Saturday, October 22, 2011

Secret Influences 8: Dali Denied

Like many a young male student I went through a Salvador Dali phase around 1988-89. The presence of his art on dorm walls appears not to have abated over the last two decades--one look around the Imaginus poster sales on Canadian campuses will reveal scores of Dali prints on display, many of which sell out.

As an undergrad I was under the sway of Dali with reproductions of "The Persistence of Memory," "Metamorphosis of Narcissus," "Swans Reflecting Elephants" and several others on my residence walls. Even though I was a perpetually broke student I managed to save up enough coin to purchase the two-volume Taschen hardcover edition of Dali's complete paintings: at the time, and for many years after, it was the most expensive book I owned.

But as deep as the obsession was, it was also fleeting. I think it was particularly the effect of reading through the collected painting that Dali lost his lustre: his work soon became repetitive, his tricks obvious, and his psychoanalytic symbolism immature. His posters soon came off the walls, and I eventually sold the Taschen collection to help with the rent during one sadly destitute month.

And this rejection occurred even before I knew about Dali's politics and repugnant personality.

One of the hardest things about teaching my course on Surrealism at York is trying to convince students that Dali is relatively unimportant to how Surrealism, as envisioned by Andre Breton, arose and evolved. In fact Dali became the public face of Surrealism only in a Hollywood or Disney sense; to the literary Surrealists he was a sell-out, a clown, an avaricious opportunist. Breton memorably dubbed him Avida Dollars, an anagram of Dali's name which deservedly caught on and stuck with Dali until his death.

But this wasn't just professional jealousy--even stronger than the Surrealists' distaste for Dali's greed was their rejection of his clearly fascist politics. And it was not just Franco whom Dali courted, but dictators and despots of all types as this opinion piece by Vicente Navarro from a few years ago makes shocking clear.

I do get some leverage at my dismantling of Dali after showing Un Chien Andalou, and informing the class about Dali's cowardly snitching during the U.S. anti-Communist period, an action which resulted in years of hardship and exile for Luis Bunuel. Strangely, most students find this the most telling evidence of Dali's idiocy, rather than his fascism, which I suppose they might justify by Dali's desire for "stability" in his homeland (but what about Picasso and Miro, I say, they were never fascists....)

So while many of Dali's images may be indelibly inscribed somewhere in my subconscious, these days the only lasting influence from Dali on me would be his "paranoiac-critical method," a system of composition where one would get into a certain mental state and contemplate an object until phantom images and associations would arise which were related to the object but not in a direct or rational way. This appears in countless Dali paintings from eggs turning to sunsets to a bust of Voltaire disappearing into a slave market. As even Breton admitted, this method works well, even for poetic composition, and I've used it in the past to generate some pieces such as "Hydra" where a mediation on the mythical monster transformed into an exploration of an industrial assembly job I once worked at, and it also appears in some of my recent translation projects such as "Stanzas" and "Etc Phrases."

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