Dalí - Avida Dollars
by artist Mark Vallen. February 2005
Photo of Dali by Philippe Halsman.
February 12th and running until May 15th 2005, the
Philadelphia Museum of Art will present DALÍ,
a broad retrospective of the artist's works - the
first in the United States in over 60 years. Co-curator
of the exhibit, Michael Taylor, said "It's astonishing,
the range of his work. It's really crucial, I think,
to the re-evaluation of his career." As the media,
historians, and art critics have another look at Dalí,
it is indeed time for a new examination of the artist's
a nine year old in 1963, I cracked open an art book
presenting the works of Salvador Dalí, and became
transfixed by his 1936 painting, Soft Construction
with Boiled Beans -Premonition of the Spanish Civil
War. The bizarre painting of a grotesque monster
pulling itself apart refused to convey any meaning
to me whatsoever, yet I was spellbound by the image.
It was one of those formative moments in life when
I knew providence would make me an artist. As I matured
so too did my fondness for the surrealist painter,
and by sixteen I had developed a full blown obsession
with Dalí's works. A few years later, as I turned
to reading history, I discovered that Soft Construction
with Boiled Beans was not a premonition, and that
my idol was not the founder of surrealism.
Construction with Boiled Beans - Dalí
was surprised to learn about the original 1924 Parisian
surrealist group (to which Dalí was admitted in 1929).
Founded and led by the French writer André
Breton, the group included members like Max
Miró, and Yves
Tanguy. The surrealists had as their goal the
total revolutionary transformation of society. They
believed the subconscious was the wellspring of a
liberated art, and they refused any restraints, whether
brought to bear by reason, aesthetics, or morality.
Dalí was influenced by surrealism in 1924 after exposure
to La Révolution Surréaliste, the journal edited
by André Breton. Dalí put aside his early cubist approach
and took up the banner of surrealism. He collaborated
with friend Luis Buńuel in creating the film, Un
Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). The surrealist
movie premiered in Paris 1929 and received a standing
ovation from an audience composed of Pablo Picasso,
Jean Cocteau, Fernand Leger, Tristan Tzara, and the
entire surrealist entourage. Soon after Dalí and Buńuel
were inducted into the surrealist circle, and Dalí's
early years in the group were rewarding. But by the
late 30's his creeping ultra-conservatism caused him
to fall out of favor with his fellow artists, and
he was ultimately expelled as a renegade in 1939.
Buńuel by Dalí, 1924.
referring to André Breton's eventual criticism of
Dalí, the Philadelphia Museum's promotional material
makes it sound like a case of mere professional jealousy.
had long thought Dalí's art had become too commercialized
and that Dalí's growing fame threatened the unity
and agenda of the surrealists. His growing disgust
with Dalí's financial success as an artist led him
to dub Salvador Dalí with the anagrammatic nickname
'Avida Dollars,' describing what he perceived as Dalí's
greed for money and fame. Though no longer associated
with the Surrealists, Dalí never abandoned his Surrealist
Breton's disapproval of Dali had nothing to do with
the Spanish painter's "financial success", rather,
it was an issue of political integrity. Breton had
an excellent relationship with the Mexican Muralist,
Diego Rivera, who enjoyed financial success and the
largesse of wealthy patrons while continuing to develop
a revolutionary art.
on the other hand immigrated to the US to sit out
the war years and pursue a capitalist-style career.
He lived in America from 1939 to 1948, where he
became a master of exhibitionism and self-promotion.
He was the darling of advertisers, who used him
to sell every imaginable product. He worked for
Disney and created a cinematic sequence for Alfred
Hitchock's, Spellbound. His meticulously
cultivated flamboyant persona and thoroughly orchestrated
eccentricity guaranteed a public perception of him
as the ultimate surrealist artist - it also brought
him a personal fortune estimated at over $30 million
dollars. Breton was not off the mark in bestowing
upon Dalí the anagram of Avida Dollars (meaning
Greedy for Dollars), in fact Dalí was so venal when
it came to wealth that he enthusiastically embraced
the anagram as a nickname.
(left) and Dali, circa 1929
set design for
Alfred Hitchock's, Spellbound.
surrealist ire towards Dalí had less to do with
his greed, and far more to do with his dubious political
opinions. War and fascism were on Europe's horizon,
and thesurrealists moved further to the left when
the Nazis seized absolute power in 1933 and Germany
began its decent into barbarism. Hitler initiated
an unprecedented campaign of terror - civil rights
were no more, artists and intellectuals began to
flee the country, book burnings had begun, more
than 25,000 communists, socialists, and Jews had
been sent to concentration camps - and that was
just the beginning.
developed within the surrealist group as Dalí evaded
anti-fascist political ideas and actions and instead
showed an obsessive interest in what he called the
"Hitler phenomenon." As Dalí's infatuation with
Hitler grew, he came under suspicion by his fellow
1933, instead of condemning Hitler, Dalí painted
The Enigma of William Tell, a semi-nude
portrait of Lenin with a huge anamorphic buttock.
