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It's weird

WAG's blockbuster Dalí show illustrates why the Spanish surrealist remains both popular and polarizing

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/10/2014 (1055 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I grew up in Tampa, Fla., a half-hour from the museum housing the largest Salvador Dalí collection in North America. On a 10th-grade field trip, I taught myself how to roll my tongue standing in front of The Hallucinogenic Toreador, a four-metre-tall acid trip of a canvas depicting a bullfighting ring full of marching Venuses de Milo and giant houseflies. I feel like Dalí would have appreciated the randomness of that. The same reproduction prints I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager are currently for sale in the WAG gift shop.

Dalí Up Close, which opened to record crowds in an after-hours blowout for last week's Nuit Blanche, came as a welcome reminder of why, like so many people, I was drawn to the Spanish surrealist when I was younger. It also reminded me why (like many others) my enthusiasm dimmed a bit as time went on.

Philippe Halsman and Salvador Dali (1953)

Philippe Halsman and Salvador Dali (1953)

Santiago El Grande

Santiago El Grande

Salvador Dali, Atomicus

Salvador Dali, Atomicus

Up Close revolves around Santiago El Grande, another four-metre-tall acid trip of a canvas, this one showing a horseback-riding apparition of St. James charging out of the sea beneath a crystalline blue, cathedral-vaulted sky. The painting has all the most compelling features of Dal's postwar output -- his unique fusion of traditional Catholic iconography, scientific imagery and impenetrable dreamscapes; his superhuman draftsmanship, his soaring self-possession and bombast.

Though plainly stunning, the painting also showcases his weird and sometimes troubling politics. Dalí was expelled from the original surrealist group in 1934, partly in response to his perceived sympathies toward European fascism. Later, he would lend his support to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Santiago Matamoros -- "St. James the Moor-slayer," referring to the medieval, North African Muslims who once occupied parts of Spain -- can be understood as a symbol of violent, xenophobic nationalism, which further complicates an already complex image.

Santiago is the show's proper "masterwork," the rest comprising a rewarding mixed bag of smaller canvases, photographs and works on paper, jewelry designs and so on. Together, these offer a fascinating and fairly comprehensive picture of Dal's wide-ranging activities.

At one end of the spectrum, Remorse, or Sphinx Embedded in Sand is one of the show's few examples of Dal's "classic" surrealist output, a tiny, suitably enigmatic canvas from 1931. (His most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory or "the melting clocks," appears in the form of a painted-over reproduction from the '70s). At the other end, a series of portraits made in collaboration with photographer Philippe Halsman show Dalí playing with his iconic moustache, succinctly illustrating the artist's committed embrace of celebrity and silliness.

Dalí Up Close dovetails into a second exhibition, Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, a conservative but frequently captivating showcase of paintings spanning the Northern Renaissance to the Group of Seven.

There are plenty of highlights for fans of painting, but for fans of Dalí in particular, the show helps locate the artist within a centuries-long lineage of Western figuration. For all his calculated kookiness, Dalí was a traditionalist at heart (and a masterful one at that), which goes a long way toward explaining why his work remains so popular -- and so polarizing.

 

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

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Updated on Thursday, October 2, 2014 at 10:17 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Dalí

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