Sunday, May 11, 2014

Rhinoceros, who are you?

‘I, Dali, deep in a constant introspection and a meticulous analysis of my smallest thoughts, have just discovered that, without realising it, I have painted nothing but rhinoceros horns all my life.’ This is from Diary of a Genius by Salvador Dalí, the Spanish artist, famous for his surrealist paintings and eccentric looks/behaviour. Today marks the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Dalí was born in Figueres, northeast Spain, on 11 May 1904, the son of a well-known notary. He showed artistic talent from an early age, and went to study at the Royal Academy in Madrid, although he was expelled twice and never took his final exams. However, he did become friends with the great Spanish dramatist and poet, Federico García Lorca, and the film-maker Luis Buñuel, with whom he collaborated on several avant-garde projects.

In 1928, Dalí moved to Paris where he met Picasso and Miro, and, in particular, André Breton, with whom he formed a group of surrealists. Some of his most famous surrealist works date from this period - The Spectre of Sex Appeal and The Persistence of Memory for example. Also in Paris, in 1929, he met Helena Diakonova, known as Gala, a Russian immigrant who would become his model, partner and business manager.

During the Second World War, Dalí and Gala lived in the US, with Dalí not only painting but contributing to other artistic fields, such as cinema, theatre and ballet. He became something of a darling in high society, and famous men and women commissioned him to paint their portraits. While in the US, he wrote The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. In 1948, the couple returned to Europe, spending time either at their residence in Port Lligat, Spain, or in Paris.

In the post war period, Dalí became more interested in history and science, and these subjects formed the themes of many of his later works such as Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. During the 1970s, he created and inaugurated the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, which houses a large collection of his works. He died in 1989. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, or a New York Times review of the definitive biography - The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí - by Ian Gibson.

Dalí was not much of a bona fide diarist. A fragment of a diary survives from his adolescence. This was privately printed by Stratford Press in a limited edition for the Reynolds Morse Foundation in 1962, and entitled A Dalí Journal: Impressions and Private Memories of Salvador Dalí - January, 1920. The ‘Salvador Dalí Book Collector’, who runs a blog on Dalí books, is underwhelmed: ‘Here, we find a rather pedestrian Dalí whose time is spent at school, hanging with friends, flirting with girls . . . just an average teenage boy.’

Much later, however, Dalí employed the diary form for what became the second volume of his autobiography. This was first published in France in 1963 as Journal d’un génie, then translated into English by Richard Howard for publication by Doubleday in the US and Hutchinson in the UK as Diary of a Genius. The French writer Michel Déon helped Dalí prepare this book, and provided a forward and notes, also translated by Howard for the first English edition.

‘Dali’, says Déon in his forward, ‘has jotted down helter-skelter his thoughts, his torments as a painter thirsting for perfection, his love for his wife, the story of his extraordinary encounters, his ideas about aesthetics, morality. philosophy, biology. [. . .] This diary is a monument erected by Salvador Dali to his own glory. It is entirely lacking in modesty, it has, on the other hand, a burning sincerity. The author lays bare his secrets with brazen insolence, unbridled humour, sparkling extravagance.’ Here are a few extracts.

15 July 1952
‘Once more I thank Sigmund Freud and proclaim louder than ever his great truths. I, Dali, deep in a constant introspection and a meticulous analysis of my smallest thoughts, have just discovered that, without realising it, I have painted nothing but rhinoceros horns all my life. At the age of ten, a grasshopper-child, I already said my prayers on all fours before a table made of rhinoceros horn. Yes, to me it was already a rhinoceros! I take another look at my paintings and I am stupefied with the amount of rhinoceros my work contains. Even my famous bread [1945 painting] is already a rhino horn, delicately resting in a basket. Now I understand my enthusiasm the day Arturo Lopez presented me with my famous rhinoceros-horn walking stick. As soon as I became its owner, it produced in me a completely irrational illusion. I attached myself to it with an incredible fetishism, amounting to obsession, to such an extent that I once struck a barber in New York, when by mistake he almost broke it by lowering too quickly the revolving chair on which I had gently put it down. Furiously, I struck at his shoulder hard with my stick to punish him, but of course I immediately gave him a very big tip so that he would not get angry. Rhinoceros, rhinoceros, who are you?’

18 July 1952
‘Even though my Assumption is making substantial and glorious progress, it frightens me to see that already it is the 18th of July. Every day time flies faster, and though I live from one ten minutes to the next, savouring them one by one and transforming the quarters of an hour into battles won, into feats and spiritual victories, all of which are equally memorable, the weeks run by and I struggle to cling with an even more vital completeness to each fragment of my precious and beloved time.

Suddenly Rosita comes in with breakfast and brings me a piece of news that throws me into a joyous ecstasy. Tomorrow will be the 19th of July, and that is the date on which Monsieur and Madame arrived from Paris last year. I give an hysterical yell: “So, I haven’t arrived yet! I haven’t arrived. Not before tomorrow will I come to Port Ligat. This time last year, I hadn’t even started my Christ! And now before I’ve so much as come here, my Assumption is almost on its feet, pointing to heaven!”

I run straight to my studio and work till I am ready to drop, cheating and taking advantage of not being there yet so as to have as much as possible already done at the moment of my arrival. All Port Ligat has heard that I am yet there, and in the evening, when I come down for supper, little Juan calls out, as gay as can be: “Señor Dali is coming tomorrow night! Señor Dali is coming tomorrow night!”

And Gala looks at me with an expression of protective love which so far only Leonardo has been able to paint, and it so happens that the fifth centenary of Leonardo’s birth is tomorrow.

In spite of all my stratagem to savour the last moments of my absence with an intoxicating intensity, here I am, finally home in Port Ligat. And so happy!’

1 May 1953
‘I spent the winter in New York as usual, enjoying enormous success in everything I did. We have been in Port Ligat a month, and today, on the same date as last year, I decide to resume my diary. I inaugurate the Dalinian May the first by working frenetically, as I am urged to do by a sweet creative anguish. My moustache has never been so long. My entire body is encased in my clothing. Only my moustache shows.’

The Diary Junction

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