An interview with Montse Aguer, Director of Dalinian studies at The Dalí Theater-Museum in Figueres.
By Marco Pantella
image courtesy Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali, Figueres, 2014, all rights reserved
When André Breton first defined Surrealism in 1924 (a “pure psychic automatism”), little did he know that Salvador Dalí would take his words to an extreme extent, by not only introducing a revolutionary way of painting, but also changing the interaction between the artist and the world.
Dalí’s genius lied in ceaseless exploration of the world he lived in. Instead of homologating his identity, he unleashed his genius, creating an unconventional and provoking character that managed to challenge the important role of the media in society. There is no question that he redefined the meaning and the role of the artist, who might be unafraid to experiment with all art, from painting to fashion. He created a unified field in a fragmented world with his versatility and his thirst for modernity. Dalí continues shake us free from our fears and limitations to connect us with our “genius-gene.”
The indisputable genius of Salvador Dalí comes down to the exaltation of the self, combined with a raw talent that defies logic, creating a body of work that goes beyond a mere painting. You don’t become a genius by playing it safe; you have to understand the world you live in before turning it upside down. You also have to be misunderstood as you embody the revolutionary ideas that are provoking and shaking up tradition.
There was a time where Sigmund Freud was playing with something the masses didn’t know they already knew: the unconscious. At a time when painting was an academic matter, mass culture was about to invade us and fashion started setting trends. As tradition was faltering, Dalí grew his flamboyant mustache, influenced by Spanish master painter, Diego Velázquez, and Dalí’s history was made in front of the media. Dalí became a pioneer in using and manipulating the media to achieve global acclaim for his utterly intimate work. Dalí’s inspirations are found in the most remote corner of the mind where the unconscious floats, fears lurk, residues of dreams remain, and talent and personality are unleashed. This is why anyone can connect with Dalí’s mind and yet, the only place where we can try to find more answers is at The Dalí Theater and Museum in Figueres, Spain, the place where he is now buried in a crypt and where his essence is more palpable than in any other museum. Director of Dalinian Studies, Montse Aguer, invites us to play the game that Salvador Dalí left for us to play with and that only an artist like him could conceive.
“Instead of being mere spectators of the museum, Dalí suggests us to discover all the enigmas hidden within it, to look deeply at his works and discover another reality, a double image. He provokes us and raises questions. He amuses and even disturbs us. This is the atmosphere he wanted in creating this museum.”
– Montse Aguer
Photo by Josep Algans
Visiting the Dalí Museum is a real and surreal experience. The museum used to house the town’s theater when he was a child. It was bombed during the Spanish Civil War and it was finally inaugurated in 1974. “I like the museum as a whole,” Ms. Aguer said, “the fact that it is meant to be a complete work of art conceived and created by the artist himself to express the totality of his life and artistic career is extraordinary.”
Ms. Aguer was offered to become the director for Dalinian studies in 2004 during the celebration of Salvador Dalí’s centenary, and this task turned out to be as challenging as looking at one of his paintings. “You enter a new dimension. Whenever you believe you mastered a certain area of his life, a new document comes out and you have to question everything again from the start. It takes me to a permanent state of expectation and awareness.”
How did Dalí become a genius? Dalí said that he wanted to be a cook when he was six years old, Napoleon when he was seven years old, and the parallelism is striking when you think that Surrealism was born like a revolution that Dalí, like the French emperor, transformed into an empire reigned by his wild personality. He proclaimed himself as “El Salvador” (the savior) of painting from the dangers of Abstract Art, Academic Surrealism, Dadaism, and all of the anarchic “isms,” a statement that only an expert like him can express. “He knew art history extremely well and all of its different techniques,” Ms. Aguer said, “He knew the Italian Renaissance and found Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s treatment of perspective and colors fascinating but also… avant-garde. His style is to be found somewhere between tradition and… absolute modernity with the incorporation of the latest scientific progresses and discoveries such as stereoscopy or holography.” With his archetypal eyes wide open, Dali’s investigations shifted from art to the mysteries of the mind.
“Each morning when I awake, I experienceagain a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí.”
“The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.”
Dalí had one-time encountered Sigmund Freud in London and to prove that he was Freud’s most ardent pupil. It was then that Dalí showed Freud the painting, “Metamorphosis of Narcissus.” The drawers of the unconscious discussed by the Viennese professor work as much as the ones portrayed by Dalí. It was a way to state that psychoanalysis was able to shed some light on the unconscious, but what was he looking for in the psyche, dreams, and sexuality of the human being? “I think he was looking for answers, but at the same time he reflected on his obsessions and tried to break free from them.”
image courtesy Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali, Figueres, 2014, all rights reserved
At the age of 17, his mother died. His homage, “The Enigma of Desire” couldn’t be more complex. Dalí’s mother never actually appeared in his paintings. However, in this work, she takes the shape of a monstrous womb, resembling the weather-beaten rocks along the Cadaqués coast, a place Dalí loved which became a source of inspiration for his fantasies. “His relationship with women used to be quite complicated and he actually speaks very little of his mother,” Ms. Aguer commented.
