A winter thrill for Dali’s desire

MELBOURNE — There are art lovers who view the surrealist works of Spanish great Salvador Dali as a bizarre treat, a look up the skirt of the art world and its many critics.

The Wednesday night showings of Dali’s collection at the National Gallery of Victoria are no exception, with hundreds lining up to take a peep at some of his better-known Freudian creations.

But it’s in the winding halls of the collection — 200 works sampled from his teen years until his death in 1989 — where these initial views of the Catalonian artist can be shattered.

While Dali and his outrageous twirled moustache were once as famous as his artwork, this exhibit exposes the man behind that larger-than-life media persona.

We’re taken along his artistic journey where any of these presumptions can be dismissed at every turn. Each exhibit wall reveals a new swath of material, from his better-known works in painting and drawing, to collaborations in American cinema with Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney.

We see how his output included fashion and advertising, photography and sculpture — how the arrival of the atomic age changed him into a man focused on physics, science and eventually religion.

There’s even jewelry.

Perched at the end of a black corridor is his “Royal Heart”: a gold broach embracing a beating ruby heart set to exactly 70 beats per minute. It’s so fragile that it couldn’t be moved from the Dali Theater Museum in Spain. Its movements are displayed here on a DVD — perhaps a little surreal in and of itself.

As a teenager, Dali could copy Picasso and paint ethereal landscapes worthy of a museum showing. By his 20s he was so well-versed in art that he could choose his own pathway through it.

There’s material here that’s carefully considered along this journey he took, no matter where the themes may take us outside the realms of safe taste.

In one sculpture, a high heel shoe isn’t complete without the addition of a woman’s pubic hair. A phallic loaf of bread, a woman holding a limp and sagging cello in a barren landscape, a double-image of a Voltaire bust and two nuns: they all feed into this subconscious where paintings become as introspective as they are dogged by Dali’s wit.

His own self-portrait — “Soft Self-portrait with Grilled Bacon” (1941) — is a liquid gold face, oozing downwards as ants dribble out of his eye and crutches hold the entire structure in place as if the guise were to collapse without them.

If Dali is no master, his Renaissance man campaign can at least appease the skeptics that he did in fact paint with a fairly wide brush.

There is a flavour of redemption within this Melbourne exhibit. Seventy years ago, Dali was banned from the same gallery on grounds that his work was “putrid meat”.

It was 1939 and the Herald Exhibition, organized by media man Keith Murdoch, was to bring the best of European art to Australia — with Dali, van Gogh and Cezanne among them. But the show had to be held at Melbourne Town Hall as the NGV’s then-conservative director James McDonald didn’t approve.

He was quoted as saying the exhibit was the work of “degenerates and perverts”.

The line may well have added to the frenzy when it did open as 3,000 people a night came to view Dali’s “Memory of the Child-Woman”. That painting makes its return to Melbourne and takes its place as one of the centrepieces of the current exhibit.

Salvador Dali: Liquid Desire
National Gallery of Victoria
180 St Kilda Road
Melbourne, Australia
Through to October 4

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