Feature Archive
The Salvador Dalí Show
Dalí at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, through May 15 2005

By Joseph Phelan
The Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was not only a painter but also a writer, poet, theorist, printmaker, designer, editor, sculptor, filmmaker, inventor of objects and installer of exhibitions. The mammoth Dalí exhibit mounted to celebrate his centenary at the Philadelphia Museum of Art covers as much as possible of his multifarious career.

With almost 200 works on view, the exhibit's emphasis is on his paintings, which is where the focus should be. As critic Robert Hughes has recently observed, Dalí's powerful early work and the best efforts of his middle period during the thirties surpass the comparable works of his fellow countryman Pablo Picasso. Even the late work, widely dismissed during his lifetime as kitsch, now demands serious revisiting. When seen in the light of his long career they show unexpected depth and resonance.

One can divide Dalí's career into three major periods: an early apprenticeship period of the post World War I period, his leadership of the Surrealist movement during the thirties, and his post-Surrealistic stage during the subsequent decades to his death. Dalí produced memorable works in each of these periods.

Early Years

Dalí's enchantingly fauvist Self-Portrait in the Studio, Cadaqués (1919) opens the Philadelphia exhibit.

The foppish and self-absorbed pretty young dandy we see here marks the beginning of Dalí's life long preoccupation with his own image. I am madly in love with myself, he wrote in his diary around this time.

In general Dalí's eye was not suited to the kind of close and penetrating scrutiny of his face that distinguishes such artists as Rembrandt or Cézanne. Rather Matisse seems to be the major influence at this stage: On this point consider for example Open Window, Collioure (1905) in the National Gallery

Another early work, entitled Self-portrait with Raphaelesque Neck, pays homage to one of his favorite artists, that master of "idealization" and classical balance, Raphael.

In the superb portrait of his countryman Luis Buñuel, Dalí shows how much he has assimilated from the tradition of the great portrait painting of the Italian Renaissance - especially from artists such as Bronzino and Andrea Mantegna. In the background we note the movement of clouds across the sky, a device taken from a Mantegna painting in the Prado that fascinated the pair. This image constitutes a striking preview of the most infamous scene in the Buñuel's experimental film Le Chien Andalou (Andalusian Dog), on which Dalí and Buñuel would collaborate in Paris in 1929. The "shock montage" features a woman's eyes, intercut with clouds moving across the sky, quickly followed by a man's slicing open the eyes.

Dalí's art school education gave him a lifelong commitment to meticulous draughtsmanship. He also followed Picasso in a return to the classics during this period. "It's only the masters who count." Dalí had a special place in his heart for the works of Ingres as reflected in a number breathtakingly beautiful sketches and paintings in the PMA exhibit. On the night that I visited the exhibit these works were responsible for literally bringing the train of people walking past them to a halt, so mesmerized were they by the beauty and sweep of Dalí's line. (Note: tickets to the exhibit are timed. You should try to see it during on weekday when it is less likely to be sold out.)

These sketches lead up to what has to be one of the most deeply satisfying paintings in the entire show, entitled Woman at the Window. A masterful expression of the classical ideal of the human body in repose, the image calls forth the spiritual longings which it is the purpose of fine art to evoke and at its best to fulfill. Yet Dalí not only celebrates the classical tradition, in presenting the posterior view of the full female figure he gives it a decidedly erotic turn, thereby transgressing that very tradition.

Another jewel follows, The Basket of Bread (1926) - a still life meditation on the works of the Old masters Francisco de Zurbaran and Juan Sanchez Cotan. The commonplace objects depicted here are presented with such clarity and emotional force that they become transformed into objects of mystery and themes of contemplation

The Surrealist Decade
Another rich source of inspiration for Dalí was the work of the Flemish and Early Netherlandish painters, which he would have seen in ample supply at the Prado. With their fantastic visions of temptation, sin and Hell, they provide a model for the Surrealist revolution.