The only female presence that became the absolute love of his life was Gala. Dalí asked her, “what do you want me to do with you?” and she replied, “kill me.” She became his muse and set the machine behind his success in motion. “There is no Dalí without Gala,” he once said, and, in fact, she acts like a manager; she looked for the best frames and materials, and she negotiated with galleries for Dalí. She was the ultimate cure for his madness and a fundamental presence. Absolute despair was what he felt after her death, a strange feeling for someone who never gave up even when he was expelled from The Academy of Fine Arts and from the Surrealist movement.
“It’s obvious that other worlds exist. That’s certain; but, they are inside ours [our world]. They reside in the earth and precisely at the center dome of the Dalí Museum, which contains the new, unsuspecting and hallucinatory world of Surrealism.”
There are a couple reasons why Dalí wanted his most extravagant work to endure in his own town. The former Municipal Theater was the perfect place for someone who thought of himself or herself as a theatrical painter; it stands right opposite the church where he was baptized and where his first exhibition was held. After ample experimentation, Surrealism was the movement where he found his religion. Ms. Aguer remarked, “It is very important in Dalí’s career as he represents irrationality in a realistic way. There’s a moment when he defines his painting as hand-painted photography. In fact, his canvases are often almost hyper-realistic, but always with references to the unconscious. The mastery and control of technique, his passion and obsession for knowledge and ultimately his insatiable curiosity are all elements that contributed to his success.”
After the Nazi occupation of Paris, Dalí moved to the U.S. and during this period, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, a very important autobiography, was published in America. Ms. Aguer said, “I would recommend it to anyone interested in his life. Dalí was a great writer and used to read a lot. He himself, once declared that he was a better writer than a painter.” As the world started yearning to see what he would come up with, Dalí fed his image and talent to the media, succeeding in different collaborations: Walt Disney’s “Destino,” Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” Madame Chanel, and Elsa Schiaparelli.
“A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.”
“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
Think of Alexander McQueen’s fashion shows, Lady Gaga with a lobster on her head and Björk’s music videos. The presence of surrealistic elements is very persistent even today; it is noticeable from the way art is evolving to the way certain pop stars try to create their image to shock the media. When Dalí painted one of his most famous and recognized works of art, “The Persistence on Memory,” people were led to believe that it was inspired by Einstein’s The theory of relativity, but when asked about the comparison, Dalí replied that his iconic melting watches came to existence from the perception of Camembert cheese melting under the sun. Is this the truth or just another of his many provoking statements? Nevertheless, his originality lies in translating something as real as the discovery of the relativity of space and time through art. Ms. Aguer, thinking about how Dalí would respond to modern technology, said that Dalí “would master computers and everything that new technologies and scientific discoveries are offering us.” When asked what Dali would find surreal in our society, Ms. Aguer answered quickly with “Reality itself!” as if it had been a rhetorical question.
Maybe this is still the only way to create meaningful art nowadays: learning to imitate our modern world and creating a new one that would resonate with us more than the reality we live in. Just think about what Salvador Dalí could achieve in experimenting with graphic design and what contemporary artists could create if they would break free from the dogmas we are still dealing with.
“I am not strange. I am just not normal.”
How does a genius see himself? The answer might be seen through an artist’s most personal statement on himself or herself: a self-portrait. Dalí’s self-portrait, “Soft Self-Portrait with Fried Bacon,” portrays the artist’s face as a melting bronze mask supported by mini crutches, another obsession from his childhood, something to lean on during life and, at the same time, something to push death away. He wanted it to be an “anti-psychological self-portrait,” to paint the outside instead of the soul, or as he called it, “the glove of myself.” There is also a piece of bacon and ants in the portrait, to symbolize his generosity in offering himself to be eaten by the media, and to act as inspirational “food” that succulently nourishes our time. Are the props and supports in the portrait a way to express a hint of insecurity? “The private Dalí was very friendly, but he was aware that he had created a character. In meetings with friends, if journalists or a camera appeared, he would immediately say, ‘I’m going to play Dalí.’” Thus, it is not surprising that Dalí painted his self-portrait in the U.S. during a period “when he clearly connects with mass culture” and with icons such as Marilyn Monroe, who were also “playing” their characters.
“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”
No matter what walks of life we are coming from, to stand in front of Dalí’s works is like watching an endless enigma, something that sets our mind in motion with no limitation. “We already know a lot about him, but we need to keep some mystery,” concluded Ms. Aguer. She may be right, as a continuous thirst for knowledge can drive us mad just like with Friedrich Nietzsche, the only person, according to Dalí, who could be on Dalí’s level. “My equal will not be found in other centuries either. My painting proves it,” Dalí said.
Delirious? Mad? Arrogant? Self-righteous? Still, nobody came along to leave a mark like Salvador Dalí did with his art as Dalí manifests our inner worlds, showing us the way we feel about our existence. He portrayed our irrational fears, the things we only see in our dreams, and the magnificence of the human mind with its fantasies, perversions, and endless possibilities. A genius maybe be granted the power to say anything he or she wants. Ms. Aguer shared her personal favorite Dalí quote from memory:
“Do not waste time trying to be modern. Unfortunately, it’s the only thing that, whatever you do, you cannot avoid being.”
Visit the Dalí Theater-Museum here
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