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.

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