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.

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MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain