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Betty Ann Brown


Throughout the middle of the twentieth century, the dominant art historical discourse underestimated the role of Dada and Surrealism in the modernist cannon. But with the rise of postmodernism, the critical conversation has shifted. Art historians now realize that the sibling movements anticipated many of the strategies of postmodernism. These radical early twentieth-century artists turned away from reductivist abstraction and returned to narrative: think of Max Ernst’s Freudian-infused paintings or Leonora Carrington’s mythic ones.

Marcel Duchamp as Rrose
Selavy, 1921, photograph.

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore,
“Untitled,” (Cahun and mirror image),
1928, black and white photograph.
They examined the decentered self: Marcel Duchamp’s gender-annihilating Rrose Selavy and Claude Cahun’s photographs of her multiple personae come to mind immediately.

They appropriated images from the mass media: Duchamp did advertisement-based images, as did Hannah Hoch, Francis Picabia and others.

Dada and Surrealist artists introduced installation, as Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, Duchamp’s provocative exhibition designs for the Surrealist exhibitions of the 1930’s, and Salvador Dali’s “Water Taxi.” (If you read up on “Water Taxi,” you’ll be amazed at how it anticipates Edward Kienholz’s “Back Seat Dodge.”)

And they embraced performance, for example Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire, or Dali’s dance-based piece performed at the 1938 International Exposition of Surrealism in Paris.

The Dadaists and Surrealists also began merging artistic production with artistic personality: the “my thoughts and actions are my art” approach of both Duchamp and Dali has been echoed by later celebrity artists from Yves Klein to Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons.

One aspect of the Dada/Surrealist anticipation of postmodernism that has been less emphasized is the way that these radical early twentieth-century artists violated the time-honored hierarchies of privileged art media and elitist art content, blithely mixing precedents from the so-called “high arts” with the “low arts” of popular entertainment, specifically film. LACMA’s “Dali: Painting & Film” exhibition (organized in conjunction with the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation in Figueres, Spain, and the Tate Modern, London) provides an opportunity to consider precisely how Dali negotiated the hi-lo mixture. It also encourages us to consider how Salvador Dali—and, by extension, other Dada and Surrealist artists who similarly disregarded the historic separations between hi and lo--serve as significant progenitors of postmodern media mixtures. Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, and Matthew Barney come to mind immediately as creators who self-identify as visual artists but have produced major films in the last two decades, in some cases mainstream theatrical releases. More on them later.

The “Dali: Painting & Film” exhibition is accompanied by a rich catalogue with articles by several Dali scholars. When I was an undergraduate, the term “Dali scholar” would have been considered an oxymoron. Dali was worse than insignificant to art historians back then; he was embarrassing, an anathema. Indeed, he was given a single sentence in early editions of Janson’s “History of Art,” and his film work received no mentioned at all.  Indeed, the entire movement of Surrealism merited only one paragraph. Compare this to the five full pages given to Picasso’s Cubism and you get an idea of the priorities back then. You also get an idea of how much the field of art history has had to change to make the LACMA exhibition possible.

Back to those Dali scholars. One of the most insightful is Dawn Ades, who writes in her “Why Film?” article that film and photography introduced new ways of looking for the Surrealist artist. Ades repeats Dali’s own words: “Knowing how to look is a way of inventing. . .The camera has immediate practical possibilities for new themes where painting necessarily remains only in the experience and understanding. Photography glides with continual imagination over new events, which in the pictorial realm have only possibilities for being signs.” This new camera-based way of looking allowed Dali to create chains of images: think of the ants-sea urchin-armpit hair chain from “Un Chien andalou,” the short film on which he collaborated with Luis Buñuel. Film allowed Dali to merge “’dreams and hypnagogic images, the intervention of chance of a surrealist order, the imagination and mental reality co-existing with sensorial reality.” In other words, it allowed Dali to do in visual imagery precisely what Andre Breton had urged the early crew of French poets to do with automatic writing and the other Surrealist literary experiments.

Ades adds that “the reverie, dream or nightmare is Dali’s most effective cinematic model, in which, to follow Freud’s ideas, people, objects or settings can be invested with multiple and even contradictory affects.” As H. H. Arnason wrote in the first (1968) edition of his “History of Modern Art,” “The cinema medium had infinite possibilities for the surrealists, in the creation of dissolves, metamorphoses, and double and quadruple images, and Dali made brilliant use of these.”

All images © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-
Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society, 2007

Salvador Dali, “The Metamorphosis
of Narcissus,” 1929, gouache, ink
and collage, 11 1/2 x 16 2/5 cm.

Salvador Dali, “Ants,” 1929,
gouache, ink and collage,
11 1/2 x 16 2/5 cm.

Salvador Dali, “Portrait of Colonel
Jack Warner,” 1951, oil on
canvas, 106.2 x 126.2 cm.

Many contemporary film theorists have written about movies as our shared dreams. (Here I am thinking especially of Marsha Kinder, USC Professor of Cinema, Comparative Literature and Spanish, and author of numerous studies of Spanish filmmakers including, especially, Dali’s one-time best friend and collaborator Buñuel.) Dali himself called his paintings “color photographs” of his dreams. And the LACMA exhibition gives us several dream-based Dali paintings. We get to see some of his early dreamlike works created while he was a student in Madrid. And we get to see some astonishing mature works, like “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus.” (We also get to see his disturbing portrait of Jack Warner, with whom he hoped to create films.) But Dali’s paintings, however much he wanted them to have multiple resonant allusions, are static images. He needed more.

In 1929 and ‘30, Dali and Buñuel became perhaps the first artists to recognize that movies could be used to depict and evoke the Freudian symbolism of dreams. The two movies they created together--”Un Chien andalou” and “L’Age d’Or”--gave physical form to the moving, morphing, associated chains of symbolism in the young men’s dreams. Dali’s colleagues at the sophisticated college he attended in Madrid testified that he carried Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” around and quoted from it like a devout Christian quotes from the Bible. The symbolism of “Chien” is classic Freud, from the tie as phallic symbol, to the box representing female genitalia. And the narrative stream recalls the experience of dreams as well: images glide from one to another with no daytime logic, but all the associative “sense” of the night.

Chien” was screened in Paris in June 1929 and received a rather modest response (nothing like the hostile reaction that Buñuel had expected). “L’Age d’Or” was the film that elicited violent reactions and eventual censorship. Between the two, they generated enough attention to attract the interest of the commercial film industry. And as Ades notes, when Hollywood called, Dali answered. But in spite of many attempts, only two major film efforts come to light: the stunning dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and the recently-released collaboration with Walt Disney, “Destino.” And then Dali made what is “arguably the first artist’s video.” Ades explains that the paucity of completed projects was at least in part because Dali couldn’t keep up with the accelerating technological changes of the moving image media.

Whatever the cause, Dali’s relatively small production has been prodigiously influential. With the other Surrealists, and the Dada artists, Dali broke down historic barriers between fine art and entertainment. He worked against the bipolar opposition of high art and low or popular art. He helped make postmodernism possible. That means he helped make the likes of Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman and Matthew Barney possible. It’s interesting to think about these three artists’ film projects in comparison to Dali’s oeuvre.

Dali was 25 when he worked with Buñuel on “Un Chien andalou.” Schnabel was 45 when he produced “Basquiat.” Dali and Buñuel’s film was truly avant-garde in nature. (Indeed, it still is: whenever I screen it in an art history class, students are challenged and perplexed.) In contrast, Schnabel’s movie is a standard Hollywood-ized biopic.

L’Age d’Or” is Dali and Buñuel’s outrageous look at society without the superego filters that prevent us from acting directly on the sex and violence impulses that Freud says drive us. In “L’Age d’Or,” people literally “do it in the road.” Cindy Sherman’s 1997 “Office Killer” similarly addresses what happens when our inhibitions are abandoned. A mousy copy editor turns on her domineering mother and obnoxious co-workers, kills them all in classic horror-flick fashion, and piles the bodies into the basement. Much more literal and traditional than “L’Age,” “Office Killer” lacks the multivalent symbolism that gives the Surrealist film its depth.

That criticism can’t be leveled at Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle.” A five-part filmic work, the Cycle is lush, gorgeous, and disturbing. It uses symbols from football fields to alchemical magic, and addresses themes from life to sex to death. Beautifully scored, rich with sophisticated CGI and other visual effects, the “Cremaster Cycle” features world-class stars like Ursula Andress, as well as the artist himself in multiple roles. Dali and Buñuel would recognize Barney as an honored heir. I don’t know if he acknowledges them as forebears.

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, still
from “Un Chien Andalou,” 1929.

Matthew Barney, still from the
“Cremaster Cycle,” 1994-2002.