Though my younger sister has always been given to drawing, painting, scrapbooking and various other forms of artistic endeavors, I have never known her to be all that obsessed with art. Imagine my surprise (and joy), then, when it was she, not myself, who approached my mom about heading to Atlanta's High Museum of Art to see an exhibition of Salvador Dalí's late period before the works returned to Florida. I assumed I would have to make up some excuse about seeing friends downtown before the week's end so I might peek around the place myself, but the unexpected interest of other members of my family made my exposure to the wild Spaniard's post-Surrealist work all the more pleasurable.
To say the least, the relegation of the entire second half of Dalí's life the nebulously defined realm of kitsch made the revelation of his work's potency all the more overwhelming, and the question of how it could be so handily dismissed all the more baffling. Having begun his artistic career at the age of six with impressionist landscapes, Dalí moved into Cubism as it gained ground in the 20s and fell in with the Surrealist group in Paris at the end of the decade. But his "official" involvement with surrealism ended another 10 years later, leaving the last 49 years of his life to essentially be defined by a single decade.
One look through the gallery assembled for the High Museum, however, will silence anyone who would dismiss the artist's second half as conventional. "The only difference between me and the other surrealists is that I am a surrealist," Dalí once said, and if the movement was all about capturing the subconscious, Dalí certainly never stopped painting surreal works.
Compared to the more out-there work of his accepted Surrealist period, Dalí's later work displays a clearer influence of classicism, with outright nods to Velázquez, Raphael, Vermeer and others. Subjects look more photo-realistic, and Dalí incorporates Renaissance aesthetics all the way down to religious imagery, brought about by the re-embrace of the Catholicism he rejected in the '30s. The critic Robert Hughes charged Dalí's late work with being repetitious, and he does return to themes and symbols throughout his later paintings and sketches. The Virgin Mary, inevitably modeled by his wife and muse, Gala, features in numerous paintings, as do Christian symbols of ostrich eggs (once associated with virgin births) and some of Dalí's own pet motifs such as rhinoceros horns.
But there is also a seemingly contradictory usage of scientific imagery. The detonation of the Hiroshima bomb changed something inside Dalí: whatever he thought about the morality of the bomb -- and those thoughts, as far as I could see as I scanned over the assembled text for the exhibit, were curiously unaddressed -- he recognized that the Atomic Age had begun and art had to adapt to stay contemporary. Gorging on science magazines and studies, Dalí picked up remarkably on the nature of nuclear physics, and he mixed it into his religious imagery, crafting what he called a "nuclear mysticism," a way for him to justify his belief in God but lack of faith. Somehow, he found a way to trace Catholic dogma into the realm of advanced physics, finding proof of God in such a way that he honored his childhood teachings but circumvented dogma in all but an aesthetic sense.
The mash-up of contemporary and classical is at times astonishing. Dalí breaks up that image of his wife as the Virgin Mary to show the Christ-child growing inside of her, bodies elongated into particles to suggest atomic energy as the force that impregnated her. One of the artists best and most well-regarded paintings, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, is painted from an extreme, high angle, looking down on Jesus as he hangs overlooking a smaller landscape of the artist's childhood home. But I did not notice that Jesus was floating over Port Lligat when I stared up at the large canvas; to me it seemed as if he were in space orbiting around Earth, Christ as Major Tom, occupying two figurative heavens at once. Furthermore, Dalí left out the crown of thorns and stakes, removing the torturous element of Christ's execution, turning a moment of guilt-inducing need for atonement and forgiveness into a gentler embodiment of the painter's alternately classic and futuristic view of Jesus.
Unquestionably the highlight of the exhibit, and possibly Dalí's career, is the immense canvas of Santiago El Grande, finally taken from its permanent residence in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in New Brunswick, Canada. The placard next to the painting advises the viewer to crouch down and look up at 13.5 ft long, 10 ft wide painting for maximum effect. It is an unnecessary instruction for a masterpiece so awe-inspiring that the reverence it engenders will bring one down on a knee anyway.
