Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Art: Dalí: Painting and Film at MoMA

I've never been a fan of Dalí's stark and lacquered surfaces, carefully colored in tans and bright blues, corralled by stoic architecture, darkened by distended shadows, and blemished with bloated creatures, Tanguey-like squiggles, those signature melted clocks. There's no lack of technical virtuosity, nor can one argue that the pictures are boring, per se (though they are, certainly, cool, with the suppressed, airless quality of De Chirico and Magritte, Surrealists all). But all Surrealist painting leaves me cold.

Not so Surrealist film, and so while this show at MoMA seemed to confuse the pulsing throngs who pushed from one tiny study to the next, then stopped to gape at the giant screens showing some very curious black and white movies, I found it rather better than expected. The fault is mine for showing up only on the show's very last day, and not attending any of the film screenings except the tangentially-related Pan's Labyrinth. . . Dalí's early collaborations with Buñuel, as evinced in two shorter films being screened in the galleries, are fantastically weird thanks mostly to the naive time-lapse jump cut. (And these are much more interesting than his more well-known collaboration with Hitchcock on Spellbound, a movie that, with its stuffy psychoanalytic pretensions, never did a thing for me).

Unquestionably, the strangest inclusion in the exhibit is another collaboration: one with Walt Disney. In the mid-1940s, the animation scion commissioned the artist to work on an animated feature, but the project, called Destino, was soon shelved (supposedly for financial reasons, but likely also because of incongruous artistic visions: Dalí is hardly suitable for children). More than 50 years later, Disney completed the film, based on the artist's original storyboards and the less-than 20 seconds of film that had been shot. The result is a strange hybrid: the traditional Disney princess—slender, winsome, doe-eyed—is tinted (just as Jasmine, Mulan, and Pochahontas were all tinted), slightly (but safely) Dalíesque: her bones a bit stronger, her curves a bit deeper, her hair a bit more stringy, her shadows much, much longer. She frolicks in a surreal desert landscape, flatter even than one of Dalí's paintings (Disney animation is the ultimate in flat), trying to rejoin her lost love, who is trapped in stone. There is an accompanying score rather than any dialogue (Disney's original intent was to include the film in another sort of Fantasia). I can't say that I think Dalí would be satisfied with the final product (it is, ultimately, much too pretty; there is a stark contrast between the included original reel and the post-humous creation)—it feels very much a Disney product—but I would rather watch it (and show it to any children in my care) than any contemporary atrocity from Pixar.

There is only one painting in the exhibition that warrants real discussion: Metamorphosis of Narcissus, a medium-sized picture in which the disparate parts formally coalesce (unlike the scattershot compositions of most of his other work). Here, echoing forms tease the eye; perhaps first we see a crouching body repeated, first in sun-drenched mud, then in cold, dried clay, until we notice a ridge in the clay figure's kneecap: it is a thumb's nail, the body actually a hand, holding an egg (simultaneously bodily/base and geometrically ideal), cracked and sprouting a fervent lily. Tiny figures in the wayback strike nude poses, stand contraposto. Behind, the sky is tumultuous, below the pond is reflective (each also contrasting with the usual flat, arid skies and grounds the artist favors). There is still more Surrealistic whimsy than I would prefer (I would, for example, if painters had editors, excise the checkerboard on the right, paint out the burning ponytail of the figure on the left; there is a difference between stark and clean, and this picture, for all its fascinations, is too busy).

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