Mad about the movies: What Salvador Dali saw in the cinema

One of the great names of Surrealism not only contributed to cinematic art, but - as a new Tate exhibition will show - was enormously influenced by the silent films he loved. Arifa Akbar reports

Friday 19 January 2007 01:00

Long before Salvador Dali became the flamboyant founder of the Surrealism movement, the young artist's first love was film and he spent much of his youth ensconced at the local cinema near his home in the Catalonian town of Figueres.

Years later, his childhood favourites, which featured the silent, slapstick comedy of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langton, would influence some of his most bizarre and beautiful Surrealist masterpieces. They would also inspire him to collaborate with several of the 20th century's most experimental filmmakers.

Decades after he had left Figueres and established himself as one of the world's great 20th century artists, Dali would speak whimsically of the superiority of celluloid over paint and brush, and declare cinematic endeavour to be indelibly connected to artistic creativity and imagination. "The best cinema," he claimed, "is the kind that can be perceived with your eyes closed."

Born in 1904, he came from the first generation of artists for whom film was a formative influence. He admired the inventiveness of slapstick and saw mass entertainment as a healthy antidote to the pretensions of high culture which he eschewed.

The connection between Dali's art and his fascination with the cinematic image has until now, rarely been examined. But a pioneering exhibition at Tate Modern will bring into focus his love of popular culture and his intimate - and lifelong - relationship with the silver screen.

The exhibition, Dali & Film, which opens in June, promises to provide an unprecedented exploration of the central role of cinema in Dali's art. It will look at his work with film-makers, including Luis Bunuel, Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney, for whom he created some of the most memorable, dream-like scenes in the history of cinema, and also trace the influences from the silent films of Chaplin and Keaton which are distinguishable in some of his major works.

The show will bring together more than 100 works from collections around the world, including more than 60 paintings, which will be presented alongside Dali's film projects. These include Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or, both made with Bunuel in 1930, Spellbound, made with Alfred Hitchcock in 1945, and Walt Disney's six-minute animation, Destino, made a year later, for which he created the storyboard. Finally released in 2003, it was nominated for an Academy Award.

The exhibition reveals how the extraordinary dream sequence in Hitchcock's avant-garde thriller, which tells the story of a psychologist (played by Ingrid Bergman) trying to probe the mind of an amnesiac patient (Gregory Peck), is a cinematic version of the startling images of Dali's paintings, such as Melancholy, Atomic and Uranic Idyll.

In much of Dali's art, there are visual echoes of the light and shadows of the silent comedy genre, while in others, the same themes occur which years earlier, had preoccupied Buster Keaton, particularly the relationship between man and the modern machinery of the mechanised world at the turn of the 20th century.

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Matthew Gale, curator of the exhibition, said the artist's admiration for Keaton and Chaplin were clear in his work."He particularly admired Keaton for his lack of emotional expression. In his film Go West, for example, you see Keaton with a gun held to his head. He is told to 'Smile', and he uses his fingers to push up the corners of his mouth instead of smiling. It was this sort of direct and deadpan expression - and Keaton's ability to convey this physically - that Dali admired," he said.

Dali's interest in cinema later transformed into a fascination with the cult of celebrity in Hollywood. He created an iconic sofa, covered in red satin, entitled Mae West Lips, inspired by the mouth of the wise-cracking actress.

According to Mr Gale, the relationship between Dali and Hollywood was one that ran deeply. It was not just a case of reminiscence of the flamboyant artist's teenage infatuation with film, but so much more.

"In the silent films of his time, there was no language but a universal visual language, which is exactly what Dali liked as an artist. That's what he particularly admired about Hollywood silent film. Its universality."


Feature film made with Alfred Hitchcock

Dali jumped at the opportunity to work with Hitchcock. The central theme of the film is psychoanalysis, which also preoccupied much of Dali's work. Hitchcock was well aware that the film was not one of his more conventional thrillers, and he described it as "a story taking place in a Freudian world". It explores themes central to Freud's theories, including incestuous desire and repressed guilt.

Dali produced the dream sequence, for which the painting shown here is a study. The film received several Academy Award nominations including Best Effects and Best Special Effects.

Inaugural Gooseflesh

Inspiration: The work of director Luis Buñuel

The 17-minute film Un Chien andalou is famous for its opening scene, in which a human eyeball is slashed with a razor. The screenplay was jointly written by Buñuel and Dali, and it can be seen as a cinematic version of what Dali sought to create in his artwork. Some of the cinematography - such as the scene in which a figure holding a severed hand in a box is shown from overhead - reflects Dali's preoccupation with disrupting conventional perspectives. Dali met Buñuel at the Royal Academy of Arts in Madrid, and they collaborated again on L'Age d'or in 1930. Like the films, Inaugural Gooseflesh, completed in 1928, uses perspective to achieve an hallucinogenic effect

Apparatus and Hand

Inspiration: Buster Keaton in 'The Electric House'

In the 1922 film, The Electric House, Keaton plays an engineer grappling with bizarre technology, including a swimming pool which drains itself at the pull of a level. The comic wreaks havoc as he attempts to rewire the house.

"Modern technology was a significant theme in the work of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and it's one of the themes that Dali explores in the painting, Apparatus and Hand," said curator, Matthew Gale.

Accommodations of Desire

Inspiration: Harry Langdon in 'Long Pants'

In this 1927 Frank Capra film, Langdon has been kept in knee shorts for years by his overprotective parents, but is finally given his first pair of long trousers. It is not so much the theme of the film that fascinated Dali but the innovative camera angles it employed. In one scene, Langdon is shot from a birds-eye angle. The sense of panorama, raised horizons and the "manipulation of perspectives" is repeatedly used in Dali's work, says Mr Gale, but is most striking in Accommodations of Desire


Six-minute film made with Walt Disney

The storyboard was written by Dali himself in the 1940s, and this animation film contains dream-like images of mysterious flying and walking figures. The plot focuses on a woman who undergoes surreal transformations - her lover's face melts off, she transforms into a dandelion, ants crawl out of a hand and she becomes a group of Frenchmen riding bicycles. What Dali called his "paranoiac-critical method", or the linking of irrational images, such as his melting clocks and trompe l'oeil effects, is clearly recognisable throughout the film.

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