The surrealists saw the painting as a provocation
- especially since the Nazis were busy murdering
people for being "communists". Dalí defended himself
by saying, "No dialectical progress will be possible
if one adopts the reprehensible attitude of rejecting
and fighting against Hitlerism without trying to
understand it as fully as possible." Surrealist
misgivings concerning Dalí's political loyalties
led him to sign a declaration that he "was not an
enemy of the proletariat", but the situation only
worsened with the outbreak of the Spanish
Civil War. In 1936 General Franco's Nazi-supported
troops led a revolt against the democratically elected
government seated in Madrid.
the surrealists and artists worldwide reacted to
the outrages of fascism against the Spanish Republic,
Dalí painted his Soft Construction with Boiled
Beans, a work that many art critics have mistakenly
construed as being "antiwar."
on the canvas, the Philadelphia Museum's promotional
material states, "Though
Dalí intended this painting as a comment on the
horrors of the Spanish Civil War, he did not openly
side with the Republic or with the fascist regime.
In fact, the painting is one of only a few works
by Dalí to deal with contemporary social or political
issues. Unlike other Spanish modernists, including
Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, who used their art
to make political statements in support of the Spanish
Republic, Dalí preferred
to remain apolitical."
co-curator of the Philadelphia Museum exhibit, Michael
Taylor, said that Dalí "wants the Spanish Civil
War to be seen as a really monstrous thing that's
ripping the country apart. He didn't want to take
sides. I think Picasso wanted to take sides." Thank
goodness Pablo Picasso took sides! The Condor Legion
was a unit of the Nazi air force or Luftwaffe, created
by Hitler to assist Franco. On April 26, 1937, German
Condor Legion bombers attacked the ancient Basque
village of Guernica, killing nearly 2,000 people
in history's first arial mass bombing of a civilian
population. Picasso's response was to paint a masterwork,
perhaps the 20th century's greatest antiwar painting.
could one not have taken sides when Mussolini's
tanks and Hitler's air force assisted Franco's troops
in extinguishing democracy in Spain? It is a fallacy
to think Dalí "remained apolitical" while Spain
was cut to ribbons by fascist bayonets. Silence
sometimes masks complicity, and this was confirmed
when Dalí pledged
in 1939 his full and unwavering support for
the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. That
pledge to Franco resulted in Dalí being thrown out
of the surrealist movement for good, but his 1939
Enigma of Hitler
(which now hangs in the Museo Nacional Reina
Sofia, Madrid) also contributed to his expulsion.
Dalí had inserted a small portrait of Adolph Hitler
in the barren surreal landscape.
prior year had seen the whirlwind of anti-Semitic
hatred known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken
Glass) explode in Germany. Hundreds of Jewish synagogues
were torched, thousands of Jewish businesses were
looted, and 30,000 Jews were sent to the concentration
camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen.
Against that appalling backdrop Dali dared to portray
Hitler as an "enigma." The surrealists could no
longer put up with Dali's conduct and decided to
expel what they considered a reactionary impostor
from their ranks.
Dalí returned to Franco's Spain after the war, and
it no doubt endlessly pleased the dictator to have
the celebrated artist living and working there when
few other well-known personalities would. Dalí announced
his conversion to traditional Catholicism, and the
sacred art he created in the 1950's became some
of his most popular works worldwide. Long gone was
Dalí the rebel anticleric, the scatological genius,
the anarchistic surrealist.
even his religious paintings, surreal Madonnas and
crucifixion scenes, seemed tainted inasmuch as they
were the type of artworks fully sanctioned by the
fascists who lorded over Spain. After having overthrown
the duly elected government, General Franco ran
Spain with an iron fist until his death in 1975.
The country's first democratic elections since 1936
were held two years after Franco's demise. Salvador
Dalí passed away in 1989, at the age of 85.
of Port Lligat
write these words not as a detractor of Dalí's
works, but as someone opposed to the revisionism
surrounding his history. To be honest, I still admire
Dalí as an accomplished painter, and I find genius
in the works he produced throughout his long career.
But one must be honest about Dalí's considerable
flaws in order to properly re-evaluate his contributions
to art. The Philadelphia Museum does a disservice
to its patrons and to history by asserting "Dalí
never abandoned his Surrealist pursuits entirely."
was always much more than a decorative fantasy art
composed of bizarre landscapes filled with melting
watches. It was a complete philosophical, political,
and aesthetic program that by the late 30's had
been entirely discarded by Dalí. The year 2004 was
celebrated as the 100th anniversary of Salvador
Dalí's birth. The chairman of Spain's Dali Year
Commission stated in 2004 that if Pablo Picasso
(who was a communist), received "international acclaim,
then Dalí, who admittedly supported fascism in Spain,
should receive his own homage." In light of such
a statement, it is astonishing that the Philadelphia
Museum of Art can still say that Dalí "preferred
to remain apolitical."