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At Dali museum, surrealism can't keep still

A new exhibition shows how seamlessly the artist's symbols transfer from canvas to film and back again.

By Lennie Bennett, Times Art Critic
Published February 17, 2008


REVIEW

Dali & Film

The exhibit is at the Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg through June 1. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday with extended hours to 8 p.m. Thursday and 6:30 p.m. Friday; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $15 adults, $13.50 seniors, military and police, and $10 ages 10 to 18. (727) 823-3767 or www.salvadordalimuseum.org.

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ST. PETERSBURG

Dali in motion. That's the premise of "Dali & Film," a special exhibition at the Salvador Dali Museum. Five films and one fragment are in continuous loop throughout galleries also packed with paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture. So visitors may take the time to explore the organizing principle of the show or simply sate themselves on a feast of traditional works.

"Dali & Film" does make temporal demands. Watching all the films requires more than two hours. Even a fleeting nod to all the art on walls and in cases takes another. Book the time into your calendar; this is worth it.

Juxtaposing the artist's collaborative film projects with his static art illustrates at the simplest level the cross-pollination between mediums. Not a revolutionary idea; most artists do it all the time. But with Dali, the ideas springing from his fertile and febrile imagination amount to an avalanche of inspiration that this exhibition is arranged to highlight.

Many of the nonfilm works in "Dali & Film" are from the St. Petersburg museum's permanent collection, but just as many are on loan from prestigious international museums. It was organized by the Tate Modern, London and the Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali in Spain, which has the largest number of Dali paintings in the world. Together they exercise a lot of clout, and lenders include major museums. The paintings may be, philosophically, something of accessories for the films, but they are props of the highest order, with masterpieces in every gallery.

Dali was just 25, mightily ambitious, when he teamed up with Luis Bunuel, another young Spaniard hungry for recognition, to create Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog). The 16-minute film was a remarkable debut for the painter and filmmaker. Dali co-wrote the script with Bunuel, who directed. It launched both men into the front lines of the surrealist movement.

Its opening sequence is still considered one of the most memorable and shocking in cinematic history: A man (played by Bunuel) stands on a balcony at night and casually slices across a woman's eye with a razor. (The closeup uses a cow's eye.) A series of vignettes follows without connecting narrative, like an inexplicable dream that has some basis in reality, mostly centering on a relationship between a man and woman that ranges from lustful to tender.

Un Chien Andalou stands on its own merits, but paintings surrounding it reinforce in ways subtle and obvious Dali's recurring vocabulary of images bizarrely presented for psychological effect. Eyes, ants, rotting donkeys, hands - they're all in the movie used as symbols for his preoccupation with death and putrefaction, his ambiguity about and guilt over his sexuality.

In those early years of Dali's career, he painted some of the most distilled expressions of surrealism. Apparatus and Hand (1927), The First Days of Spring (1929), La Main (1930) and The Persistence of Memory (1931) contain the movement's hallmarks. They also demonstrate why Dali's still surfaces could translate smoothly - ideologically if not always literally- into moving pictures. His point of view is sweeping, even in the tiny canvases. They're framed cinematically, full of dramatic shadows from beyond the picture in some instances. He was a classically attuned painter who used modern devices that look photographic without photographic realism.

The order of the exhibition is mostly chronological and leads us from the groundbreaking Chien to L'Age d'or (The Golden Age), his other collaboration with Bunuel a year later. Grander in scope, the hour-long film is now considered more the work of Bunuel than Dali, though his creative imprint is all over it. It also examines desire and love against a backdrop tense with political overtones and cultural commentary, especially concerning religion, a salvo with Communist leanings against the European right wing. Sexual repression, for instance, becomes allied with human oppression. And a dog gets kicked. (Some have seen that as a nod to the first film, in which there was no actual dog, others a metaphor for impotence, personal and political.) It was provocative enough to be banned by the government and greatly offend the Catholic Church. (A Marquis de Sade character bears strong resemblance to traditional depictions of Christ.)

Dali at that point had become enamored of Gala Eluard, wife of the poet Paul Eluard. His father disapproved of the union and then became enraged by several works his son created that graphically represented his ambivalent feelings toward his parents. His father disinherited him and banned him from his hometown of Cadaques. Bunuel, who was filming beach scenes there (echoes of Dali's paintings) made a conciliatory gesture of filming a two-minute home movie of Dali's father and stepmother at home walking in the garden and eating sea urchins. (It's shown in the gallery with L'Age d'or.)

Embracing film

Dali pitched a lot of ideas for movies, especially after frequent visits to the United States beginning in the 1930s. He had been tossed from the surrealist camp for straying from its canons, basically accused of selling out for monetary gain. He did align himself with commercial ventures, many of which he saw as a form of performance art. The double image and optical illusion were emerging as motifs in his paintings, as in Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) and Enchanted Beach With Three Fluid Graces (1938) that have a new fluidity suggesting motion.

In 1944 Dali designed the famous dream sequence from Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, joining Dali's famous hallucinatory, dreamlike vision with mainstream moviemaking. That portion of Spellbound is in the show (not the entire movie) along with sketches and studies for the set and a huge canvas backdrop Dali painted. One of the predominant visual metaphors is an eyeball.

Cutting wit

Chaos and Creation, which Dali made with photographer Philippe Halsman in 1960, is sometimes considered the first video art, and Dali's wicked, piquant humor is rampant throughout. He takes aim at modernism, especially at Piet Mondrian, famous for spare, cerebral grid paintings. He created his own wood "grid" that contains several pigs and a model who at one point are almost drowned by a deluge of popcorn. Dali was serious about his belief in chaos as a partner of creativity, the second emerging from the first under the controlling hand of the artist. But his way of promoting that belief is hilarious.

Destino is presented as the final film in the exhibition, though it was conceived in 1946 for Walt Disney. It was shelved by the company, unfinished, probably because it was too racy for the family-friendly studio. Only in 2003 did the company decide to finish it, and it's a curiously sanitized but thoroughly believable version of the Dali world order. People morph into objects and vice versa, eyeballs and ants are profusely menacing, things decay and (because it's Disney), love triumphs but (because it's also Dali) ambivalently so. The animation is lyrical, and the rapid progression of double images and transformations is genius.

The exhibition also presents an amateurish movie Dali made for television in the 1970s about a fantasy kingdom and magic mushrooms. And the film test Andy Warhol made of him at the Factory. The artist looks amused in the first minute but becomes more uncomfortable under the closeup as the minutes tick away. It's a form of spatial and psychological dislocation we're watching, one that Dali used masterfully in his art if not his life.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.