Salvador Dalí in Havana

From surrealism to pop, from modernity to the postmodern.

Exactly 10 years ago, during a month of June that submerged Madrid in an impressive heat wave, I entered the Reina Sofía Museum whose halls were displaying an enormous retrospective exhibit dedicated to the centennial of Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). A multitude stunned by the high temperatures formed crowds in front of the landscapes of Cadaqués populated by mutilated bodies or in front of the sofa that reproduced the lips of Mae West, the femme fatale.

Though not all of Dalí was there, what was on exhibit perfectly demonstrated that that eccentric artist was more than a surrealist. He had overflowed the boutades of avant-gardism to discover in advance the twists and turns of the postmodern aesthetics, from the intertextual games to the manipulation of the very figure of the artist, voluntarily turned into a media phenomenon. The Catalonian creator did art when designing the scenarios of a ballet as well as when conceiving an amusement park, a catwalk or the window of an important New York store. Always avid for money and fame he even designed the logotype of the candies Chupa Chups in 1969. While a younger artist, but no less provocative, Andy Wharhol, proclaimed him his real master, many others condemned him for his egotism, his complicity with the Franco regime and his betrayal of the surrealist movement.

Salvador Dalí was never in Havana. Perhaps the island did not attract him or he found out that admirers and followers of his rival Pablo Picasso inhabited it. In fact, while Amelia Peláez, René Portocarrero, Mariano Rodríguez, used some of the Malaga-born artist’s findings to renovate the island’s visual art and Alejo Carpentier repeatedly extolled the contributions of that total creator to the 20th century, only some anecdotes, superficial references about Dalí circulated in the country. This became more serious around the 1960s when certain theoreticians with a Marxist manual under their arm found in the figure of the author of The Persistence of Memory the perfect black beast: a man at the service of the reaction, of the big capitals, a traitor to the thinking of the left, a cultivator of irrationality and alienating art, in short, what no “new man” should be. That face with a Velázquez style moustache disappeared for a long time from our screens, large and small. But he who could achieve everything, from scandalising New York society to being named Marquis of Pujoy by King Juan Carlos, has at last arrived in Havana a quarter of a century after his death and no less than to the privileged space of the Museum of Fine Arts, which since July has been exhibiting samples of some of the most notable series of his engravings.

Accompanied by a heat not very different from that of Madrid in 2004, the public comes to see those pieces that are a landmark of the artist’s evolution. The oldest group of engravings is very significant: the illustrations for the Cantos de Maldoror of 1934. Here we are before the clearly surrealist Dalí who tries to not illustrate the hallucinated text of Ducasse, but rather emulate with him in imagination and aggressiveness. The engravings are full of figurations that will become persistent in his work: mutilated or frankly decomposing bodies held up by forks, soft clocks, pianos of the same consistency, dead trees, threatening insects. Late that same year the painter would be submitted to a “surrealist trial” for his alleged complicity with Nazism and expelled from the Movement. He would reply with his famous phrase: “I am surrealism.”

I have to confess my special interest in another series, the lithographs to illustrate The Divine Comedy. Here the creator’s work procedure is more sophisticated. It is evident that Dalí read Dante’s text in one of its Spanish editions of the early 20th century, which were inevitably accompanied by the illustrations by Gustave Doré and, in fact, many of Salvador’s engravings are extremely free versions, but not so much that the reference is not perceived, the tribute to that artist. In these pieces we discover the creator of excellent academic formation, skilful draftsman, who can give his visions a classical presence, without lacking in strength, expressiveness and novelty because of this. Doré’s visions almost always lose the face, but gain in disquieting details, in shadows, in movement and the very colour he gives them has a particular eloquence. The group of engravings shows us a reading that is respectful but at the same time updates that canonical work.

In Las doce tribus de Israel (The 12 tribes of Israel) there is a different Dalí, very marked by the aesthetics of the North American poster and even of the animated cartoon. They are etchings coloured with stencil in which the creator tries to identify the name of each of the tribes: Dan, Issachar, Zabulun, Levi… with particular attributes, some of them biblical like Judah’s lions, others taken from the referential world of classical cultures, of the Middle Ages or of contemporary times, so that one can identify a horseman that reminds us too much of Saint George as well as discover a unicorn whose human face is a self-caricature of the artist. The result is a whole that in colouring and in the ability to appropriate heteroclite materials approaches the sphere of the illustrated story, as was done around the same time by Roy Lichtenstein and other creators of pop art.

The exhibit still offers us contributions of the 1970s by the author: a whole that evokes the annals of the great era of surrealism. They are strongly self-referential pieces, conceived as a sort of dreg of memory, which exhibit figures, fragments, shreds of images from painting, photography, posters, in the golden years of the cohorts of Breton; in its centre, of course, the image or a motif of the work of the egomaniacal Salvador is always present.

The small series of works derived from old North American lithographs must not be forgotten. Dalí resorts to a method that until then seemed the exclusive right of amateur painters: taking a known image and trying to enlarge and enrich it as a personal creation. In this case it makes the public see in the inferior part of the painting the original lithograph, while on the top is his personal version. The tension produced between one and the other work, approaching them and even more, by forcing them to form a single piece, produces an estrangement and at the same time a peculiar aesthetic pleasure. In this way the vision of the people walking in New York’s Central Park in the 19th century, or the building on fire that the fire fighters try to rescue, become a visual material full of implications.

A century and a decade separate us from the birth of Salvador Dalí, a figure extolled and at the same time denigrated by art historians. This exhibit of his engravings displayed in Havana comes to do away with certain taboos among us and to show us that behind the protagonist of the carefully published scandals there was an authentic innovator of art and its implications in the difficult transition from modernity to the postmodern. (2014)

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