SALVADOR DALI, by Gilles Neret
This is one of the great art books of our time: well-conceived, well-written, and well-illustrated. The colours are vivid. It is amazing to find a book of this quality in paperback format and at low price. It repays repeated reading and – for the young at heart – the binding will not buckle if you carry it in your backpack!
Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989) was a Catalan artist who displayed his talent at an early age, and worked hard at his craft. It is true that Dali was an expert showman, but this does not detract a whit from the hard work and talent that is manifested in his art. The man was a consummate draughtsman and student of the classics. Where he departed from them, it was deliberate. Where he followed them, it was with a deft hand.
Neret takes us from the earliest years and Dali’s fraught relationship with his father, a notary in Figueras. But there is no attempt to reduce Dali to the product of Freudian forces. Neret lays out the facts and moves on. Dali’s father supported his talented son through art school. In our time, fathers often say: first get a BComm, then you can try art. Dali’s was more understanding.
From the start, Dali came to the attention of the Surrealists and shook them to the core. He was a popular prow of the surrealist battleship, though not the only gifted member of course. He knew them all: Breton, Lorca, Bunuel, Ernst. In due course, like many others, he was expelled for failing to constrain his talent within the limits of theory, Breton’s theory. Dali was irreverent to the core, and the surrealists were sometimes pompous puritans. Thus the Dali painting which showed a man’s underwear stained by excrement created a scandal among them. And Dali’s casual treatment of their deity, Lenin, was probably the straw that led to his expulsion.
Look at the diverse styles that Dali mastered. He could be an impressionist, a cubist, a sensualist, a classicist, and – of course – Dali. He borrowed from Millet, Velasquez and Louis Le Nian, employing double images, stereoscopic views, and much more. He wasn’t limited by technique. Rather he stood head and shoulders above most other artists of his generation and told the brush what to enfigure. If Dali shows a woman’s hips, you see the musculature beneath and the clothing on top. You also see the spirit of the woman who inhabits the flesh and the attitude of the artist.
The break with his father came early, when he found the love of his life, Gala. At the time, she was married to Paul Eluard. Dali’s father took umbrage at Dali consorting with a divorced woman and making a statement that appeared to insult his mother. The schism was never healed. But the landscape of Catalonia is present in most of Dali’s art, as is Gala and the Catholicism that is one means by which Dali straddled the gap between radical and traditional art.
Neret points out that Dali antedated Warhol in painting a Coke bottle, that he planned stage sets, produced concepts for Macy’s windows, designed a couch shaped like May West’s lips, and through his roots in the past and vision of the future became a major force in 20th century art. All this while discussing Dali’s most innovative works in just 96 pages.
If I were to criticize one aspect of the book, it’s the effort to find sense in Dali’s philosophical utterances. Sometimes they approach the rational, but perhaps Neret tries too hard. Dali was an artist, not a philosopher, despite his attempts to venture into the intellectual domain.
The book is framed chronologically, and omits little. The tragedy is that Dali’s works are scattered in diverse locations from California to Florida to Madrid and his beloved Catalonia. It’s difficult to see them all. But there’s good reason to thank the United States for its treatment of Dali during the second world war. Dali was allowed to enter and work. He survived to paint some of his masterpieces in the 1950s and after. The world would be much poorer if he’d perished in Europe. And the world would be poorer without this extraordinary book by Gilles Neret.