Surreal Scenarios

John Haber
in New York City

Salvador Dalí and Film

Salvador Dalí may not top everyone's list of modern artists, but he played one to the hilt. He treated modern painting as an experiment—often as not, an experiment in human flesh. He dabbled in avant-garde movements just long enough to break away, in politics just long enough to change sides, and in popular culture just long enough to have a run-in or two with the producers. He returned to a stock of images as they slipped from radical to obsessive to a cliché.

He flaunted his talent, his virtuosity, and his command of illusion every step of the way. And all these extended to the artist's persona as much as to his work. From his melting watches to his long waxed mustache, Dalí became a public figure and a public favorite, like Picasso without the difficulty of Cubism. The profile will not fit everyone's idea of modern art. It accords just fine, however, with quite another modern art form—the movies. Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou (Museum of Modern Art, 1929)

Did I say that the hero of WALL-E keeps replaying another Hollywood memory, Hello, Dalí? Okay, never mind. In "Dalí and Film," the star of the show actually spends very little time in Hollywood. Even there, he gets more acclaim than results. He may have found his real calling all the same.

Rapid-fire love stories

Dalí did not turn reverentially to a new medium. Film helps Julian Schnabel keep his formidable ego almost in check, for a more patient vision of others. Dalí was not a patient man.

In fact, he seems hardly to care for the medium, apart from its ability to toss off image after image. A formalist might have sought film language in Jean Renoir's layered narratives and deep focus, Max Ophuls's tracking shots, Sergei Eisenstein's montage, Charlie Chaplin's parting close-ups, or Buster Keaton's bursting of the screen's "fourth wall." For Dalí, film and painting alike simply freed up the imagination for rapid-fire images. He loved screen comedy—Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx brothers. A historian would look at Animal Crackers and see its stage origins. Dalí saw Surrealism and a wider public for art.

His most shocking scenario came first—in collaboration with another Spaniard and in his very first year in France—and its most lasting image comes right at the start. Un Chien Andalou opens with a vulnerable young woman and a knife slitting her eyeball from right to left. Louis Buñuel's film, his first, runs only sixteen minutes, so one can see thick fluid ooze from her eye again and again. Even on a third or fourth viewing, the scene has the impact of the unexpected. A hand firmly and abruptly subjects her to an almost unspeakable act. Has it blinded her or set her vision free?

A year before, René Magritte had called a painting The Treachery of Images. Dalí already earns that title, if only this once, and already he is surprisingly conventional. While the movie does not exactly have a plot, the woman survives injury, cowers before one handsome man, and escapes at last with another. Most of the images along the way have the comforting familiarity of a campy melodrama. For all its Surrealism, even the opening scene has a humble setting in a staged room, with a tone more clinical than terrifying. One can watch it over and over, although a razor flying toward the screen in film today might be too visceral to bear even once.

The hero and heroine ends up waist deep in sand in the burning sun. Again, torment and captivity come as the price for a brighter inner and outer light. That formula suggests the appeal to Dalí of the movies and Surrealism. Both freed him from the ordinary passage of time and space, without the need for a jump cut, much as with his vague landscapes and melting watches. Both, too, boil down to plain old love stories, with due trials and tribulations along the way. Already, too, they spell out the artist's lifelong stock of images, from wide eyes to ants that circulate a man's palm.

The artist chose some amazing directors, but he preferred to play the scriptwriter. He has the scenarist's limits in paint as well—verbosity and a greater concern for the plot than for art. He dabbled in film, but in a sense he spent a whole lifetime dabbling in art. The fantastic landscapes on display often fall oddly flat, and the connections to film can feel tenuous. I had never realized, though, how long and how often Dalí turned to the movies.

The American Surrealists

Born in 1904, he came not from central casting but from Catalonia, at the opposite end of Spain from Pablo Picasso a quarter century before. (Regardless, they shared the spotlight in "Barcelona and Modernity" at the Met in 2007.) The big city lured them both, like kids from the Midwest destined for stardom. When Dalí left Spain in 1929, Hollywood was just bourgeoning, under demands from a new industry. He was off to Paris, however, and the attraction was painting.

He arrived in France two years after the first Surrealist Manifesto, with a recommendation from Joan Miró. Dalí had dabbled in Dada, but its moment had ebbed, and his instincts lay at opposite poles from its politics, cynicism, and anti-esthetic. Where Dada had left things to chance or the everyday, he took things on himself. He also admired Giorgio di Chirico for the hyperrealism, the enigmas, the arbitrary shadows, and the sense of a stage set awaiting action. He stands far, however, from di Chirico's cosmopolitan settings and ghostly restraint. Dalí tears down the statues and the pillars, opens the landscape to a craggy infinity, and fills it with a tortured life.

