Salvador Dali's head was a crowded place. Old preoccupations jostled for position among new ones that he acquired as a voracious and lifelong student of cultural, intellectual and scientific currents. If he frequently chose to bend them to his own ideology, well, so what? It makes for intriguing art.
"Myth in Dali's Art" at the Salvador Dali Museum examines the personal mythology the Spanish surrealist developed as he matured, using examples from the permanent collection rearranged by curator Joan Kropf.
Not for him were the better known stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Dali's oedipal issues, for example, were filtered through the beloved fable of William Tell, the legendary 14th century crossbow marksman who inspired the Swiss rebellion against Hapsburg domination when he was forced to shoot an apple from the top of his son's head or be executed. Instead of heroic, Tell's actions to Dali were instances of paternal domination, mirroring the artist's tortuous relationship with his own father.
In Memory of the Child-Woman, a bust of Tell is perched on a rock with holes suggesting the eyes and mouth of a mask. Below Tell's grinning face, the bust is feminized with breasts. References to his mother are written on the stone. Dali himself is represented by a tiny image of his Great Masturbator floating on a blue sea. In the foreground, a box holding timepieces is topped by a large key and in the background are glimpses of the rocky bay near his childhood home of Port Lligat. An androgynous couple embrace. The painting is crammed with recurring images, as are most of his paintings, recombined as a complex, even confusing and contradictory, exploration of his fears about emasculation, sex, desire and death. It was finished in 1932, three years after he posed for a photograph with his muse Gala, standing with a sea urchin balanced on his shaved head instead of the apple. (Sea urchins were his father's favorite food.) His father had recently banished him from the family, furious over his liaison with Gala, an older married woman, and paintings he considered outrageous affronts, so particular biographical references are easily made. But as with everything Dali, the images and symbols do not connect as a smooth narrative but as a series of questions Dali seems to pose to himself about who he is and wants to become.
One of the oddest inclusions in Dali's mythological pantheon is the Angelus, a sentimental, unremarkable (though very popular) 19th century painting by French artist Jean-Francois Millet that Dali exhaustively analyzed and interpreted in paintings and drawings for about 30 years. Among those in this exhibition are Meditation on the Harp (1932-34) and Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus (1933-35). Both are centered on representations of the peasants, presumably husband and wife, stopping their work in a field for evening prayer, called by the Angelus bell from a church visible in the background.
Dali used a lot of Freudian analysis to rethink the Angelus as a meditation on woman as sexual predator. Dali noted that the female's clasped hands in the painting resemble the stance of the female praying mantis — a favorite surrealist symbol — just before striking and killing the male, for example. He also felt that the couple was there for more than piety; Dali saw them praying over the body of a dead child buried there. He knew he was adding layers of meaning that would never have been part of Millet's thinking; that was part of what Dali called his paranoiac-critical method, a "rereading of objects or images whose meaning is conventionally accepted, in order to probe for a new, invariably surrealist and always Dalinian meaning concealed within it," wrote Dali expert Dawn Ades.
In Meditation, the woman is nude and embraces the clothed man whose hat is not removed out of respect but to conceal sexual arousal. A figure kneeling before them represents Oedipus, the son who killed his father and married his mother (that he did so unknowingly was probably irrelevant to Dali), with a distended right arm supported by a crutch that the artist associated with death. In Archeological Reminiscence, the figures are formed as stone ruins. Here the woman's dominance is represented by her taller height. A small formation atop the man's head (like the apple) makes the father-son-death association.
There are other mythic themes in the paintings such as Narcissus, the beautiful youth who fell in love with his reflected image; Gala, portrayed as creator-destroyer or saint-seductress. I would have wished for more pointed explanations in the exhibition's wall labels. Often, those texts are distractions that inhibit our own discoveries about art but in this case, with the myriad ideas working through the paintings, specific references to mythological examples would have been helpful.
But these themed castings of the collection are good nonetheless. I have seen these works dozens of times, yet, in different arrangements, I always find something new. I suggest you take advantage of the free docent tours that are offered through the day.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.