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Salvador Dalí

Pompidou promotes Dalí as forerunner to performance art in new exhibition

The chaotic layout of the show is designed to embrace the theatricality and madness of the great artist

Is there anything left to be said about the arch Surrealist Salvador Dalí? The curatorial team behind this ambitious exhibition of more than 200 works by the archetypal artist-cum-showman at Paris’s Centre Pompidou believe Dalí’s innovations still merit discussion. “There have been several reassessments recently with exhibitions devoted to specific aspects of his work, such as painting, film and mass-media. This show, based on a selection of paintings and films, aims to synthesise these studies,” says Jean-Hubert Martin, the chief curator.

The curatorial staff, including Thierry Dufrêne and Jean-Michel Bouhours, argue that Dalí’s performance-based works make him a trailblazer of the genre and a forerunner of contemporary practice. A series of experimental film projects explored in the section entitled “Theatricality” reflect Dalí’s talent for improvisation. These include Chaos and Creation, 1960, co-produced with Philippe Halsman, which, according to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is often called the first artist’s video. The 17-minute work shows Dalí holding an easel that morphs into images of pigs, popcorn and a model in evening wear.

In the catalogue, Alfred Pacquement, the director of the Pompidou, says: “Dalí’s output is not limited to highly accomplished paintings. Projects for the theatre or cinema, films, television broadcasts, documents of all sorts must be included in his body of work, some aspects of which may irritate, but which testify to a genuine [form of] reality.”

This element of performance, play and controlled chaos is reflected in the exhibition design. “To line up the masterpieces in chronological order would not suffice to understand Dalí’s genius, to use his own [self] description,” Pacquement adds. The layout is inspired by the artist, drawing on his concept for an exhibition of works presented at the Pompidou from 1979 to 1980. He told the then director Pontus Hulten that the visitor should “embrace” the entire exhibition in a panoramic sweep.

Large-scale paintings, such as Tuna Fishing, 1966-67, subsequently hang on the periphery walls while the diagonal “Theatricality” section runs down the middle alongside a re-creation of the Mae West installation, comprising the Saliva-Sofa, seen at the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres. Visitors enter the show through an egg, symbolising birth and fertility, and exit through a brain. “The curators’ idea involves entering a body, and leaving through a mind,” Pacquement says.

Other thematic sections throw light on Dalí’s motivations and hints of madness. “Myth and History” demonstrates the artist’s conflicted relationship with dictators such as Hitler and General Franco of Spain. “The Spanish Civil War [and Franco] along with Nazism perturb Dalí because of their large-scale manipulation of the crowds. This aspect scares him and threatens his individuality,” Martin says. “But he tries to play the game, protecting his own interests. He needs Franco’s permission to create his Theatre-Museum [launched in 1974].”

Martin also points out that Dalí radically reconfigured perspective. “The retinal representation of space using the single vanishing point was definitively outlawed [in Modern painting]. The only artist to maintain it in spite of everything was Dalí, in order to access images from an imaginary world.” This skill was evident in the “double” images, seen in the section “Surrealism and the Paranoiac-critical Method”. This involves tapping into the subconscious mind, creating a surreal scenario through optical illusions and multiple images. Works on show include The Architectonic Angelus of Millet, 1933.

Pacquement stresses that Dalí’s “extreme precision” and “classical painting of perfect accuracy” are part of the artist’s legacy. “But he was also that irritating person who used the contemporary media as much as they used him,” he adds. The show, sponsored by the accountancy firm PwC France, travels to the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, Madrid (23 April-2 September 2013).

• Dalí, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 21 November-25 March 2013

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'In by an egg, out by a brain'