Friday, 19 May 2017

The biggest Surrealist object in the world.

This was the phrase our free guide map used to describe the Teatre Museu Dali. It is certainly not an art gallery in the conventional sense, more a mix between a giant 'installation' and a happening; in spirit closer to 'Ripley's Believe it or Not' than the Tate Modern. Consequently the experience is difficult to sum up in a few words and photographs do not really do justice to the immersive nature of the place. It is an event rather than an experience.

A post on Trip Advisor claimed it is the second most visited museum in Spain. I suppose the top site is probably the Alhambra. Visiting there definitely requires pre-booking as only a few tickets are sold on the day. So I was somewhat sceptical of just turning up to the Dali Museum around midday and simply walking in; but we did - along with all the others aiming help the place knock the Alhambra off the top spot as Spain's most overcrowded tourist attraction.

Normally I would be fulminating right now about overcrowded art galleries, and making all kinds and of rude and vaguely racist comments about loud mouthed American tourists, and scrums of ill-mannered French art lovers with no sense of personal space and a congenital inability to take turns, but I can't. Not that the usual suspects were conspicuous by their absence, they were there in droves. However, because the Dali museum is set up as a happening, and much of it is dimly lit, with only the art works illuminated spectacularly in the penumbral gloom, the fact that you have to fight your way through a confused throng milling about the place chaotically and bumping into each other adds a discomforting edge to the Dali experience. It wrong foots you, as if in the semi darkness you are trapped in a vaguely disturbing dream, assailed by amorphous beasts or the Venus di Milo with half closed drawers  instead of breasts or Dali's dripping​ clock looming out of the darkness, each half glimpsed over a stranger's shoulder or hidden suddenly by an outstretched arm. This chaos contributes to the surreal experience in a way that the quiet, tranquil spaces you find in most art galleries could never achieve.

We all enjoyed it,  even Gill, who is not usually a fan of galleries and finds their atmosphere prissy and needlessly sanctimonious; she particularly liked the painted ceiling with the giant feet,- a pastiche of Baroque 'sotto in su,' the witty illusionism of the Mae West room and the way the whole place had been designed by the artist himself, presented as he wanted, and not curated afterwards by experts. Laura would not be drawn on which things she enjoyed particularly, but judged the whole place as cool - which is high praise indeed. 

As for me, it's taken almost half a century for me to make up my mind about Dali, involving a gradual 360° turnaround. When I was about fifteen years old I bought an Athena poster of Dali's 'Sleep'. I realise this was an unusual choice, as most adolescent boys at the time preferred a different Athena poster. It featured a tennis player I seem to recall. Anyway, I was not a normal teenager, I liked Dali. However, when I studied History of Art at university l decided that Dali was too much of a showman to be a serious artist, so I ignored him for the next 30 In 2007 while we were on holiday in Florida we visited the Dali museum in St Petersburg. It was the first time I had seen his works​ outside of reproductions in a book. Two things struck me, firstly, my poster may have been A2 sized, but the originals of famous works like 'The Persistence of Memory' are hardly bigger than postcards. Dali is a brilliant minaturist

The second point is related to this, he is a master technician, a virtuoso painter who can turn his hand to almost any style.  I still was prejudiced though - I conceded he was gifted, but I still dismissed him as a showman, a charlatan, but a technically gifted one. 

So what was it about the Dali Theatre Museum that persuaded me to accept Dali's greatness unequivocally? Again, two things. The museum is a piece of theatre, albeit a series of tableaux​ rather than live action (perhaps the actors are the other spectators?). It is not an exhibition of Surrealist works, but an invitation to experience the surreal. What opened me to this experience, I think, are the months we have spent travelling through Spain. Dali's vision is peculiar, but not unique, many aspects of it can be noted in aspects of Spanish culture. 

For example, form in Dali's work is fluid, rocks morph into flesh, objects melt and merge. Surely Gaudi is like that- too  stone sculpted as if it was plastercine; forms that emerge and flow. Stepping further back, the concoctions High Baroque architecture have a similar plasticity.

Even the strange dreamlike imagery, the surreal irrational subject matter and odd juxtapositions are not without precedent. Imagine if you approached Roman Catholicism without prior cultural knowledge, as if you had to explain it to a friendly Martian. Consider the miracles of saints, the unlikely Marian intercessions, the bloodied backs of Lenten flagellants, the Easter processions of hooded penitents, the magic of ​transubstantiation at the heart of the Mass, wine becoming blood, the Ascension, Assumption and Resurrection - by comparison the dreams and Id driven visions of the Surrealist​s seem somewhat tame. Dali's disturbed imagery seems almost endearing, uncanny, but not horrifying.

I have come to appreciate Dali better because I have begun to understand his roots in Spanish culture - I get where he is coming from. Moreover, the sheer vivacity of his output, the humour, theatricality and playfulness cannot really be gleaned from one or two paintings hung in a gallery. It would be like trying to understand why David Lynch is a great film maker by looking at a few stills from Blue Velvet.

It took us a couple of hours to visit the main museum. Somewhat overwhelmed we headed for a late lunch at nearby cafe. The tickets give you entry to the main museum and an annexe - a vault really - containing jewellery designed by Dali. We almost skipped the latter collection. Don't! It's very impressive. These beautifully wrought concoctions feel otherworldly, like staring at the crown jewels of an extra-terrestrial potentate - they are stunning. 

I admit it, for fifty years I got Dali completely wrong - but you have to see his work for real, reproductions won't suffice. So impressed were we with the  experience we even bought a soft watch fridge magnet..... I liked this photo of the man himself - what is he dreaming about I wonder?

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