“Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears” in on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 12, 2023. Below is an article from Art in America‘s July 1945 issue, published before Dalí was the blockbuster artist he is today. The article discusses the Surrealist’s paintings from the 1930s, the same decade that is the focus on the AIC exhibition.
To any student of modern trends in art it is readily apparent that Salvador Dali’s present position is at best a most ambiguous one. The “experts” and “critics” have consistently refused to assign him any lasting or consecutive place. They still seem to regard his influence as unimportant upon anything except possibly advertising art, and – as has been facetiously said – himself!
And yet it is well known that during the ten years, 1930-1940, Salvador Dali cut a wide and glittering swath across the fields of art in general and surrealism in particular. He came to the United States on the crest of the surrealist wave which did not reach this country till the early 30s, just in time to recompense us for the lost realities of the fat years of the late 20s, in time to offer the American public a world of fantasy far more acceptable than the realities of the depression. Dali had the ability to abstract and refine all the real values of the movement. He was therefore able to present to America the very essence of it, ennobled by the full effect of his intricate personal symbology. But he far eclipsed the surrealists, for he did not fall heir to the psychopathologies which finally caused the movement to die out in fitful, pathetic sputters in the flesh pots of Europe. With his sheer technical mastery and natural flare for publicity, he was able to make surrealism in America his own, and to exercise a profound influence on art as a whole because he had freed himself from the shackles of a minor movement, and stood as a symbol of freedom from the inertia and lassitude which overtook art after the stimulation of surrealism was lessened by use and familiarity and dissensions. He therefore gradually became synonymous with all that surrealism implies in art both here and abroad, while the original surrealists, one by one, have fallen into all varieties of second class discard. And his symbols slowly became the actual symbols of the movement to the “uncretinized” masses in whom the new socialization of culture was creating an intense demand for sensations far beyond what has always been considered in good taste for culture and art among the wealthy. The soft violoncello, the cephalic deformation, ants, the grasshopper, the deflated head of the masturbator, the Angelus, the crutch; all these and many more, came to be accepted as the original manifestation of an irrational surrealism, of a Hollywood madness which the newly awakened to art could at least talk about if they could not understand.
So Dali emerged from this productive decade having succeeded in almost completely identifying American surrealism with his own symbology, at least in the popular mind. This was an accomplishment of no small scope, and may yet prove to be of tremendous ultimate importance in the artistic history of our time.
But by and large the critics and the inner circles of the art world have remained stonily unimpressed by Dali’s concepts and conceits, refusing even to be amused. Only a very few museums have examples of his work, and those examples are about equally divided between gifts and purchases. Many important new books on art decline to give Dali any real recognition, implying he is either beyond the scope of the work, or has become too controversial a subject to merit a place in contemporary appraisals of artistic influences. Now that Dali has virtually forsaken easel painting for a wide variety of projects in the fields of ballet, opera, portraiture, and writing, as well as special promotional assignments, one may look back over the past fifteen years of his career and observe with some perspective what he has accomplished, and wherein he will perhaps be charged with failure.
There has no doubt been some chicanery in his career, artistic and other, wise. The aura of his antics has to no small extent permeated, and perhaps to some esthetes, tainted his works. But withal, his recorded dream world stands like a splendid if somewhat deprecated monument to his genius. His easel paintings of the 30s will eventually come to be regarded as immortal sign posts pointing the way out of a sloppy, hopelessly jumbled, and decadent surrealism, as well as a way out of the general impasse in which all art found itself about this time when there were no great innovators or leaders except Dali, and one or two other geniuses.
Yet Dali has always managed to stand apart from the minor movements in modern art, like a Leonardo of the age, and as such – an individualist – he is still subject to attack by the proponents of a socialized or popularized art. If these regimentalists had their way they would systematize art, claiming such a sterilizing procedure would make it readily teachable. And they would eliminate all eccentricities, irregularities and innovations from it. Since they could not account for Dali they would eliminate him by minimizing his influence and accomplishments in somewhat the following vein.
