The mere mention of Spanish artist Salvador Dali evokes images of a wicked, gravity-defying mustache and melting clocks.
Often better known for his eccentric personality than his actual art, Dali is usually over-simplified when referred to as a surrealist painter, a definition that fails to portray his experimentalism as a dynamic, multi-talented artist — this is the paradox that the “Dali: The Late Work” exhibit at the High Museum of Atlanta, which will be open to the public until Jan. 9, seeks to dispel.
The exhibit, which showcases over 40 paintings, drawings and other pieces — many of which have not been displayed in the U.S. in over 50 years — attempts to elicit a fresh, unbiased evaluation of Dali’s late works, which have commonly been dismissed or criticized. While the artist gained the most critical acclaim for his surrealist paintings composed in the 1930s, this period only represents a small fraction of his prolific career, which spanned over 60 years.
Contrasting with his earlier, traditionally surrealist works, which focus on Freudian and psychological themes, his post-1940s work heavily explores religious imagery using classical techniques — so much so that the planned display of his painting Sistine Madonna
in a Surrealist exhibition in New York in 1960 elicited outrage from other surrealist artists at the time, who were typically denouncing religion and the church.
But even Dali’s late works, which have so often been discounted, retain the transcendent, ethereal qualities that brought fame to his earlier paintings. Following his expulsion from the Surrealist group in 1939, Dali attempted to redefine himself as a classical artist, although most of his paintings from this period are actually composite pieces that combine contemporary and old techniques. One of the works on display, Figure on the Rocks
, is a painting of his sister Ana Maria that weaves cubist and classic techniques together for a combination that provokes the viewer’s curiosity.
The artist’s creative genius is evident throughout the exhibit. The paintings display a variety of experimental techniques, which include burning the paper of one painting to create shadows, using paint bullets to splatter the strange landscapes and in one piece using a rhinoceros horn as a paintbrush.
The exhibit also provides a rare opportunity for visitors to encounter Dali’s other artistic forays by showcasing some jewelry designs, drawings and art composed on pop-up boxes.
Regardless of the movement he identified with at the time, Dali’s art is consistently enrapturing and mysterious. To analyze Dali’s works is to embark upon an adventure. Many of his paintings feature secret details, such as a silhouette created from the outlines of shadows or a minute model of an atom cast in the midst of thousands of other dots.
Some works reveal new images the further away you stand. Despite the seemingly incomprehensible nature of Dali’s art, the viewer quickly becomes aware that each detail — even a seemingly irrelevant one such as a dead fish, a floating ostrich egg or a carnation — is significant.
The exhibit concludes with a number of works that demonstrate Dali’s unexpected influence on contemporary pop art. Here lies perhaps one of the most stirring aspects of the exhibit: a four-minute long black-and-white film of Dali recorded by Andy Warhol in 1966. Dali makes his trademark bizarre expressions during the first half of the video but seems to tire of his theatrics toward the end, revealing his genuineness outside the popular conceptions of him as a crazy artist.
As it turns out, there’s a lot more to Dali than his mustache. When friend and photographer Philippe Halsman asked “what is Surrealism?” in a 1954 interview, the artist replied, “Surrealism is myself.”
— Contact Catherine Cai