Depicting St. James, the patron saint of Spain, on horseback, Santiago El Grande represents the apotheosis of Dalí's nuclear mysticism: despite the considerable size of the canvas, St. James and his horse are perfectly proportioned, and the combination of photo-realism and artistic license is incredibly subtle, especially for this artist. The horse's head looked so real I had a difficult time looking at anything else, while the rest of it had a soft blur, making it one with the sea it stands upon. In James' upraised hand is the Crucifix, born aloft as if brandishing a sword, a moment of religious epiphany as impressive as anything in the Sistine Chapel. Surrounding this dominant image are symbols of both religious and atomic significance. Angels appear at the top of the painting, and a highlight of one seamlessly melds into the horse's chest and neck. At the beast's feet, a mushroom cloud swirls, yet Dalí tempers the potentially fearsome sight by placing a jasmine flower in the middle of it, a sign of purity inside the symbol of mass destruction. And that shade of blue! That glowing, heaven-lit iridescence that seems to fluctuate even among the areas of color that remain constant. It's as if Dalí used a normal tint but God decided to always shine a light on it in approval and appreciation. Add one Gala-modeled woman looking on from the shore, and you've got a painting that more than earns its rarely used subtitle: "In Search of a Cosmic Unity."
Other highlights included the sketches and etches Dalí did, either as drafts for paintings or self-contained work he quickly dashed out to support himself -- Dalí once said that he loved nothing more than to finish his breakfast and spend the rest of the morning earning $20,000. But even these illustrations have a beauty, depth and inventiveness to them that belies their classification as minor works. While illustrating some plates for use in an illustrated version of Don Quixote, Dalí used such bizarre techniques as shooting paint squibs out of a musket to splatter the plates, or painting with rhinoceros horns. The plates have a psychedelic quality reminiscent of Ralph Steadman, who vomited acid visions of caricatured horror onto the best work of Hunter S. Thompson.
Obsessed with Vermeer's The Lacemaker, Dalí made his own copy of it, an almost note-perfect recreation with a warmer color tone, though that may be from the centuries of age between original and duplicate. Then expelled the obsession fully by deconstructing the image as he did Raphael's Madonna, finding his beloved rhino horn buried into Vermeer's composition. This second version is as striking for its originality as the proper copy is for its immaculate recreation. In preserving the Old Masters in a contemporary setting, he has dissembled and reassembled them with the modern. Dalí's Lacemaker may look like something out of an issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, it has the same respect for classicism with a dash of personal innovation that also dots that comic series.
Many point to Dalí's public persona as a significant reason for the decline of his art in the discussion of the artist; critics charged him with being a fraud and an attention hound, and supporters increasingly agreed. But Dalí's showmanship was just another way to flaunt his weirdness, to let nothing hold back the id he regularly slung onto canvas. There were numerous great 20th century artists who enjoyed attention, of course, but Dalí is the one who got to be an A-lister in the age of Hollywood and rock 'n' roll. Andy Warhol idolized the Spaniard's ability to court press as much as he did the man's art, and for Dalí to remain one of the more recognizable names in art even to laypeople could not simply have come from his talent, not with material so alienating and weird. Sure, he could be kitschy -- one room in the gallery featured his experiments with stereoscopic painting complete with 3-D glasses for maximum effect -- but Salvador Dalí was a mad genius, and the world is less interesting without him. I'm glad I got the the chance to see just how brilliant and daring he was long after so many wrote him off.
P.S. Though this is an example of Dalí's fame-baiting, this clip of the artist's appearance on What's My Line? ran through my head several times as I walked through the High Museum's exhibition. As you can plainly see, Dalí may have loved to be on television and in print, but he never courted the mainstream by dulling himself down. If he became an icon through the media, it's only because he remained so damn strange even within the confines of a frothy game show that one couldn't help but love him.