Dali will undoubtedly be called a casualty of the war, for since he left Spain and his native Catalan background, he has perhaps tended to reminisce rather than to create, has tended toward seeking the lucrative in art, rather than the verities of it. It might be charged that the novelty of his symbology ceased when he left the old world, and that since he has been in this country he has painted more like a man influenced by Salvador Dali than like Dali himself. It will be said he has merely parodied his own work, and that one by one he has prostituted the sacred symbols of his own distinctly personal surrealism to common commercial ends. It will be said that his symbols are like Frankenstein’s Monster, turning against their creator. When he sits down to paint he will be likened to an old maid making Dali samplers. His works will have lost their punch, the age of his dream-whimsey will have died, he will become victimized and ridiculed by his own cosmology. The surrealist symbols he elevated to be art in the popular mind were adapted to various publicity stunts. The telephone which he originally taught was fraught with the timeless significance of Munich will be likened to a night club ad; the ant which he said was the delicate symbol of the jewel-like matter of our own eventual decay will become associated with a gross caricature of itself on a necktie; the dream, like lassitude of the perfect clouds from the fruitful decade will be said to have degenerated to sharp and thinly-painted frou-frou to embellish expensive portraits. He will be pointed out as a man who mimicked his own surprises to the point where they no longer surprised anyone, to the point where no one will ever take his symbology or intentions seriously again.
Some critic is sure to point out before long that everything seen in Dali’s most serious works is being seen again in parody form in stocking ads in Vogue, or vastly blown up on a ballet curtain, or even taken for a background of a musical show. Such reexpression of his original artistic dream surrealism is undoubtedly remunerative, but it does provide a fine target for the critic who can logically raise the question if Dali ever had anything else in mind but an ultimate commercial exploitation of his art, and if that fact having been perceived by connoisseurs has not militated against his mastership in art. Such a reuse of the established symbols will indubitably be said to be bad for his artistic reputation, for no museum will value a picture – a masterpiece – which has been parodied in a necktie pattern and advertised in Esquire – at least not until the necktie has been forgotten for a long time!
And yet such tactics have made Dali and his intimate personal concepts the talk of every shop girl in the land! That art should be for the masses, that the luxury of the little private madnesses and eccentricities is no longer exclusively reserved for the well-to-do, but can now be indulged in by anyone to whom Dali has brought his symbols, is a matter of such fundamental and tremendous importance to the art world that its significance has barely begun to be apparent. Even the bourgeoisie puts up a feeble protest against any novelty in art, especially any novelty which hints at their own neuroticism and fear of change, by calling Dali childish and insane. It will be said in resistance to Dali’s exceptional originality that such a broad concept of art as would admit his artistic antics is not really “art,” but merely an immediate and shrewd merchandising of it.
Someone may also point out that Dali perhaps defeated his own purpose in his publicity stunts and sensational painting, for while he thereby achieved a momentary fame in Life and Sunday Magazine Supplements – fame of a rather “notorious” kind because it was among the masses he at the same time made himself shocking and undesirable to the often ultra-conservative persons who control the purse strings of museums and so in turn the somewhat sanctimonious judgment of the director in his inner office. It is obvious that the tone of many museum collections is all too of ten determined by the spinsterish tastes of affluent donors behind the scenes, not the progressive student or even reasonably emancipated. visitor. Many museums also have a policy of waiting until an artist’s work becomes rare and expensive, and make the tacit assumption that these two facts have made him immortal, famous, or both, and hence desirable as a “public” possession. This policy, coupled with the chicanery sometimes attributed to Dali, no doubt accounts for so few of his works being in permanent museum collections. However, it will still be remarked against the artist that he counted on the somewhat sensational society people whom he paints in his portraits to extend their influence for him into the inner circles of art, while actually it is not this gala group at all that determines what is what in art. It will therefore be said that the reason Dali is achieving such a fundamentally limited representation in the art museum is that he has not really been as shrewd a merchandiser of technique as he thought he was, implying that he should have addressed him, self to the real powers in the American Art World: the staunch, gray dowager, and the retired, conservative corporation director, and the museum visitor who writes indignant letters about any novelty that comes his way. To such people, the content of dreams is without a doubt a shocking memory, and nothing to be perpetuated on institutional walls!
Before long some one will undertake a survey of Dali’s influence upon advertising art. Innovators in this field where novelty is at a premium were quick to sieze upon the deep perspective publicized by Dali in such pictures as The Font and Shades of Night Descending. Almost overnight the tone of the slick paper magazine ad was changed. Yet Dali’s activities in this direction, while they had a far-reaching influence on American Art as well, will, however, probably be said to have lowered the value of his serious works. All the nostalgia of one of his masterpieces will be found in a garter ad in the Saturday Evening Post. He will be accused of bring, ing the lofty concepts of his art into a realm where they could not descend without cheapening their ultimate value as museum pieces. Yet on every hand we now accept ads with ridiculous dream-world juxtapositions of extraneous objects selected for their incongruity. A few years ago, before Dali, our sensibilities would have been outraged.