As much as I enjoy the fantastic and visionary painting of Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch, I have to admit that I'm not a great enthusiast as far as Surrealism is concerned. All too often Surrealism strikes me as all too personal and thus baffling in its private symbolism. The title of one of Dalí's work in the show, The Great Masturbator, just about sums up my view.

Nevertheless, Dalí was the Surrealist. His paintings in this mode demonstrate how it is possible for an artist to make a meticulous, witty and ironic representation of the details of his sexual nightmares. To review or view for the first time such paintings as Enigma of Desire (1929), or the 1930 piece Premature Ossification of a Railway Station (which pays homage to Giorgio de Chirico), or The Architectonic Angelus of Millet (1933) is to contemplate the possibilities opened up by a judicious mating of Picasso and Freud consummated on a bed supplied by the sensibilities of the 20th Century soul.

Dalí's reflections on history in the 1930's made it natural that he would consider the universal significance of art more deeply. His sensitivity to political developments pointed him in the direction of his Spanish predecessor Goya. Dalí was particularly influenced by the "Black Paintings" at this time as well as other of the works clustered around theme of war. Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) is a depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War such that it moved the art critic Robert Hughes to call it not only Dalí's "greatest and most horrifying" painting, but also "modern art's strongest testimony on the civil war and war in general."

Equally mesmerizing are the works with titles like The Sublime Moment and The Enigma of Hitler. The recurring motif of a giant broken black telephone hanging from a tree was inspired by Dalí's dreams concerning the ill-fated Munich Agreement of September 29, 1938. The disconnected telephone receiver is a direct allusion to Neville Chamberlain's widely reported phone calls to Adolph Hitler. Dalí was exasperated with Chamberlain's passive attitude toward Hitler and the failure of "telephone diplomacy" to bring about a satisfactory resolution to Europe's problems, Dalí had no recourse except to his transmogrifying art

Needless to say a Dalí show would not be complete without some buffoonery to complement his more somber meditations. This we find in the Mae West Sofa, the Lobster Telephone, and the Venus de Milo with Drawers (1936). In the latter, Dalí undertook to present Venus covered with fur no less.

Post-Surrealism: The Post War Years
After the fall of France in 1940, Dalí fled to the United States where he lived for the next decade, thereby beginning of new and controversial chapter in his life. For one thing, he began his slow returned to Catholicism, which gave him a ready-made body of ideas and symbols he could manipulate in his paintings. A new era opened for Dalí, variously described as "neo-classicism" or even "nuclear classicism" in reference to his engagement with the latest discoveries in the field of nuclear physics.

When in New York, Dalí held court at the St. Regis Hotel. It was from this domain that he would venture out to appear on late night television in the fifties and sixties. We may note in passing here that some of Dalí's works from this period provided inspiration for the later efforts of Andy Warhol, who was to cut no small figure in the avant-garde circles of New York City and beyond.

It was during this period that Dalí's celebrity reached truly amazing proportions. He was the first living painter that everyone knew by sight thanks to his appearances. I recall in my younger years looking in fascination at his latest paintings, which could frequently be seen in the color section of Sunday newspapers or weekly magazines. The PMA doesn't have the great Glasgow Christ of St. John of the Cross or The Dream of Columbus. But it does have the stupendous Railway Station at Perpignan (1965).

Was his work during this period as good as he claimed or as bad as his critics said? The exhibit has over thirty paintings from this period. When seen in the context of his whole work, they will surely lead to a reassessment of this phase.

Dalí was an eclectic artist and subject to a wide variety of cultural and creative influences. The powerful influence the Dutch master Vermeer can be seen in a number of works in the exhibit, and for the next month the PMA is displaying a rarely seen and privately owned Vermeer, A Young Woman at the Virginals upstairs in its permanent collection.

The beautifully illustrated Rizzoli catalogue, edited by the curators, the distinguished Dalí scholar Dawn Ades and Michael R. Taylor, offers thoughtful commentary on each of the works in the exhibit

The PMA has a Dalí website which contains multimedia features, including an interactive version of The Endless Enigma and classroom teaching resources.

For information about getting to the city and what else there is to do, all you need is the Philadelphia Tourism Website. I can highly recommend the Hilton at Penn, which is located on the U of Pennsylvania campus, a short drive from the museum. Along with all the pleasures one expects at a Hilton, the campus is a lively spot with a range of restaurants and a world famous museum of archaeology just down the block. Adjacent to the hotel is an excellent bookstore filled with titles you won't find in Washington DC bookstores, open till 10:30 Monday through Saturday.

Artcyclopedia entries for artists mentioned in the text:


Past Articles

      Boston Marathon, by Joseph Phelan
      Philadelphia is for Art Lovers, by Joseph Phelan
      Featured on the Web: Understanding Islamic Art and its Influence, by Joseph Phelan
      Independence Day: Sanford R. Gifford and the Hudson River School, by Joseph Phelan
      The "Look" of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      The Importance of Being Odd: Nerdrum's Challenge to Modernism, by Paul A. Cantor

      Advent Calendar 2003, narrated by Joseph Phelan
      If Paintings Could Talk: Paul Johnson's Art: A New History, by Joseph Phelan
      Mad Max [Max Beckmann], by Joseph Phelan
      Marsden Hartley: The Return of the Native, by Joseph Phelan
      Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, by Joseph Phelan
      Frederic Remington's Nocturnes, by Joseph Phelan
      Magnificenza! Titian and Michelangelo, Manet and Velazquez, by Joseph Phelan
      Masterful Leonardo and Graphic Dürer, by Joseph Phelan
      Favorite Online Art Museum Features, by Joseph Phelan
      Studies for Masterpieces, by John Malyon

      Portrait of the Artist as a Serial Killer, by Joseph Phelan
      Renoir's Travelling, Bonnard's "At Home", by Joseph Phelan
      The Philosopher as Hero: Raphael's The School of Athens, by Joseph Phelan
      The Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization
      Celebrating Heroes; Celebrating Benjamin West, by Joseph Phelan
      Chasing the Red Deer into the American Sublime (Education and the Art Museum, Part II), by Joseph Phelan
      Planning Your Summer Vacation, by Joseph Phelan
      Education and the Art Museum, Part I, by Joseph Phelan
      Unsung Griots of American Painting, by Joseph Phelan
      The British Museum COMPASS Project, interview by Joseph Phelan
      Robert Hughes, Time Magazine Art Critic: Biography and Writings

      Software review: Le Louvre: The Virtual Visit on DVD-ROM, by Joseph Phelan
      Tragedy and Triumph at Arles: Van Gogh and Gauguin, by Joseph Phelan
      Her Last Bow: Sister Wendy in America, by Joseph Phelan
      Love, Death and Resurrection: The Paintings of Stanley Spencer, by Joseph Phelan
      Who is Rodin's Thinker?, by Joseph Phelan
      Celebrations North and South, by Joseph Phelan
      Rubens and his Age, by Joseph Phelan
      Great Reproductions of Great Paintings
      The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Edouard Manet: Public Spaces, Private Dreams, by Joseph Phelan
      Henry Moore and the British Museum: The Great Conversation, by Joseph Phelan

      Notorious Portraits, Part II, by John Malyon
      Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
      The Other Michelangelo, by Joseph Phelan
      The Art of Drawing, by Joseph Phelan
      Poussin and the Heroic Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
      Great Art Museums Online, by Joseph Phelan
      Venetian Painting and the Rise of Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
      Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art, by Joseph Phelan
      Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Web site review: Christus Rex
      Web site review: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., by Joseph Phelan
      Online exhibit review: Inuit Art: The World Around Me, by John Malyon
      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)
      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)

      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)
      Spotlight on The Louvre Museum
      Spotlight on Impressionism
      Spotlight on Optical Art
      Spotlight on Animals in Art
      Spotlight on Surrealism
      Spotlight on Sculpture
      Spotlight on Women in the Arts
      Spotlight on The Golden Age of Illustration
      Spotlight on Vincent van Gogh
      Spotlight on Great Art


Top 30 Artists
Art News
Art Museums Worldwide
About Us