Exhibitions: It's the surreal thing

Salvador Dali: A Mythology

Liverpool Tate Gallery

This has been a busy autumn for Fiona Bradley, one of our most promising young exhibition organisers. She has left the Liverpool Tate for the Hayward Gallery in London, and currently has shows running in both venues. At the Hayward, her task has been to impose some sort of aesthetic order on the random scraps of fashion in "Addressing the Century". The Liverpool exhibition is perhaps closer to Bradley's concerns. She is an historian of Surrealism and has devised "Salvador Dali: a Mythology" to illustrate a theory about the painter's beliefs. More about this theory in a moment.

We were not in desperate need of a Dali exhibition. There was a big show at the Hayward as recently as 1994, and one doesn't return to his canvases for deeper and more lasting pleasure. It's in the nature of Dali's art that he gives us a particular kind of visual thrill and nothing more. Personally, I find that even a small handful of Dali paintings provides an ample display of his talents. He doesn't get better when seen in quantity, especially since his imaginative fire expired quite early in his career, around 1937 or so. The Liverpool show isn't large - around 30 paintings only - and this seems a reasonable allowance.

The project feels more extensive because the paintings are augmented by dozens of well-chosen photographs. Unlike many painters, Dali doesn't suffer when we see him in their midst. Such prints can even enhance the qualities of his style. They prove that his brand of hallucinated realism gives results that the camera could never equal. Photographs also help us to explore Dali's egocentricity. Perhaps only Picasso had more love of posing for the camera. And if Dali were not such a poseur, we feel, he would not be such an interesting man. Even though we know that it was all a sham.

Surely Dali's paintings of the 1925-35 period - to say nothing of his woeful later work - were totally inauthentic. It is the manic self- assurance of his falsity that makes the pictures so striking. The Liverpool exhibition does not change our general view of Dali and his enterprises. He was an academic painter, artistically (and politically) conservative, whose work lacks true invention and creative spirit. Dali has only a marginal place in the avant-garde, a position he gained by antics and careerism. Dali brought nothing genuinely new to the art of painting and, in general, he demeaned art.

Thus goes the usual argument. But now comes Fiona Bradley, more than ably assisted by another Dali expert, Dawn Ades, who knew the artist in his old age (he died in 1978) and has subsequently been his biographer and ideologue. Ades and Bradley, the instigators of the exhibition, take no notice at all of Dali's merits as a painter. They simply assume his genius, and explicate Dali as though his art were that of a superior intellect.

Hence the disjunction of the show. The top floor of the Liverpool Tate is packed with people - for Dali is of course a popular painter - while in the catalogue are recondite and self-serving arguments about the surrealist mind. That is why the exhibition is called "Salvador Dali: a Mythology". Bradley and Ades assert that Dali's interest in Freud, his obsessions with William Tell and Millet, his fantasies about his wife - and much else - make up a consistent mythology, and that his paintings, because they illustrate this mythology, demand our attention for precisely that reason.

They should not feel so secure. Since at least the middle of the 19th century, the study of mythology has been comparative. By study of their myths we are convinced that some civilisations were greater than others. We believe, for instance, that the Greek mind exceeded the Aztec mind. It's also clear that myths have their best expression at the height of a civilisation, and that such myths were held in common. How on earth can the excitable, self-loving, money-mad, moustachioed Salvador Dali be allowed into the great discussions on western myth?

He was given an entrance through Sigmund Freud. The psychoanalyst was a father figure to Dali's imaginings. Some pieces in the first room of the show come from the Freud Museum in Hampstead. Leading them is Freud's plaster reproduction of the classical relief Gradiva. The importance of Gradiva to Dali is well explained in the catalogue. However, the pieces from Freud's collection seem detached from the main focus of the exhibition. One goes to Dali to look at his painting. Scholarship about the arcane corridors of his mind is all very well, but has little to do with our experience of his art.

Putting aside a 1925 picture of his father, Dali's paintings work best when they are landscapes. He was not a successful figure painter, and portraits of his wife are particularly bad. Dali comes to the height of his style when he takes a relatively small canvas - he always fails when he attempts a big picture - and then invites us to enter a country that slides away from the viewer into desert-like indeterminate space. Witin this space he places enigmatic or inappropriate objects. The brooding figure of Gradiva supplies an enigma. The appearance of a lobster or a telephone startles us because we think that they belong to domestic rather than metaphysical life.

Despite his attempts to shock, Dali reveals himself as a conventional painter. He owes far more to the academics of his native land than to the innovations of the avant-garde. His Spanishness says much more about him than any theory of Surrealism. These telephones, for instance. They are indebted to a style of Spanish still-life that was invented in the 17th century. Dali paints them with modish vulgarity, but obviously enjoys the display of virtuosity that was always a wonder of that tradition.

I suspect that Dali's landscapes, and his skies, were influenced by Spanish salon painting of the late 19th century. His academicism is also highly Spanish. As we know, Spanish classicism was the baroque. Dali's style is only superficially modern; really it is that of a baroque artist, brought up to admire and emulate the dramas and changes of scale seen in grandiose altarpieces. Dali couldn't escape such religiosity. It was his heritage. He may have tried to invent a mythology for his own purposes, but the Catholic church and its art would never release their hold on his pictorial imagination.

'': Liverpool Tate Gallery (0151 709 3223) to 31 January.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits