DALI: Liquid Desire
National Gallery of Victoria, 2009
The exhibition begins with a somewhat abstract painting of a town, in pastel palette, and with obvious affinities with Cézanne’s taches. Then a precocious teenager, Dalí had an enormous appetite to learn techniques, demonstrated also in his perfect pencil drawing of a back viewed nude, rendered into an alabaster finish. His early experiments with cubism show remarkable maturity in terms of composition, formal and tonal control, maintaining the sombre constraints while somehow getting down into the character of the place he depicted.
The first uniquely surrealistic imagery emerged suddenly – melting clocks and other forms drooping over other surfaces and propped up on crutches of varying kinds, translating the illusion of the permanence of things in life by transforming objects into others and punning with visual associations.
His first surrealism was subversive of conservative painting, but Dalí aimed to dazzle with technique more than any of his contemporaries. The so-called “paranoic critical” method, in which he played with ambiguities and tricks of perception, could only be achieved through close observation, mercurial imagination and skills of the highest order.
So his project became less concerned with subversion of older forms than with a subversion of modernism itself, particularly the abstractionists, whom he regarded as a dreary, lazy and unskilled lot whose art was puffery and even a cul-de-sac.
That did not stop him from borrowing heavily on those forms and incorporating them into his broader programme – a very postmodern one in the sense that he cannibalized all the styles of art that preceded him, especially in terms of the Western tradition from the era of the Renaissance.
His art conveyed his personality, complex as it was, but it was also an interrogation and upskilling of earlier and contemporary forms into an ever-expanding repertoire of techniques and devices that he could employ in his art.
It began with fascination with the paintings, sculptures and designs of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael; moved through the sculpture of Cellini and the paintings of the Dutch masters, especially Vermeer, Rembrandt and Holbein, through Neo-classical and epic history painting to Millet, incorporated some of the flair of Monet and Turner, and then cannibalized modern art from the Dadist’s objets trouvées, optical art from Seurat to Riley and Vasarely, and the mass-production techniques of Warhol.
There are also continuous references to architecture and twists on the paintings of contemporaries and predecessors like Delvaux, de Chirico, Arp and Miro, as well as an obvious connection to Picasso and even Moore.
His reworking of Millet’s painting of two peasants, as monumental sculptual or architectural forms, and its repetition through numerous illustrations and drawings, was massively influenctial on the direction of modern sculpture. One can see an interest in classical and modern architecture too, from Visari to Gaudi.
Two themes emerge in terms of Dalí’s personal exploration: his interest in the fourth-dimension, in capturing moments of action and natural or physical forces frozen in time (his “atomic” Dalí) and an attraction to the metaphysical; and his sense of absurd humour, which allowed for the kinds of juxtapositions and transmogrifications for which his art became renowned.
A rare component of the exhibition is Destino, an unfinished animation in collaboration with Walt Disney, which has myriad connections with paintings and drawings on display.
Perhaps surprisingly, the exhibition ends with a piece of quirky, on one level Constructivist abstraction. On another, it is a self-portrait in which all the detail and personality or ego has evaporated into a white plane, highlighted by the odd shadow and sign that could refer to his trademark moustache.