His first portraits have the bright colors, hard surfaces, full-frontal poses, and chilly emotions of early Miró. They look like Latin American or Caribbean art—perhaps Frida Kahlo without the self-presentation or the pain. He is making painting that anyone can grasp, with everything on the surface. He does not so much stare down the viewer as invite others to share his fantasies. He puts himself first and foremost, but as the dominant fantasist.

From there MoMA serves up a full career retrospective, but with a movie in every room. A year after Un Chien Andalou, Dalí and Buñuel expand to over an hour for L'Age d'Or. Its dark, proletarian love story sheds a curious light on his later dalliance with Fascism and his return to Franco's Spain. Perhaps his politics never worries all that much over mundane realities. After Buñuel, he imagines a few more projects, mostly unrealized. He never pulls off a full-length collaboration again.

For all that, he found intriguing partners, and he did his best to move with the times. He almost sold Harpo Marx on a project before Groucho nixed it, and he started a collaboration with the ultimate American fantasist, Walt Disney. It left only seconds of cartoon footage, about gods and goddesses—naturally enough, another love story. (The studio completed things in its own way many years after Dalí's death.) Late in life, he pushed the medium closer to abstraction or, perhaps, to his beloved gleaming, sandy landscapes. The curators compare the results to Andy Warhol and his oxidation paintings.

In between came one unexpected triumph, thanks to the one director closer to nightmares than he. Alfred Hitchcock sought him out, for a plot involving a murder and a madhouse. An artist who would never have sat for Freud sketched out a therapy session of just a few revealing moments. Even there, reaction shots of Gregory Peck's face weigh down the free associations—or vice versa. Dalí tried to assert his usual repertoire, including a scene of Ingrid Bergman swarming with ants. Hitchcock and David Selznick dismissed it as impractical and, dare I say, pointless.

Trickle-down Modernism

What then does film say about Dalí? On the one hand, the exhibition argues for his creative mark on the movies, although it must settle for a string of projects that barely got off the ground. Could the artist have imagined the crowds lined up at the Guggenheim for Matthew Barney video? The rooms include ample paintings and drawings as sketches for film, at the risk of an often lifeless retrospective. As far as the influence of Dalí and Surrealism, however, case closed. Hitchcock's shot of scissors cutting through an eye preceded hiring the painter, and his most terrifying debt to Dalí comes as Peck remembers his brother's death, only there the director worked alone.

The Modern has some stretchers, too, when it comes to film's influence on painting. It points to tricks with perspective, as if di Chirico had not punned on converging lines as painting's vocabulary before him. It asks one to see shadows across a jagged cliff or shroud as a parable of the projectionist, as if specters like these did not lurk everywhere in Dalí's art. Yet his love of the popular medium was real, and so was his envy of the celebrity it produced. Then, too, shadow presences of the camera obscura had begun to merge with echoes of the movie camera starting at least with Marcel Duchamp.

The question circles back to a wider one—the relationship between fine and popular arts. It arises as feminists and others seek to broaden museum culture. It arises as artists look for new channels of distribution in digital media and the Web. It also involves the conflict between two contentious narratives about primacy in the arts. One narrative is embodied in the term avant-garde: only artists largely outside public awareness can take real risks, which nonetheless trickle down into the popular imagination.

The other narrative mixes technological and material determinism. As new media like photography once, then film, and now data-driven art arise, the arts have to change, and artists, too, have to reflect the assumptions of the dominant culture. As David Hickey puts this version, one can imagine jazz without Jackson Pollock or the artists in "Blues for Smoke," but not the other way around. Each of these narratives has some truth, even if classical performers improvised extensively before jazz existed—and even if Dalí posed more as an aristocrat than a moviegoer. The narratives elucidate the mess that goes by the name culture, even if they sometimes verge on truisms or lies. One can imagine jazz without abstract painting only because there was more of it, and one can hardly imagine a black musician of the time getting Pollock's spread in Life magazine.

By Dalí's death in 1989, the narratives had undergone a remix—or maybe a director's cut. Pop Art and Robert Rauschenberg had recast it one way, the Untitled Film Stills of Cindy Sherman another. Dalí's mustache and the slit eyeball had become cultural icons, while his paintings drew long lines and critical skepticism. Charmingly, too, he gets the last word, but with another artist as director. The star at last, he has two segments of Warhol's Screen Tests.

As in all the Screen Tests, the actor appears both casual and posed, candid and preening. He also appears twice—in the museum lobby, inviting one up to see some art, and in the last room of "Dalí and Film," as if to explain it all. For once he collaborates on an avant-garde project rather than for the film industry, with work credited to another. Then again, in tribute to Surrealist drawing or in mockery of the artist's self-image, he also appears upside-down. Has a popular art form, the film industry, trickled up to the underground, or has an emblem of Modernism at last trickled down?

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"Dalí and Film" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through September 15, 2008.


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