Monday, January 21, 2013

Dalí: Painting and Film

Dalí: Painting and Film at the Museum of Modern Art was the first exhibition to focus on the profound relationship between the paintings and films of Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904–1989). The exhibition proposes that Dalí’s personal engagement with cinema—as a filmgoer, a screenwriter, a filmmaker, and an art director—was fundamental to his understanding of modernism and deeply affected his art. The exhibition was on view from June 29 to September 15, 2008.

Film was a passion for Dalí and cinematic vision became a model for his own work. In the sixth-floor galleries, collaborations between Dalí and legendary filmmakers, including Luis Buñuel, Walt Disney, and Alfred Hitchcock, are projected on large screens alongside his paintings to show the way ideas, iconography, and pictorial strategies are shared and transformed across mediums.


Dalí was part of the first generation of artists for whom film was both a formative influence and a creative outlet. Throughout his career, and in many mediums, he frequently referenced elements of cinema, including its episodic nature, popular appeal, narrative structure, and techniques like fades and dissolves, and the strong characterization of its stars.

The exhibition comprises six galleries, most of which include very large projections of films on screens measuring 10 feet high by 13 feet wide. The projections are presented alongside paintings, drawings, and ephemera pertaining to the films shown.

The first two galleries featured two of Dalí and Buñuel’s collaborations: Un Chien andalou (1929) and L’Âge d’or (1930). Exploiting film’s potential to manipulate reality and evoke the sensation of dreaming, montage is the primary cinematic strategy in Un Chien andalou. The film’s provocative imagery, also found in Dalí’s paintings of the time, creates a shocking vision of physical desire. Imagery seen in the film, such as a disembodied hand, infestations of ants, putrefying donkeys, and such unexpected transformations as a hairy armpit into a sea urchin and a cloud into a razor, can be found in various paintings shown in this gallery, including

Apparatus and Hand (1927) and

The Accommodations of Desire (1929).

The film put Dalí and Buñuel at the center of the Surrealist community in Paris, and also confirmed the potential of film to secure the movement’s goals.

This first gallery also includes an early series of drawings about Spanish nightlife from 1922–23, including

Madrid Suburb and

Madrid Night Scene.

These works illustrate Dalí’s appreciation of the strong graphic aesthetic of the silent Expressionist films of that era.

Other paintings like

The First Days of Spring (1929) reveal his interest in filmic perspective and in creating compositions that dissolve into other images.

Illumined Pleasures (1929), which features luminous imagery projected on or performed within the theater-like boxes that dominate the composition, illustrated the shooting script for Un Chien andalou.

More complicated, polemical, and bitter than Un Chien andalou, L’Âge d’or was Dalí and Buñuel’s second collaboration. The film’s prologue, an excerpt from a preexisting scientific film, shows a scorpion killing a rat, heralding the violence that, together with the irresistible power of desire, drives the storyline. Lovers are immediately torn from each other and spend the rest of the film in frustrated attempts to reunite. Dark and threatening in tone, L’Âge d’or reflects the sense of unease at the time among Surrealists—and Europeans in general—sparked by the rise of the political right.

The third gallery of the exhibition comprised Dalí’s film projects and paintings that incorporate filmic elements, including his collaboration with the Marx Brothers and his work on the film Moontide (1942). Dalí associated the Marx Brothers’ combination of humor and mayhem with his own practice as a Surrealist. Dalí met Harpo Marx in 1936 and soon began work on a film project known as Giraffes on Horseback Salad or The Surrealist Woman, a motion picture he hoped would rival the Marx Brothers’ film Animal Crackers (1930). Although the film never reached production, the imagery and ideas survive in two manuscripts (one of which is on view in this gallery) that illuminate Dalí’s writing style and his process of revision and in a series of drawings that offer views of the production’s atmosphere and scenery. Paintings in this gallery, such as

Autumnal Cannibalism (1936) and

Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937),

demonstrate Dalí’s ability to imply animated movement and narrative in a static image.

By the beginning of the 1940s, Dalí’s name had become synonymous with Surrealism in the United States, through exhibitions, publicity, and his own eccentric showmanship. In 1940 Dalí traveled to California and moved beyond the realm of avant-garde films to work on major studio productions. Soon after his arrival, he was hired by Twentieth Century-Fox to design a threeminute nightmare sequence for Moontide, a film to be directed by the legendary Austrian-born director Fritz Lang and starring the French actor Jean Gabin in his first English-language picture.

The script told the story of a longshoreman named Bobo (Gabin) who fears he may have committed murder during a drunken binge. Dalí’s job was to visually describe Bobo’s hallucinatory descent into drunkenness. In drawings and paintings he turned a harbor into a Surrealist landscape, complete with a monumental sewing machine and a combination brothel-slaughterhouse where naked women wear shark heads, a gutted shark rests on a table, and sailors metamorphose into a skull. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the project was deemed too pessimistic: Lang was replaced by director Archie Mayo and Dalí’s vision was abandoned.

Dalí’s dreamlike vision seemed an ideal fit for the 1940s movie industry and for the cinema screen, where total immersion in Dalí’s imagination became possible for a mass audience. Dalí seized the opportunity to work on Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), which was the focus of the fourth gallery. The famous dream sequence for Hitchcock’s thriller recreated the disquieting universe of Dalí’s contemporary paintings on a grand scale. On view in this gallery were four grisaille paintings and one color study for the five scenes of the dream sequence, which is also shown here on a continuous loop. Technical difficulties necessitated revisions to the film without Dalí’s and Hitchcock’s participation, and only three scenes survive in the finished film: the gambling house, the rooftop, and the slope. In the end the artist received a limited credit—“based upon the designs by Salvador Dalí”—but Spellbound provided one of his most remarkable encounters with a mass audience.

The next gallery featured the animated film Destino (2003). Towards the end of 1945, Walt Disney invited Dalí to work on a six-minute short that was to combine real images with animated drawings and be set to the ballad “Destino” by Armando Dominguez, a Mexican songwriter. Dalí’s episode was intended to be part of a composite animated feature along the lines of Fantasia (1940). In January 1946, Dalí began an intense eight-month period at the Disney studio, working with the classically trained animator John Hench. Dalí produced numerous color sketches and storyboard drawings to tell a tale of star-crossed lovers: Chronos, the god of time, and a mortal girl. Only about 15 to 18 seconds of the film—the section with two tortoises—was completed before the project was abandoned, due to either a lack of finances or the controversial nature of Dalí’s imagery. Using this short sequence as a guide and relying on Hench’s memories, a new team of Disney animators completed the film in 2003. Various paintings, sketches, and storyboard drawings by Dalí of scenes from this film, along with the 2003 film, were included in this gallery.

The final gallery of the exhibition focused on Dalí’s late projects and his engagement with popular cinema. Chaos and Creation (1960), a documentary he made with photographer Philippe Halsman, is considered to be one of the first artist’s videos ever made. Unable to give a speech at a convention, Dalí sent this video to address the attendees remotely. Loosely structured as a lecture and a performance in which the creation of an artwork is the result, the video shows Halsman, who often worked with Dalí, playing the role of commentator, translator, and straight man to the artist’s frenzied presence.

Like many other Surrealists, Dalí was fascinated by the world seen through the microscope, because it offered an alternate reality akin to dreams or the unconscious. Dalí’s painting technique, with its inclusion of minute detail, reflects this interest, as does his film Impressions of Upper Mongolia—Homage to Raymond Roussel, made for Spanish television in 1975. Presented as a documentary about a trip to “Upper Mongolia” to find a hallucinogenic mushroom, much of the film is composed of extreme close-ups of the corroded brass band of a pen. This 70-minute film is shown in its entirety in this gallery.

In the 1960s Dalí split his time between Paris, New York, and his home in Port Lligat, in the Catalan region of Spain. With the emergence of Pop art in New York, Dalí’s particular blend of showmanship, irreverence, and extravagance won him new connections with young American artists, including Andy Warhol. In 1966 Warhol asked Dalí to be the subject of one of his short film portraits; called Screen Tests, these portraits were meant to be projected backdrops for Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia events, featuring the band the Velvet Underground. The screen tests that Warhol made of Dalí were included in this final gallery. Later paintings included in this gallery, like

Portrait of Colonel Jack Warner (1951)

and Portrait of Laurence Olivier in the role of Richard III (1955),

also showed Dali’s interest in popular cinema, and how the idea and techniques of film moved from being an influence on his work to forming its very subject.


MoMA is the last venue for this traveling exhibition, which has been on view at Tate Modern, London, England; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; and the Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida.


The publication Dalí & Film focuses on the crucial influence of film on Dalí's art and presents major paintings and materials related to his key film projects. Edited by Matthew Gale, it features essays by Gale, Dawn Ades, Montse Aguer, Félix Fanes, and others that illuminate the depth and persistence of Dalí's fascination with the medium.. 9 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.; 238 pages; 175 illustrations (110 color).