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Salvador Dalí was, at different times in his life, an anarchist, communist, Cubist, Surrealist, monarchist, and avowed mystic. With an exuberant imagination and remarkable craft, Dalí -- a fashion dandy who once declared himself divine and managed to outrage most of his avant-garde comrades -- became one of the most prominent artists of the Twentieth Century. So bizarre and intense was Dalí's persona that it ended up harming his art.
It all happened well before his death in 1989. By the 1960s Surrealism and its premises had come to seem quite conventional. By the 1970s Freud's theories -- a backbone of the Surrealist program -- were on the decline, while feminist art theory exposed Surrealism as a "men's club," though to be fair misogyny had pervaded most twentieth-century movements. Dalí's support of Franco's regime alienated younger generations who saw him as proto-Fascist. Yet his biggest offense was his refusal to adhere to modern aesthetic (along with political) values.
But back up, to the time when Dalí helped change the way we see the world. In the late 1920s Dalí had become an important member of the Surrealist circle, with a fresh pictorial vision much needed to revitalize a movement already in crisis. His "critical-paranoiac method" consisted of probing the mind with traumatic imagery in order to tap into deeper mental states, where conscious associations slip away. This vision came to dominate approaches to Surrealist activities during the era.
After World War II, when he came to America, Dalí became increasingly retrograde and focused on commercialism. His vision veered toward the conservative, in a sense sharing de Chirico's fate of finding refuge in the old traditions (though Dalí's late art was better than the Italian Surrealist). To top it off Dalí made incursions into jewelry design and TV ads, prompting André Breton to bestow on him the nickname Avida Dollars (which Dalí then appropriated).
With postmodernism came a re-evaluation of modernist excess and its somewhat self-righteous aesthetic and political extremes. Because of the contributions of performance and installation art throughout the 1990s, Dalí's work has been re-evaluated. His work can be seen as a legitimate forerunner of installation and performance art. This is the thrust behind MoCA's "Salvador Dalí: Dream of Venus," an exhibit revisiting Dalí's huge pavilion installation for the 1939 New York World's Fair.
That fair was a unique event. A mix of trade show, amusement park, League of Nations, and utopian community, the fair had profound significance for design, architecture, and America's modern spirit. It was momentous in that it offered a promise of capitalist prosperity against the bleak reality of the Great Depression.
MoCA's "Venus" is successful in that it aptly re-creates the mood of this event with a variety of media: a sound installation arranged by Dalí, color footage of the pavilion, letters written by the Spanish artist concerning the project deadlines, some paintings, and a detailed documentation of those who mainly made the building's interior by photographers Eric Schaal and Horst P. Horst.
The idea of the pavilion, built by American architect Ian Woodner, was supported by Julian Levy, Dalí's New York gallerist and a fervent Surrealist, who defended the pavilion idea to the fair's organizers. Yet in comparison with the futurist spirit of the fair, the building could not be more archaic-looking (take a look at Dalí's anti-modernist interpretation of the World's Fair logo, on the cover of Levy's catalog for his New York exhibition). Dalí's task was no easy feat: He was supposed to create the façade, costumes, and interior design in less than two months.
Dalí's "Dream of Venus" did not follow a Futurist design -- quite the opposite. Since the early 1930s he had rejected such looks in architecture and in painting by increasingly exploiting rudimentary forms. The Venus pavilion reminds me of a Gaudí-like building, an underwater coral-embedded grotto with an amorphous façade, with references to Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Inside Dalí concocted two "outlooks" of the dreaming mind; a "wet" mind -- including living mermaids inside a pool -- and a "dry" portion with murals, mirrors, rubber telephones, watches, crutches, a taxicab, and upside-down hanging umbrellas.
After seeing some of these pieces from the late 1930s, you're reminded again why Dalí once was such a powerful artist. Don't miss the six-drawing study for The Endless Enigma. In the famous painting (not shown), Dalí used his favorite technique for achieving visual illusion by superimposing multiple images to obtain successive results within a whole. Dalí's sketches each contain a different component of the painting: a hoofed mythological beast, an Afghan hound with a philosopher lying stretched out, a mandolin, a fruit dish with pears (after the face of García Lorca), and a cyclopean cretin. They reveal Dalí's Ingres-like drawing skills.
Another prominent drawing at MoCA is the Vermeer-esque The Image Disappears, where a woman's upper body becomes a mustached man's profile. Also powerful is Telephone in a Dish with Three Grilled Sardines at the End of September, which revisits one of Dalí's much-loved metaphors: the telephone as emblem of modernity, which could be seen as ominously dark in those days preceding Hitler's invasion of Poland.