In literature a great many dream worlds exist which are accepted as masterpieces. Yet in the field of painting a curious taint attaches to any picture which is the least bit experimental in its subject matter. Many “art masterpieces” are experimental, even insane, in technique, and yet they are accepted by the very conservative. But where the subject matter is not in accord with even the most drunken preconception of reality, the work is slighted even though the technique is perfection itself.
There remains one chink in Dali’s armor. This is not an age of great artistic freedoms. Wherever there are purges, bannings, and bowdlerizings, radical artistic concepts like Dali’s will be automatically subject to critical interpretive readings in the search by both sides for alien motives. There is no avenue of neutral gray between the black of one side and the white of the other down which an artist may walk in freedom, for if such paths were left open to the artist they would also be open to the average man whose horror of war is becoming increasingly pronounced, but whose conceptions cannot yet seem to encompass a vast zone of freedoms between various ideologies. It is too bad that an artist and his art cannot exist apart from the conflicting political movements of his times. The fact that Dali has never come out with any clear-cut statement as to his political leanings means that he and his art are both probably suspected by the party in ascendency as well as by the party being submerged. There is also some reaction against him as a result of his being a foreigner, a feeling that he has come to this country merely to cash in on it, not to become part of it. Such sentiments are just as jejune as saying that because the titles of his works are often almost facetious or without the brief dignity ordinarily attributed to ‘masterpieces,’ his works are not finding their way museum, ward. The Average Atmospherocephalic Bureaucrat in the Act of Milking a Cranial Harp is a title, which while it might distract a routine mind, nevertheless to a free mind connotes a free artist.
But in spite of all these varied potential counter-arguments, there still seems to be an ultimate destiny of some importance for Dali’s works, even though that destiny may be but dimly perceived at present by professional critics who in most cases dismiss Dali as a mere clever artistic mountebank. Dali has always painted with some purpose, a far vaster and more com, prehensive purpose than is found in the works of the lesser surrealists and more conventional artists of the period. One sometimes gets the feeling that the average surrealist, whose inspirations on the whole were remarkably limited and one-tracked, disowned Dali out of sheer jealousy of his manifold talent and inclusive concepts which of course enabled him to make a far better living than the small fry of the movement. All too of ten such fundamental and human motivating factors are overlooked in art criticisms. One critic actually remarked in effect that Dali could not create great masterpieces while living in a swank hotel. Such a statement probably tells one more about the man who made it than about Dali if one stops to think it over.
From the very beginning of his productive years Dali manifested a tremendous energy and versatility which enabled him to encompass without copying all the major aspects of surrealism as expressed in the works of minor artists of the times. He has always been an exquisite miniaturist. Under a magnifying glass the detail of his works maintains all its precision and perfection. Works so incredibly fine and delicate, like a dream land, scape, are reminiscent of reality rather than realistic. It is as though one were focusing on some memory through the wrong end of a telescope. Or again, it is as though one were studying a color negative of an actual scene. Should the topic of a Dali painting ever be presented to you in reality, it would be recognizable immediately from the “color plate” once seen in the painting. Infinite detail beyond the scope of most artists is an essential to such visions. Yet for the obtuse or slightly unimaginative person, the subject matter of a Dali canvas of ten acts to obscure all the classical perfection of the painting itself. Such an individual should realize that Dali does not produce a mere picture: he far transcends the commonplace reality, and snatches details from his subconscious mind which are of ten gruesome and fantastic, even though such details stem from classical memories of Vermeer, Leonardo or Raphael (as in The Madonna of the Birds). Dali’s memories are probably not without conscious direction; and they are sometimes distorted in the mutation to the point where their impact ceases to be surrealist and becomes of a far more comprehensive importance to the field of art in general in perpetuating renovated or revivified twentieth century conceptions of the conventional classics. Everything else in life is being modernized, why not modernize some established conceptions? This type of classical inspiration for Dali’s surrealism, however, is not to be confused with his more whimsical inspirations such as The Ship, wherein he begins with an ordinary color print and imposes his vision upon the original conception.
Dali has given impetus to several potential or nuclear movements in art, particularly in the field of psychological art, which have not yet begun to be apparent for two reasons. First, we are too preoccupied with war and its implications to demand or require novelty in art; and second, because Dali’s colossal conceit in evaluating his own potential influence on art in his Secret Life has acted to inhibit any immediate claimants to such an impertinent influence which could possibly predict its own importance in a field as vagarious as art. Nevertheless Dali himself is adept at expressing in his works all the things in life which ordinarily cannot be made verbally or pictorially explicit. Since these things do not have the familiar and reassuring outlines of sanity and reality which would tend to make them acceptable (perhaps in the guise of experimental art) to the good, stolid citizen, it may be said that Dali is painting years ahead of his time. But the times are fast catching up. Our wars with all their vast contradictions, and our increasing industrial crimes against man’s simple nature are generating a vast audience of psychoneurotics to whom Dali will make an increasing amount of sense.
Surrealism originally was the only means of expression available to sensitive persons, paranoiacs and other mild neurotics who could not stand the dissolutions and disillusions of the previous postwar world. There will always have to be some terrific and often neurotic compensations for the horrible tensions and vicarious moral freedoms which are so promiscuously enjoyed during war time. These compensations previously culminated in the surrealism of the 20s, as far as art was concerned, and out of the maelstrom of compensations Dali emerged to redeem art from the slapstick and undisciplined heritage of an expressive surrealism, which was trying to reincarnate all the madness of war and its sentiments neurotically, without the benefit of cannons and machine guns. It was only natural that surrealism should stir the course of art then, as war did the course of humanity.
What will the repercussions on art be ten or fifteen years after we have done without the current hypnotic hysterics of war? When there is no more war anymore, there will be no compensating social conditions to produce the environments which succor the relatively harmless madness of surrealism. We only need a super-reality (a Dalinian dream world) when society foists an intolerable reality upon us. Therefore the future may well see a resurgence of some type of surrealism, possibly revolving around certain elements of the Dalinian symbology. By remaking advertising techniques Dali has already laid the ground work for the future acceptance of himself in the popular mind. The need for such an escapist cosmology as Dali’s, such an interpretive madness, such an ultimate free, dom for the individual mind as Dali propounds in his paintings wherein he most eloquently pleads for the right of every man to his own madness, is engendered because even adults must have some place where they can escape robot bombs, regimentation, and indeed our very sanity which seems to lead us into war. Dali is the one artist who energetically picked art up from the post-surrealism (post war) doldrums and is carrying it over to the next “ism.” He is the link between the art of postwar yesterday and the art of postwar tomorrow.
Dali constructs a heaven which is found in a capricious reality imposed however incongruously upon the elements of what for more and more people may yet prove an intolerable one. Dali teaches a super-experience one can enjoy while living, no matter how precariously, and his truths become the more apparent as one grows less able to stand the realities of what the senses actually convey. Dali’s paintings will have an increasing amount of appeal to a scientific nation, for the science of humanity lags far behind the science of things; and as we become more highly industrialized we become more maladjusted, more neurotic, more in need of irrational comforts such as Dali provides.
Thus Dali’s surrealism, or something stemming from it, actually may yet become one main hope for the survival of a basic artistic freedom from regimentation in the postwar era – a freedom from a cruel, rational reality. Reality may well prove to be insupportable again for sensitive people, esthetes, and others. They will have no enthusiasm for anything in art except what does not remind the beholder of the potential postwar chaos, of all the tragic disillusions which follow the cool breath of Victory, of new W. P. A.s in art, of all the floundering disjointed souls who cannot find peace because the narcotics of war are being denied them. They will only be able to find equivalent excitement and release in the intensified experience of their imaginations in which realm Dali has been pioneering with such purpose for so long.
One may still see Dali’s imaginative dream world symbology reborn, revitalized, becoming the very symbols of hope for the distraught neurotic masses of the world. By then people will probably finally realize that they have been horribly fooled by a “correct” rational reality. They will be ready to accept the reflowering of a human, an irrational surrealism which can bring all the comfort and stimulating distractions of a magic world to them as cultural neophytes. If this should happen, the high purpose many feel inherent in Dali’s darting surrealism will have more than triumphed over the charges made against it, and established the artist in the permanent annals of art. If it does not, then the socialization of art will probably have become complete, and Dali’s works will remain as final (and no doubt suppressed) tributes to a dying individualism in a world of regimented and enervated art.
Editor’s note: The original article published in 1945 did not include an accent mark on Dalí’s name.