Ask even the most casual art observer about surrealist artwork and they’ll likely to point to the paintings of Salvador Dalí. Images of melting clocks and stork-legged elephants come to mind – well-known works of art from an eccentric artist.
“Dalí continues to intrigue people. He doesn’t go away. Why is that?” wonders Will South, chief curator at the Columbia Museum of Art. A new museum exhibit showcases Dalí’s fantastical fairy tales, 36 colorful prints used to illustrate such classic stories as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Don Quixote” as well as the tales of Hans Christian Andersen.
South calls Dalí “a touchstone of a major movement in 20th-century art” because of the way he was able to transfer the stuff of dreams to real-life canvas.
“How do you paint dreams? He answered that question in a way few other painters have done,” South says.
In dreams, people and places are dislocated, South says. You’re having a meeting with your boss, but you’re in the bathroom and you’re 12 years old and your boss is 90. And by the, way there’s an elephant in the room. You start to interpret that dream, and you might discover it represents how you feel small and insignificant in your job.
Those dislocated people, objects and places were the cornerstone of Dalí’s work. “There are these strange juxtapositions, things are not where they’re supposed to be. He takes these cues from dreams and puts them into a painting,” South says. “People get what he’s doing. He paints dreams. And that’s success. He’s not been rivaled during his time or since.”
Melting clocks like those in one his famous works, “The Persistence of Memory” in 1931, are a visual representation of memories and how time melts and disappears, South says. Dalí masterfully tapped into people’s interest in the fantastic and dream interpretation. “He was dealing with something everybody knew about – everybody dreams,” South says. “His strategy was to take these things – juxtaposition, morphology – and mix them together in one place with academic skill. It was instant success.”
Born in Spain in 1904, Dalí himself was a fantastical character. He was a success at a young age, gracing the cover of Time magazine when he was just 32 years old. Known for his larger-than-life personality and outrageous clothing and signature mustache, Dalí was the perfect person to promote this surrealist art movement, South says.
He urges everyone to come out to the family-friendly Salvador Dalí’s Fantastical Fairy Tales exhibit, which runs through May 21. Additional guided tours and lectures are planned for the exhibit.
This is a great show visually and a great show to talk about, South says. Why was Dalí so important and why are we still looking at his work?
“So many artists fade in cultural memory, but Dalí is known internationally more than ever. He’s hanging in every big museum. He doesn’t seem to diminish. It’s an interesting question. I don’t have a secret answer other than to say that people continue to be fascinated with what he did, which was giving shape to dream.
“You owe it to yourself to see this,” South adds. “Any culturally literate person needs to know Dalí.”
To learn more about the exhibit, or get tickets for your next trip, visit ColumbiaMuseum.org.