Salvador Dalí was never afraid of a good literary flourish. As a versatile virtuoso, prolific in both the visual and the verbal medium, Dalí represents something of a treat for those who would interpret his work. So it is perhaps surprising that Haim Finkelstein’s study is the first to focus on the writings as a key to understanding Dalí’s artistic evolution.
Finkelstein analyses in detail a number of texts by Dalí from his early career in Spain through to the beginning of the 1940s, the period he considers to have been the artist’s most fruitful. By comparing text to image, as well as to the writings of others, he adds new insights into Dalí’s development, in particular highlighting the important early influences of the poet Federico García Lorca and the film-maker Luis Buñuel.
He uses Dalí’s texts to help trace and emphasise the emergence of what he views as the artist’s driving preoccupation of the later 1920s and earlier 1930s, the famous soft forms, and their source in Dalí’s increasing awareness of his arrested psycho-sexual development. Finkelstein shows how this concern evolves into an attempt to turn such softness, as a reflection of Freudian regression and its anal and oral desires, into “an aesthetic and theoretical stance”.
Dalí’s most developed theory of artistic creativity, the “paranoia criticism” of the early and mid-1930s , when placed beside the paintings ostensibly based on this theory, reveals the impossible nature of the task he had set himself. Nonetheless, for Finkelstein, the artist’s most creative work comes from the tension born of the need to make his “innately anarchic and self-indulgent imagination” conform to the demands of theory—both Dalí’s own eccentric formulations and those of Breton’s Surrealism. When this tension starts to ebb in the mid-1930s, when Dalí no longer needed to keep in with the Surrealists, the quality of his work diminished.
This relative decline into facility and mannerism was further provoked by the resolution, through Gala, of many artist’s sexual confusions and thus the gradual moving away from the obsessive concern with soft forms and the earlier urgency of his sexual imagery. This too is plotted with detailed reference to contemporary texts.
With a virtuoso trickster like Dalí however, even such quantities of textual material cannot hope to uncover the true essential inner Dalí. He erects an endless baffle against any approach to his intimate self, in his writings as in his art.
This has put his work in jeopardy with that strain of modern art and its criticism obsessed with artistic “authenticity”. Finkelstein deals with the common suspicion that Dalí is too self-conscious, too Freud-conscious, too conveniently outrageous to be producing authentic expressions of even his febrile inner life, in the only way reasonable.
He accepts that “seriousness and clowning, authenticity and playacting, clarity of vision and self-deception” are indissociable parts of the artist’s creative genius. This seems to go some way towards allowing that the art of concocting such powerfully emotive images as Dalí was producing in the late 1920s and early 1930s, even self-consciously, is arguably as much of a creative achievement as any other.
Haim Finkelstein, Salvador Dalí’s Art and Writing: the metamorphosis of Narcissus, (Cambridge University Press, 1996) 352pp 83b/w £45 ISBN 0 521 49747 7
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Dalí in his own write'