Monday, December 13, 2010

In the Beginning: Salvador Dali

This is the introductory item of a series of occasional posts dealing with modernist painters who began their careers as representational artists.

My concept is that this will form the basis for speculation as to how a given artist might have developed had he not "gone modern." Obviously, there is no way of telling for sure what might have happened absent a system of parallel universes and wormholes for traversing them. Still, speculation is usually a fun, harmless activity as evidenced by the popularity of pre-game sports programs on television.

To begin, let's consider Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Unlike the artists to be featured in later posts, he almost never drifted very far from representationalism and, in post-Surrealist years, largely returned to representation. This gives an example of beginnings and representational potential attained. The main defect with my choice of Dalí is that examples of his early painting that I could find are not particularly representational. Oh, well.

Maybe I'd better explain what I mean by his degrees of representationalism. Surrealism, as Dalí practiced it, meant painting images representing unreal things in a manner so detailed that they might be seen as being real. That's why I claim his drift was small; small compared to changes in style exhibited by the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky and Mondrian, for example. By the 1950s, as we shall see below, the Surrealist content of his paintings became much less extreme. The result was that some paintings, particularly those with religious content, were close to representational with a touch of symbolism analogous to details in religious art of the mid-second millennium.

Let's take a look:

The Artist's Father at Llana Beach - 1920
Dalí was about 16 when this was painted. It's hard to tell if he was already experimenting with modernist ideas (see below for examples) or, like many at that age, hadn't developed much skill.

View of Port Dogue - 1920
This was painted the same year as the one above, and the same critique could be applied.

Self-Portrait (Detail) - 1923
I snapped this at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid where it and the two following paintings (not my photos) can be found. Dalí is now about 19 and experimenting with Cubism.

Retrato de su hermana (Ana María) - 1925
Two years later, he is returning to representational art. This portrait of his sister is hard-edged and slightly simplified -- a style often found in paintings of the 1920s and 30s.

Figura en una finestra - 1925
Another painting of his sister from the same year. This takes on the solidity and featuring of form that characterize much of Dalí's future painting.

The Persistence of Memory - 1931
At 27, Dalí created this, his most famous work. Most of his purely Surrealist paintings were done between the late 1920s and mid 1940s. Art critics tend to dismiss work done after this period.

Leda Atomica - 1949 (click for larger, clearer view)
This was painted when Dalí was about 45. It contains echoes of his earlier Surrealism, but actually was as carefully planned as any classical or academic painting.

Leda Atomica study
This is one of several studies for Leda Atomica. Others dealt with the perspective of the platform his wife Gala is (almost) seated on.

Christ of St. John of the Cross - 1951 (click for larger, clearer view)
Aside from the landscape at the bottom, this painting might be considered an example of hyper-realism.

Dalí did receive formal art training, even though surviving examples of his early work do not suggest this. Nevertheless, once his venture into Surrealism sealed his permanent fame, he focused his efforts on becoming a highly skilled representational painter of interesting works. I reject the idea that his work worsened after World War 2 and his focus on Surrealism.


Gary Hoff said...

Although it's tempting to speculate that Dali wasn't very skilled when he did the first three works you posted, it is as easy to note that the first looks imitative of Monet, the second influenced by Cezanne, and the third by Picasso or one of his followers. My guess is Dali was in fact quite skilled as a young man and was searching for a personal style in those works. As you say, his portrait of his sister at the window is very much like his mature works.

Thanks for great reading. I enjoy checking in here.

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