No wonder he's such a pleaser of the masses. He's utterly familiar and so deliciously primetime-kitschy.

During the 1920s, Dalí created work such as the Venus and Sailors series that is directly derivative of Picasso's monumental female figures of his classical period which preceded Dalí's paintings by only a few years. It makes sense that his experiences during the impending Spanish Civil War should have made him look to Goya, but even the famous Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) seems like an airbrushed collage of Goya's Horrors of War in a post-apocalyptic landscape. He owes equal credit to Vermeer and Northern Renaissance art. The most obvious example might be his Portrait of Juan de Pareja, The Assistant to Velasquez, Adjusting a String on His Mandolin. Rather than referencing the exquisite and haunting portrait of Pareja by Velasquez, he makes Pareja a disembodied specter and instead lifts the image of the Chamberlain exiting through a door visible in the back left corner of Las Meninas and places it in the compositionally opposite corner of the canvas over his "Pareja's" shoulder. The irony is that Pareja was the slave of Velasquez, who when given the chance to paint himself created work startlingly different from his master, daring and stylistically unique. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Dalí. Dalí was so obsessed with being admired, I suppose consciously or more likely unconsciously (this is Surrealism, Freud's child after all) that he just thought if he could take the best of every great movement and mind, then mix it with his own viciously narcissistic personality, he could outdo them.

It is incredibly important to remind ourselves that Surrealism began as a literary movement, not a visual one, when considering Dalí's work. Language plays a crucial role in interpreting his artistic intentions. Dalí, of course, was kicked out of the "official" Surrealist group by Andre Breton for being so self-promoting and money hungry. But, I was surprised at how effective his daring and dry wit really is when applied to the titles of his works. This perhaps is where Dalí's greatest sophistication and sense of style exists. He really does have a literary sensibility as is evident in not only his lengthy titles, but his rampant use of literary device in the titles themselves such as Premature Ossification of a Railway Station (1930) or The Birth of Liquid Fears (1932). He really did love the absurdity of language (think Fried Egg on a Plate Without the Plate, 1932). He spoke French, Catalan and English equally well and, after all, this is the man who made a project of rewriting the Larousse Dictionary so everyone would know what his personal and "correct" definition of each word was. While he wasn't as involved with the extreme literary experiments of his comrades, he is maybe best categorized as a Surrealist not because of the irrational juxtaposition of imagery that seems rather contrived in his canvases, but in his biting humor, nonsensical pairings of works and titles such as the construction of a lady's shoe, clay, hair and other objects to comprise Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically (1931) or the oft revisited theme Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love (1940).

It's very easy for critics to become cripplingly close to art and Dalí has been battered around for generations. I certainly don't mean to imply that we should accept kitsch. (Poor Clement Greenberg would be turning in his grave!) But, at this Salvador Dalí exhibit, I saw the writings of the great twentieth century philosopher John Dewey at work. Dalí has truly been able to reach out to an extraordinarily vast audience and Dewey said the process of deinstitutionalizing "high art" is perhaps the most important key to art's positive influence upon our society. I found Salvador's last stand at the Philadelphia Museum, despite my obvious skepticism about his work, to be true inspiring. He got people from all walks of life to wait in a museum line until midnight to see his work. And for our culture that continually denigrates the role of the artist, this is no small accomplishment.