The Guillotine

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The Independent Culture
Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last


It was probably George Orwell who said it first and best. As he proposed in one of his essays, Dal, covetous of money and fame, yet aware that his natural gift for slavishly illusionistic pictorialism a la Bouguereau and Meissonier (whose British equivalents would perhaps be Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton) was an embarrassing anachronism. In an age of avant- gardist experimentation, he made the opportunistic decision to plug himself into modernism by painting, not the half-draped odalisques so beloved of his 19th-century predecessors, but the newly-fashionable unconscious. It is, then, only poetic justice that he is likely to be as violently rejected by posterity as have his true if unacknowledged masters.

In fact, he seems almost too easy a target. Andre Breton, the high priest of Surrealism, anagrammatically nicknamed him "Avida Dollars". Ian Gibson gave his recent biography of the man the rather tabloidy title of The Shameful Life of Salvador Dal.

Well-known is the story of how the ageing, avaricious prankster would regularly be sat down by his sinister entourage before hundreds of blank sheets of art paper to which he would then nonchalantly append his signature. Only a fool would sign a blank cheque. Such was the depth of self-prostitution to which he finally descended, Dal had absolutely no problem with signing blank paintings. And simultaneously signing away his reputation. Since, by that stage, the signature counted in the marketplace for more than the work itself, it could be argued that such contempt for the creative process was a logical conclusion to a career that had always flirted with charlatanism.

But what of the early paintings? Aren't there still Dalinian images that haven't forfeited their capacity to get under the skin? Here one confronts the fundamental paradox of Surrealism. It was a movement in which the unconscious was designed to reign supreme; yet there has seldom been a bunch of more conscious calculators than the Surrealists, Dal being only the most shameless.

Like Delvaux, like Magritte, he did produce what had once felt like some of the century's more meaningful and enduring icons. Like them, too, however, he so overused those icons, indefatigably cloning his soft watches and chest-of-drawer torsos until they seemed nothing more than a cheap, crude bag of tricks. In the end - and this is surely the most damning criticism to be made of any Surrealist - his dreams had become as boring as anyone else's.