Sunday, May 22, 2005

Dali in Philly

This past week Miss L and I ventured north to Philly to take in the Salvador Dali retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you've never been there, the museum's located in one of the nicer spots of downtown Philly. Sitting on what's essentially a large traffic circle, it's surrounded by gardens and paved pathways. On a day like the when we were there--lower 70's and sunny--the paths were filled with smiling joggers, couples strolling around and little kids darting back and forth.

The exhibit itself was sold out that day, making it a bit of a cattle call. Although not the most ideal way to view art, sometimes you just have to take what you can get.

There have been a couple other exhibits on Dali in recent years, most notably a very good touring show I caught at the Hirshhorn five or so years ago. What really distinguished this one for me was inclusion of a lot of his early work. When Dali was still in his teens and living in Spain, he was already experimenting quite competently with challenging styles like Fauvism and Cubism. Although owing a lot to his idols, especially Picasso, including this early work gives people not so familiar with his history a clearer idea of his development as an artist. As he turned older his familiar iconography like ants, watches, crutches, his father start appearing in different ways. Most of his major works were present, but his version of the Last Supper, currently owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was oddly absent.

Two real gems were outside the main exhibit area. The Philadelphia Musuem uses a small theatre space that usually showcases video art and short films. This time they tied it to Dali by showing two of his contributions to the film world. First was Un Chien Andalou, a short film of loosely connected dream images he co-created with director Luis Bunuel. There's no real narrative as such, so the film is entirely made of odd incidents like the slicing of an eye, a man's mouth vanishing and becoming under-arm hair, and man dragging a piano weighed down by the carcus of a dead animal. Although I've seen still shots of the film in different books over the years, I've never had a chance to see the full film. Quite innovative for the time not just in style but also in technique and special effects, it still holds up today as a really odd little film. Just ask the very confused people in the little theatre who saw it with me.

The second film was a recreation of a project Dali did for Disney. Originally Walt Disney conceived his classic Fantasia as a series that would have a new edition every few years. Dali created animation for a sequence intended for the second installment, but the original work was lost and never completed. A team rebuilt the animation based on Dali's drawings for the project, and brought it back to life with computer animation. It includes much of his familiar imagery without all the sexual undertones. Dali for the whole family, I suppose.

What really got me was the gift shop. They of course stocked necessary things like posters, postcards, and an exhibition catalogue. And, of course, books on Dali's life and art, videos of inteviews, and on and on. But they also carried things like Dali action figures, Dali finger puppets, mannequin feet with posable toes, make your own mustache kits, floating eyeballs on wheels, and yes even panties and boxer shorts with Dali's signature silkscreened across the ass. It's quite probably the largest level of exteme junk I've ever seen for one artist, and it couldnt' be more appropriate unless it was Warhol. Considering that when his health was too poor to allow him to paint he made money by singing and selling autographs in bulk, I think Mr. Dali would be greatly amused to see mass consumerism accepting his images so readily.


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