Saturday, 8 September 2007

Off on a Tangent (Part 2 of many)

Dali and Film, Tate Modern, until 9th September 2007

I like the Tate Modern, mostly for the perplexed look on people’s faces when they come across a work by Yves Klein or Jean Dubuffet. I took a couple of friends there recently (ostensibly to see the Gilbert and George exhibition) who wandered round with faces like thunder, pointing at various paintings saying things like, ‘A three year old could paint better than that!’ (it's an unwritten rule in the art world that you will hear this phrase uttered at least fifty times an hour in any major gallery showing abstract or conceptual work).

In an effort to placate my chums, I took them on the Carsten Holler slides rather than shell out £40 on entry fees (I could imagine their reaction when confronted with the Dirty Words series - “What? I’ve just paid a tenner to see a black and white photograph of the work ‘fuck’?” - so I bravely chickened out). But worry not – you’re on safer ground with Dali and Film (no dirty words, but a worrying amount of excrement).

Although Dali was partially responsible for two nutty surrealist films – L’Age d’Or and Un Chien Andalou – and worked closely with the Marx Brothers and Walt Disney, this exhibition felt a bit tenuous to me. There is no doubt that Dali was enormously talented and hugely entertaining to have around, but I couldn’t help get the feeling that no-one really knew what to do with him film-wise. He seemed to me to be a mascot/joker who hung around the big studios (his portrait of Jack Warner with his dog is hysterical, as is his portrait of Olivier) waiting for the big commission that never really materialised.

Looking at some of the scripts he wrote for the Marx Brothers (Dali conceived a scenario for them entitled Giraffes on Horseback Salad) it’s not hard to see why: one of the scripts features a melon being cut in half, and one of the halves being placed on a tortoise. And that’s it – no jokes, no narrative, no sense whatsoever – but that was all part of the fun I guess, to see what outlandish tosh the old nutter would come up with next. Hitchcock used Dali very effectively for a short dream sequence in Spellbound in 1945, and that’s about as good as Dali’s Hollywood got. His collaboration with Walt Disney – Destino – was finally made some fifty years after it was first conceived, and looks great.

The one overriding impression I got from this exhibition was the amount of times that Dali used key motifs from his most successful works, and effectively recycled them into other formats. The infamous eye slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou, which still has the ability to shock today, is recycled for Spellbound some fifteen years later (where a painting of an eyeball was cut in two with a large pair of scissors). Ants crop up in a multitude of paintings, an echo again from Un Chien Andalou, where ants mysteriously crawl out of a hole in a man’s hand. It’s like Kubrick inserting the ‘Here’s Johnny!’ moment from The Shining in every single film he ever made.

I’m tempted to argue that this proves to a certain extent that ideas-wise, Dali was probably scrabbling about for inspiration after about 1935. Many artists explore recurring themes through their work, but with Dali it all starts to get a little tiresome. A lot of his recurring themes are extremely opaque, and by the time you’ve seen the fifth variation on a theme, your attention starts to wander.

By the time Dali arrives in the States, he has completed his metamorphosis into showman and friend to the stars. No wonder Warhol was interested in him as a personality, and no wonder grumpy old Andre Breton threw him out of the Surrealist movement in 1939.

My tip? Stick with the paintings, the original source material for all of Dali’s wild imaginings. There is a brilliantly acid portrait of Shirley Temple, although quite what Dali had against her is anyone’s guess. And The Persistence of Memory gets its first showing in the UK for twenty years – what a truly nutty painting it is. But even then the floppy clock motif gets a thorough going over, so much so that you almost expect it to show up somewhere as a logo for a clothing brand. As a motif, it loses any meaning it might have had to the extent that all you think of when you look at it is ‘Dali’ – which is probably the whole point.

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