Five things you didn't know about Salvador Dali

As his biggest-ever retrospective exhibition opens in Paris, we decode Dali's iconic life through five of his most famous images.

 “Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí.”

Modesty, it’s safe to say, was not a trait which troubled Dali. The above statement, written in 1953, was typical of the self-professed ‘inimitable’ genius of the modernist art. He continues to be comemorated today, with his biggest retrospective in over three decades opening in the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

The show looks set to break records – indeed, the last time the Pompidou hosted a Dali retrospective, in 1979, it attracted such high visitor numbers that it remains unsurpassed as their most popular show of all time.
 

What exactly is it about the moustachioed Spaniard that still so captivates the public imagination? From his strange life to his even stranger canvases, here’s five things you may not know about Salvador Dali:

1. He was named after his dead brother

No one knew how to create a personality cult quite like Dali. Every aspect of his eccentricity was carefully cultivated, from his waxed moustache to his deliberately provocative statements.

Psychoanalysts, however, have suggested that these over-compensatory measures to assert his identity could stem from the fact that nine months before his birth his elder brother, also named Salvador, had died. Dali’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, tells of the fear he felt as a child whenever he saw the framed photo of his sibling in his parent’s room. Coincidentally, another iconic master of twentieth century art Vincent Van Gogh encountered the same situation - an older brother who died at birth and who's name he inherited.

This photograph is a masterpiece of self propaganda – eccentric, dramatic, iconic, an early example of an artist transforming himself into a brand. From his deliberate publicity stunts (he once delivered a lecture dressed in a wetsuit for no apparent reason), to his willingness to work commercially when he needed to (he guest-edited Vogue, advertised Ford and designed sweet wrappers), Dali was one of the first artists to cannily manipulate the media for his own publicity. Damien Hirst has a lot to answer to.

 

2.  Much of his artistic inspiration came from advancements in science

The Persistence of Memory, (1931)

This painting – The Persistence of Memory - belongs to a unique category of the iconic which, along with Munch’s Scream and Klimt’s Kiss, is more likely to be viewed as posters in teenager’s bedrooms or on ceramic mugs than on wall of a museum. Its enormous fame belies its tiny size – in reality, this painting is merely as big as two postcards.

Like the best Dali images, it hovers between the sublime and the ridiculous. Many have commented on the influence of Einstein and his theory of relativity on the image of the melting clock. Is the image of a melting clock inspired by the physicist’s reconfigured understanding of the nature of time? Or is it, as Dali himself claimed, inspired by a piece of melting Camembert? Which is it? Groundbreaking scientific theory or a cheese on a picnic tray?

There have been encyclopaedic attempts to explain the meaning behind this particular image. Cutting-edge scientific theory, however, was always a huge influence on Dali. Later in life he became fasincated by quantum physics and the Uncertainty Principle developed by Heisenberg, which inspired him to write a manifesto for a new genre of work called ‘nuclear mysticism’, inspired by the splitting of the atom.

 

3. He was slightly obsessed with Hitler

The Enigma of Hitler, (1939)

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Dali was quoted sayingI often dreamed of Hitler as a woman” before continuing to describe his obsession with the dictator in mystical, homoerotic terms. Later, in his autobiography, The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, he noted ‘Hitler turned me on in the highest’.

The Surrealists (the Parisian artistic group with which Dali had been affiliated since 1929), had no time for such statements. Andre Breton, one of their leading members, accused Dali of glorifying Hitler, and he was promptly expelled from the group.

This painting, The Enigma of Hitler, is one of three Dali images which deal with the dictator. Originally, he wanted to paint a swastika armband on the arm of the nurse-figure in his painting, but was dissuaded. Psychoanalysts have suggested that his preoccupation with Hitler may stem from his lifelong fear of his domineering father. Additionally, the teardrop hanging from the branch reflects a common motif found in Dali – drooping, melting shapes in a landscape. Psychoanalytically speaking, this trope is widely seen to reflect his fear of impotence, and certain commentators have noted that Hitler’s enthusiastic promotion of nationalistic breeding can further explain the innuendo present in this image.

 

4 –Sigmund Freud actually disapproved of Surrealism

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, (1937)

Dali and Freud have become emblematic for representing twentieth century psychoanalysis, dream interpretation and explorations of the unconscious. Contrary to popular belief, however, Freud never approved of the Surrealists or their work. He lamented the fact that they adopted him as a ‘patron saint’ and declared them ‘incurable nutcases’.

The one exception to this rule was Dali. When the famous psychologist met the artist in 1938 Dali took along this image, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, and Freud agreed it would make an excellent study for psychoanalysis. This is a painting of all-consuming paranoia; shapes seem to disappear into the edges of your peripheral vision the longer you gaze at it, whilst other, shadowy figures emerge. Few other artworks so embody the notion of starting into the Freudian unconscious.

The painting has many of Dali’s favourite tropes; a dreamscape replete with melting objects and crawling ants – often seen as reflecting death. The presence of the eggs is also typical – Dali was so obsessed with the symbolic value of the intrauterine that later in life he built a house and festooned the roof with huge, white eggs as an alternative balustrade. 

 

5 – Critics consider everything he painted after the age of 40 to be worthless

The Madonna of Port Ligat, (1949)

Although he remains one of the most widely appreciated artists of all time, the critical consensus on the value of Dali’s work almost invariably comes down to works he created in his twenties and thirties. After that, the rest of his oeuvre has been routinely dismissed as banal kitsch.

The year 1939 is the key for Dali’s career –this was when he broke from the Surrealist movement and moved from Paris to New York. Prior to that point, almost all his works are considered groundbreaking. For the fifty years following, however, the canvas’s he began to produce became repetitive, almost formulaic, and worst of all: commercial.

His later works reflect a chronic need to represent his wife, Gala, as a sort of demi-goddess. This 1949 work is typical – Gala is the model for a religious scene which elevates her to the status of a deity and recycles classic Christian motifs. The geometric holes cut into her body imply a transcendental status.

That it’s kitschy is undeniable. But, as any postmodernist will tell you, not all kitsch is without merit. Recently, certain critics have started to re-assess Dali’s late works, considering that his increasingly cartoonish style could in fact be considered a precursor to 1960’s pop art.

With this in mind, Dali’s influence on art history could perhaps be deemed even greater than previously acknowledged. The fascination with the artist, it seems, just keeps growing.

(Photo credit: -/AFP/GettyImages)

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.

@ms_kamila_k

 

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser