I might have fallen in love with Salvador Dalí the first time I saw Un Chien Andalou, his masterful short film collaboration with another famous Spanish surrealist, Luis Buñuel. The film opens with a score befitting a circus–very pomp, parade and the like–and then you see a man (Buñuel) casually smoking a cigarette while he sharpens a blade. A woman, practically muted, endures the severing of her eye by this man and this blade and so the film begins. It’s not really a real eye, rather it’s the eye of a calf, no less horrifying, but the optical illusion will become one of Dalí’s many talents.
From sadism, confused priests, the peanut-crunching crowd, rotting donkeys and ants pouring out of a severed hand, the film is less a meditation of the grotesque and more of a celebration of a mind left to its own devices. You imagine the unfathomable and make it come to pass. You imagine a voice smothered rising above the din to a shout to a curdling scream. I remember watching the film while I’d started reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and watching Weimar films. I was young then, 23 or 24, and I felt a strange kinship with these oddballs. Poets talking about people spouting out of the dead land as if they were harvested, and a piano being hoisted up in a living room as if this was the sort of thing that happened.
What I loved about surrealism and the poetry and films of the teens, 20s, was that it challenged our perception of what was normal. We are trained to believe what we see. We’re realists, pragmatists–we look for the plain and simple, yet some of us look beyond what is in front of us and see something altogether different. You see a woman walking down the street and she’s a woman, but I see her as a container, a vessel, a house filled with drawers and windows–some whitewashed shut, others flung open, and so the story begins.
The story always begins when you dare to venture just beyond your reach. Beyond what your mind instinctually tells you what your eye sees.
I’ve been to the Dalí museums in Paris and Florida. I’ve seen his work in fragments, part of macabre shows or celebrations of surrealism, cubism and post-modernists, influenced by Dalí’s work. Yet, until today, I didn’t see his greatest masterpiece: a theatre once torched, rebuilt, to celebrate the artist who was very much in love with himself. For over ten years, Dalí built the Theatre Museum so you can feel discomfort; you’re disoriented from the moment you walk in by the building’s very “un-museum”-like quality and the fact that this tomb is a square box in the center of the first (and largest) room you enter. In life, the artist provoked and he also wanted you to experience disquiet after his death.
From a room that is an homage to Mae West (imagined in plastic surgery glamour) to images of his beloved Gala (wife and muse) to optical illusions (Abraham Lincoln/Gala is my favorite) to his less famous sketches and infamous melting clocks, I wandered through three floors of beauty. The exhibit was arresting, strange, hilarious, witty and narcissistic.
After a few hours, I stumbled into the daylight feeling as if I’d eaten a feast of rich cakes, fatty goose livers, and gallons of curdled cream. I thought I’d feel ho-hum about the Dalí’s Jewels exhibit until I actually saw the exhibit.
Corset rings, majestic gems, snakes, snarled tree limbs and so much glinting gorgeousness, I photographed nearly every piece in the collection, and as Edith Piaf so sagely sang, I’ve no regrets.
Also, can we talk about how much Dalí loved BREAD? Believe me when I say I’m in mourning.