The Blog

Review: Salvador Dali at the High Museum in Atlanta

Phillip Halsman, Dali Atomicus. 1947 A couple of weeks ago, I took a two-day, one-night trip to Atlanta to see the Salvador Dalí exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I really got a kick out of it.

The exhibit centered around Dalí’s “late period.” Which is interesting because Dalí’s late period was a very long time when you consider he was relatively young when it began. His artistic career spanned some 60 years, beginning in his teens and early twenties, but the late period covers the last four decades (more or less) of his life.

From the official website:

Meet the man whose art—and personality—were larger than life. Dalí: The Late Work brings together a stunning collection of more than 40 paintings, plus film, sculptures and photographs—many never before seen in public. The exhibition considers for the first time the diverse body of work that Dalí created in the last forty years of his career. Reinventing himself during the 1940s, Dalí used his art to visually explore science, psychology, and religion—as he often said, painting the subject matter of his time.

There was indeed a marked change when Dalí was expelled from the Surrealists; he claimed that he was both more surrealist than the Surrealists, and more “classical” than the modernists. In fact, he went on to skewer and attack modern art.

(I really enjoyed the humor he employed in his video critiquing Mondrian, making a comparison between Mondrian’s paintings and a pig-sty.)

In this so-called late period, there was a definite shift toward Classical themes, techniques, and motifs. Dalí was criticized for essentially re-hashing old ideas from the Renaissance, when he was trying to update them for the Atomic Age, something he was extremely interested in, hence the “exploded” Raphael-esque heads.

It’s all about context.

Yet half a century later artists now frequently remix, update, expand upon, or otherwise react to ideas from the Renaissance and other art periods. Which isn’t really all that new, since all movements do this and always have and always will. Each generation either accepts and expounds upon or rejects and despises previous generations. It’s all very meta. That’s the whole key to understanding and appreciating art: it’s not just about the piece itself but the context in which it was created: the political atmosphere of the time when it was made, the place, the person who made it, the art that came before it, and the conversations the creator had with others.

Case in point: I thought it was interesting that the label didn’t explain what “Honey is Sweeter Than Blood” was all about. I didn’t do the audio tour, so maybe they discussed it there. I guess they wanted to keep it “safe” for the kids. See, I read in The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí that this grew out of an exchange of letters between Dalí and Lorca, with whom Dalí may or may not have had a homosexual relationship. “Honey” is code for masturbation and “blood” is code for sex. Ahem. Moving on!

So, the actual exhibit.

It was divided into three main parts, with little rooms coming off the main rooms to focus on videos or collections of small prints or drawings.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13 inches. 1931 The first part of the exhibit covered Dalí in the 1940s and had gray walls. The pieces were smaller, and there was the beginning of his more “classical” approach where “sacred” geometry was used. Dalí’s most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory was there. It’s kind of hyped, but it really is pretty amazing how much detail he crammed into such a small painting. Before I’ve thought that his skill at painting was not really that great but I now stand corrected. Dalí really was good at what he did. This first part also included Leda and the Swan, which I will talk about in a later post.

At first I thought it was odd, but after finishing the show I saw that Dalí was ahead of his time in the way he remixed Renaissance themes for the Atomic Age. The whole remix/cut-and-paste didn’t really take off until Warhol made it famous and acceptable 10-20 years later. Which is funny, because Dada, the direct antecedent of Surrealism, remixed and swirled together everything under the sun. I guess it just didn’t want to directly mix in Renaissance themes? Now we have entire subcultures built around the idea of remixing and riffing off themes and concepts old and new.

The second part focused on his more religious-themed work, and consisted of a very large version of the “Madonna of Port Lligat” and a giant painting of Saint James,the patron saint of Spain, titled “Santiago El Grande”.

Salvador Dali, The Madonna of Port Lligat. Oil on canvas, 19.25 × 14.76 inches. 1949 DalÍ scholar/exhibition consulting curator Elliott King (right) discusses the painting Santiago El Grande as it is uncrated at the High Museum. Photo by Joeff Davis. DalÍ scholar/exhibition consulting curator Elliott King (right) discusses the painting Santiago El Grande as it is uncrated at the High Museum. Photo by Joeff Davis.

The third part, which mainly covered the 1950s (and beyond), had cotton-candy pink walls. I thought the color was pretty appropriate for the 50s. It reminded me of Andy Warhol for some reason. I soon saw this was important, since Warhol borrowed a lot from Dalí in terms of how he ran his career. Then I saw the pictures of Dali and Warhol together and it all made sense. Probably because Warhol himself was inspired by Dalí to a large degree since they were both interested in commercial success. (Dalí rearranged the letters in his name to “Avida Dollars” and Warhol said that “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”) On the walls there were quotes about Dalí, several of which were from Warhol.

In fact I saw somewhere in the exhibit that Dalí’s “two most creative sons” were Andy Warhol and Philippe Halsman. Dalí and Halsman collaborated on many photography projects for decades.

Something startled me in the pink 1950s room: there were a lot of celebrity portraits set against Dalí’s surrealist backgrounds. At first I thought the celebrity portraits were fake, since I had never heard of portraits by Dali. I guess the art world has downplayed Dali’s late period so much that I never knew much of anything about it. Yet they were his, and he undoubtedly made a lot of money on them.

That Dalí did potrait commissions in the 1950s is interesting because in the 50s portraiture was nearly nonexistent, at least among the avant-garde of the art world where abstraction and modernism reigned supreme. But remember that Dalí was a renegade even to the avant-garde and ridiculed abstraction and Modern art, and made a “return” to classicism though he fused it with his own brand of surrealism.

Not bad for a guy who secretly painted in a Cubist style in his dorm room (and then got himself expelled for claiming none of his teachers were competent enough examine him for finals).

Salvador Dali', La Turbie - Sir James Dunn Seated. Oil on cavnas, 1949 One particularly interesting portrait was of Sir James Donne. Dalí thought he looked like Julius Caesar, so he put him in a gold robe and cast him as Caesar. The Donnes didn’t like it until they vacationed at La Turbie in the south of France and saw a bust of Caesar, and sure enough, the likeness was uncanny.

In closing

My only regrets are that I didn’t allot more time to see the exhibit (I got there an hour and a half before they closed for the day) and that I didn’t take my wife Hope with me. (I didn’t think she was interested, but she would’ve enjoyed a weekend jaunt away from the kids.)

So if you’re anywhere near Atlanta and need something to do this weekend, go see the Dalí exhibit at the High before it closes Sunday. Very well curated, very well tied together. Recommended!

  • Emily Blue

    The last day is THIS Sunday? Jan 9th?!

  • Brad Blackman

    Yup. It snuck up on you, didn’t it?

  • Andrew Duthie

    Brad, thanks for the review! I was about ready to resign myself to missing the show, but now I’m going to tweak my Nashville-Atlanta schedule by a day and a half so I can be sure to see it (finally)!

  • Brad Blackman

    I hope you’ll share your experience with me. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t touch on: some print series (lithographs, I believe), as well as experiments in painting stereoscopically. Yes, in 3-D. And the Marilyn-Mao thing was pretty humorous and prescient when you consider US-China relations now.