In 1939, Winston Churchill called Russia “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The same could be said for Salvador Dali. Born May 11, 1904, Dali was, to put it kindly, a nut, but a nut who could paint. No other artist in history mugged for the camera so shamelessly, as in the photograph above showing Dali dipping in the sea with flowers impaled upon the tips of his signature mustache. Some people wish that the self-promoting cartoon character that Dali became had never existed, theoretically leaving the masterful artist intact. As much as I groan at Dali’s high jinks, I still realize how they were part of the total package. While other Surrealists worked in that style and then went home to relatively conventional lives, Dali truly lived and breathed Surrealism, which almost required that he become a totally irrational being, a caricature of the great artist he actually was.
As The Dali Renaissance: New Perspectives on His Life and Art after 1940 (my review here) argued, the Surrealist Dali of the 1920s and early 1930s differs greatly from the wartime and post-World War II Dali. For many people, Dali dies for all intents and purposes in the war, at least as an artist and a person worth listening to, mainly for his unfortunate dalliances with dictatorships, beginning with his painting The Enigma of Hitler (above, from 1938) and ending with the death of Franco in 1975. I remember coming across this painting, which I had not know before, at the PMA’s Dali exhibition in 2005 and not knowing what to think. Hitler’s face appears on a scrap of newsprint resting on a giant plate dominating a typical Dali-esque, enigmatic landscape. By 1938, most rational people should have realized that Adolf Hitler wasn’t on the side of the angels, but Dali’s painting leaves the issue up in the air a little too much for comfort. That grey area turns more black and white with Dali’s later dealings with Franco and even Mao, who becomes an intellectual hero for Dali through the Cultural Revolution that, in truth, was more about ruthlessly murderous tyranny than cultural renewal.
So, how do you balance the books of a simultaneously lover of dictators and a great lover of art and art history? Dali’s Self Portrait as Mona Lisa (above, from 1954) shows his wonderful affection for the Old Masters such as Leonardo da Vinci. In many ways, Dali’s art is one long meditation on the nature of art, a string of quotations from the past re-imagined for the present and future. In some ways, Dali’s ideas about art achieve the same crackpot status as his takes on politics, religion, and science. That crackpottery grows exponentially as Dali throws his ideas on these different topics all into the cauldron of his mind and brews up a strange mix that sounds bizarre, yet less bizarre than it truly is thanks to Dali’s gift for assimilating lingo that gives the illusion that he knows what he’s talking about. The more I know about Dali, the less I tend to like him, but, oddly enough, the harder it is for me to totally dismiss him. If we were related by blood, Dali would be my often insufferable uncle spouting off in the corner of family gatherings to nobody in particular on nothing in particular, charismatic yet kooky, but who always remembers to say goodbye with a twinkle in his eye and an engulfing bear hug.