August 28, 2008
Dali Exhibit – MoMA Field Trip

Recently, I went to the MoMA with my friend Arthur (a brilliant attorney from Cleveland), and had the chance to check out the films and paintings of Salvador Dali on exhibition there. Dali is an intriguing artist because of his commitment to the dream state – his work is uncensored in sexuality, in a certain grotesque-ness, and, frankly, by the norms of waking-state logic.

“Surrealist,” is the term that defines his work, and of which his work is the most famous example. His paintings are often bright and colorful, or with bright and colorful elements against a darker backdrop, and three-dimensional space is delineated absurdly distinctly – almost like a cartoon. As a filmmaker, he created pieces with a very strange mood – and wherein the sequence of events was much more akin to the logic of a dream than of any narrative, plot-based film that would qualify as mainstream entertainment.

One of the films depicts a man trying to seduce an unwilling woman, and cuts abruptly from that seduction to a shot of the man dragging a piano across the room, and then to a shot of animal carcasses. (Carcasses and ants are two favored Dali symbols.) On the surface, this just sounds frivolous, or even sensationalist. But nothing about the film suggests that it is trying to get a rise out of the audience – rather, it seems to imply that there is normalcy in even the strangest things, and that human behavior and thinking in its most normal sense is, in fact, absurd. It seems to me that the great discomfort in watching parts of Dali’s film comes not from the fact that they are unpleasant, but that it makes one realize that people are not perfect and that one’s own thoughts have at times wandered into the sublime and grotesque. In other words, Dali’s work invites the viewer to see in oneself what one finds repulsive.

Dali also created giant paintings to serve as backdrops in collaboration with the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock for his classic film, Spellbound. Painting and film were obviously very intertwined for Dali, and I relate to that a lot as a photographer trained in the medium of moving images. You can explore certain relations between shapes and symbols in a 2-dimensional picture, and then it’s something else entirely to take the picture of that moment, and explore it in the continuum of time and space. Both of them were interesting to him, and to me, for the different ways they allow a thought to be explored – singularly as a moment, and as an inseparable part of a greater, broader context.

My favorite part of the exhibit, by far, was a lost collaboration between Dali and Walt Disney, circa 1946. “Destino,” was to be a feature animated film, made by animating Dali’s images – including several of his most famous paintings. For reasons that aren’t totally clear, the project was abandoned, but several minutes of completed footage exists, and it was edited into a short film. It is a strange lyrical story without words, that shows a woman and a man who shapeshift and look for each other in their various forms as they move through a very dream-like world. The combination of Dali images with Disney animation came out, in my opinion, bearing remarkable resemblence to the Japanese animae cartoons I was first introduced to by my brother in the early 1990s. “Destino,” looked to me to be way ahead of its time.

Seeing Dali’s work in all of its forms, made me see the value of a true vision, and the way one’s aesthetic inevitably permeates whatever medium it is one works through. It inspired me to trust my dreams, as odd and dark as they may seem, and to understand that true brilliance doesn’t always need to appear logical on the surface. In fact, sometimes connecting the “wrong” dots is exactly what leads to seeing a newer, more interesting picture.

Love this? Connect on social so you won't miss a post.