Dalí’s surrealist sideshow

Until November 13 at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, 12 Ul. Volkhonka, m. Kropotkinskaya
Open Tue.-Sun. 10 am-7 pm, closed Mon.; ticket office closes at 6 pm

Salvador Dalí played many parts: dandy and provocateur par excellence, who sported (and almost suffocated in) a deep-sea diving suit at a London exhibition; smiling commercialist, who hawked Lanvin chocolates on television; world-class egoist, who proclaimed that “every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí”; and sometimes, avant-garde artist.

© Courtesy of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

‘Portrait of Gala with Two Lamb Chops in Equilibrium upon Her Shoulder,’ 1934

But judging by the long line of visitors queuing up to see the new Dalí exhibition at the Pushkin Museum, perhaps Dali’s most enduring talent is attracting public attention.

“I understand what intrigues people,” said Irina Nikiforova, head of the Pushkin Museum’s European and American 20th-century art department. “It’s Dalí’s personality. He was a great showman.”

Dalí was born in Catalonia in 1904. After studying at Madrid’s School of Fine Arts, he arrived in Paris. There, he came into contact with influential avant-garde artists including Andre Breton, Joan Miró and Max Ernst. He began experimenting with a variety of styles, including Impressionism and Cubism, before joining the Surrealists and finding international fame.

The exhibition contains paintings, graphics and art objects from the museum-theatre Dalí opened in Figueras in 1974. To conjure up Dalí’s mystical quirk, renowned stage designer Boris Messerer has transformed the museum space into a surrealist installation. Walking up the central staircase, viewers encounter hanging carnival figures inspired by Dalí’s 1951 Venetian ball. Toddler-sized luminescent eggs sit on the balcony, in homage to one of his favorite symbols.

© Courtesy of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Dalí and Gala at the New York World Fair of 1939

Dalí based his art in what he called the “paranoid-critical method,” drawing on dreams and subconscious urges for artistic inspiration. This technique made for an idiosyncratic artistic language, riddled with mysterious figures such as the melting clocks in his most famous work, “The Persistence of Memory.”

But he also drew on the classical work of Renaissance masters, including Michelangelo, Raphael, and Velázquez. A 1981 painting on display the Pushkin Museum, for example, transposes a large, translucent version of Michelangelo’s portrait of Giuliano de’Medici onto one of Dali’s dreamlike backgrounds.

The exhibition spans Dalí’s career, from his first explorations in still life, to the fantastical dreamscapes of the 1930s and ‘40s, to his late obsession with religion and science. Graphic works include lush illustrations for a 1946 edition of “Don Quixote.” More playfully, viewers wait in line to peer into a small diorama of the “Mae West” room, which Dalí modeled on the actress’s face (her nostrils serve as fireplaces). Nearby stands a lifesize version of the room’s famous “Lips” couch.

Archival photos trace Dalí’s development as a public personality, as his carefully waxed mustaches (inspired by Velázquez) and theatrically raised eyebrows reached ever greater heights. They also reveal quieter moments from his life with longtime wife and muse Gala, as well as the artist at work.

Dalí never lacked detractors. The Paris surrealists who first celebrated his work and elevated him to fame renounced him in the 1930s: Breton derisively dubbed him “Avida Dollars” (a play on the French for “eager for dollars”). As the artist became cozy with Spain’s fascist regime under Franco, George Orwell declared him “a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.”

Dali remains no less controversial among today’s art experts. “I really don’t like him,” Nikiforova said. “Dalí isn’t all of surrealism.”

But if the awed crowds inside the Pushkin Museum are any indication, it seems that Dalí is having the last laugh.

Read other articles of the print issue “The Moscow News #70”

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