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Dali’s Sexual Fantasies, Melting Watches Puzzle in Paris

'The Persistence of Memory'
"The Persistence of Memory" (1931) by Salvador Dali. The oil painting, on loan from New York's Museum of Modern Art, is on view at the Centre Pompidou through March 25. Source: Centre Pompidou, Paris

The great provocateur was not amused.

In 1979, the gala opening of Salvador Dali’s show at the Pompidou Center had to be canceled because the staff had gone on strike.

After that inauspicious start, the retrospective turned out to be the biggest triumph in the museum’s history, attracting 840,000 visitors.

With its new show, which opened on Nov. 21, the Pompidou hopes to repeat that lucrative feat.

Since his death in 1989, Dali’s reputation has declined. His relentless self-promotion, his outrageous statements and his greed -- Andre Breton twisted his name into the anagram “Avida Dollars” -- have led many to dismiss him as a charlatan.

It’s true that Dali rarely missed an opportunity to shock or to startle. His enthusiasm for Hitler’s “limp flesh squeezed into his military uniform” or for Ernest Meissonier, a second-rate painter of battle scenes, served the same purpose as his waxed moustache -- to attract attention.

In his final years, he signed prints made by others or blank sheets of paper and later complained about the many fakes that flooded the market.

This latest exhibition offers a welcome opportunity to go beyond the clowning and tomfoolery and to examine the work itself.

Hitchcock Dream

More than 200 paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures, illustrated books and films, including the design for the dream sequence in Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” leave no doubt that Dali was one of the most original and versatile artists of the 20th century.

To get you in the right mood, the exhibition organizers have created an oval entrance meant to represent a mother’s womb. The exit is a dark grotto symbolizing the artist’s brain.

Dali, the surrealist, probably would have approved.

In surrealism, a movement he discovered in 1927, he had found the ideal way to combine his old master technique with his anxieties and phobias.

His earlier works are elegant but derivative. His late output, including forays into action painting and pop art, often borders on the ridiculous. His late religious paintings are pure kitsch.

Dali never subscribed to the surrealist dogma of automatism, and it was foreseeable that Andre Breton, the Pope of the movement, eventually would excommunicate him in 1934.

Fantasy Images

Dali’s paintings are meticulously calculated images of his fantasies, not snapshots of his subconscious.

His “paranoid-critical method,” as he called it, allowed him to freely flaunt his addiction to masturbation, his impotence and other obsessions.

At the Pompidou, you find all the ingredients he used again and again in his works -- the melting watches, the crutches, the half-open drawers, the eggs, the quotations from the history of art.

Many of his most famous masterpieces are here: “The Great Masturbator” from the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans” from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and “The Persistence of Memory” from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Dali later renamed the Philadelphia canvas “Premonition of Civil War.” It’s doubtful, though, that he had the Spanish Civil War in mind, because he finished the painting six months before its outbreak.

At the bottom of his heart, Dali was apolitical. “I have always been an anarchist and a monarchist at the same time,” he said in his book “Dali by Dali.” That probably comes closer to the truth than most of his calculated provocations.

One of the weirdest items in the show is “Chaos and Creation,” the 1960 video of a happening that Dali staged with photographer Philippe Halsman. It’s a send-up of his colleague Piet Mondrian, whom he hated, with pigs, naked women and a motorbike, all ending up in a mountain of popcorn.

The show runs through March 25, 2013. From April 23 to Sept. 2, 2013, it will be at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.


(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food and James S. Russell on architecture.

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