Saturday, February 8, 2014

30 For 30: Salvador Dali

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 6, we get a little weird with Salvador Dali.

I've seen Captain Beefheart referred to as “the Salvador Dali of rock music”, which is just critical shorthand for “he's a really weird cult-like figure who made peerless, visionary art.” Whether or not you like Beefheart or Dali, there's no denying their totality of vision, their originality. I see them as being separate people who happened to exist in the world in a way so out-of-step with normal reality that they become akin to twins or brothers. I'm not grasping at straws trying to tie the two of them together. Once he retired from music, Beefheart became a painter of some repute himself, after having been a child prodigy artist in his youth.

The big difference, at least as far as the art they produced goes, is that Salvador Dali never purposefully dumbed down his work to appeal to a mass market. He wanted to make money—I'm pretty sure some of the portraits he did were commissions—but never at the cost of having to change or edit his vision. Beefheart's music sometimes had to bend to the will of the commercial world, so there's a stark contrast between overproduced AOR albums like Bluejeans & Moonbeams and unfiltered madness like Trout Mask Replica (which, fun fact, contains a song called 'Dali's Car').

What drew me to Captain Beefheart is the same thing that drew me to Salvador Dali: they're weird as hell. It's a bit broad to say I've always liked weird things without being able to get more specific but it's also kind of the truth. When I was young, I liked Ren & Stimpy because it's weird. When I was a bit older, I liked EarthBound because it's weird. When I was even older, I liked David Lynch films because they're weird. Each of these is weird in a different way, but there's a characteristic “other” quality to each one that becomes immediately obvious when you compare them to most of the rest of their respective mediums. For instance, Inception is kind of a weird movie, but it's completely normal compared to Lynch's Inland Empire. So what I meant by 'a characteristic “other” quality' is that you'd have to file it under “other” when categorizing it, as you would with Dali. I mean, there's no “weird” genre category on Netflix, is there?

Salvador Dali is, to me, the king of weird. It's difficult to have a conversation about weird or surreal things without him coming up because he's like the nexus point of weirdness. I'll never forget watching Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist film he made with Luis Bunuel, during a film class in college. This movie is from 1929 but still has the capacity to unsettle and confuse modern audiences. It's timeless in the way all great art is timeless to someone with an open mind. This is to say nothing of Dali's art, which is still as popular today as it ever was. I'm not that informed when it comes to visual artists but anyone I've ever talked to who is more knowledgeable has agreed that he's a genius.

This is the book I have, though the cover is in English 

I may not know my art too well but I do know my Dali. I have a huge book containing every painting he ever did, and I've gone through the entire thing several times. During the Summer of 2011 I had this daily routine where, when I got home from work, I would put on music, smoke some pot, make some tea, and sit in the sunshine beside my living room window while smoking clove cigarettes and looking through as many pages of the book as I could before it was time to go make dinner. I used sheets of paper to mark off pages that held my favorite pieces and each time through the book my favorites kept changing. I don't think you need chemicals to enjoy doing the same thing because I'm also obsessed with Dali even while sober...but they certainly didn't hurt.

Dali was inspired by the unconscious, of course—you could describe each one of his paintings as being its own dream world—but his vision also encompassed one's conscious visual imagination while awake. His work created with the “paranoiac-critical” method is like the art version of optical illusions and images that change depending on how you focus on them. A good example of what I'm talking about is shown below—in the first case, you can see either a rabbit or a duck. In the second case, the work 'Paranoiac Visage' (1935), Dali took a postcard of African villagers sitting in front of a hut and painted it so that, when turned on its side, you see a woman's head. It's like a more advanced version of how, if you look with the right eyes and imagination, electrical sockets and the front of cars can look like faces.
Rabbit or duck?
Villagers or face?

The reason Dali means so much to me is that, once I got beyond the initial delight at how weird his art is, I keep coming back to him because there's more going on than just weirdness for weirdness's sake. You can throw together any mish-mash of ideas and images, post it online, and have people look at it and go “LOL so random!” Indeed, much of Japan's weirdness seems built on this foundation. But with Dali, there's an intelligence and vision to his works that go beyond him just trying to make weird looking things to amuse himself and freak out the squares. I may never know what he's saying with some of his pieces, or if he's saying anything at all, but it always strikes me more as playful than nonsensical. With his greater works, I seem to either see new things in them each time or I react to it in a different way. With something as dense as 'Hallucinogenic Torreador' (1968-1970), you can always pick out new details you missed before, provided you have a high quality version of it to look at—the little boy in the lower right corner of it is Dali's portrait of himself as a boy, and appears as an ongoing motif in a few other paintings. 

Might have to find a bigger image to get the full effect

With a lesser known and minimalist piece like 'Dark Tapeworms' (1978), I feel something different every time I see it. I don't really know what it is about this painting that sticks with me. I doubt any other Dali fan in history has liked this one as much as I do. His other better known images that have become part of the collective consciousness—like the burning giraffes, the melting watches, the paranoiac-critical method paintings like 'Swans Reflecting Elephants' (1937)—may be what the public goes to when they think of Dali. For me, though, he has become as much about 'Dark Tapeworms' or his shockingly normal paintings like 'Glass Of Wine And Boat' (1956). 

Peaceful, eerie

In this way, Dali's importance to my life has been to remind me that we are, all of us, never just one thing. Dali isn't just the weird-ass artist because if you look beyond his two or three best-known works, he surprises you with some some still life's, nudes, and landscapes that no one would guess are his. Captain Beefheart isn't just that weird-ass musician, because his early music is pretty much bluesy garage rock and he went on to make a living as a painter. And as for me, I'm not just a guy who writes about music. I wrote a novel, once. I write poems, sometimes. I make music, sometimes. I like booze and crazy experimental music, but I also like quiet afternoons and tea. Not to mention, this 30 For 30 series encompasses videogames, books, music, movies, TV shows, and artists. If this makes me a dilettante, I guess it's better than having monomania.

In spite of my taste for weird, I really love this one

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