If the concept of shameless self-promotion didn’t exist, Salvador Dalí would certainly have invented it.
The notorious Spaniard created a persona as outsized and outrageous as his signature mustache. His absurd antics and deliberately provocative pronouncements attracted the media, enthralled the public and filled his wallet, but they also deflated his reputation. Conventional wisdom among the cognoscenti has long been that Dalí was an important painter during his 10 years in league with the surrealist movement, after which he sold out and descended into kitsch.
Enter the High Museum and its current exhibit, “Dalí: The Late Work,” a serious re-examination of the work that followed his expulsion from the surrealist circle in 1939 and his arrival in the U.S. in 1941. (He was 37 at the time, not exactly “late,” but never mind.)
This is not the High’s first rehab operation. In 1999, its “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People” was a successful reappraisal. Audiences and the art world saw Rockwell in a new light, and the High reaped both museum cred and the gate that a famous artist with a built-in audience can bring.
The formula is the same here. Dalí is a technically gifted, popular artist whom the art world disdains, perhaps ripe for a fresh analysis. Alas, no cigar. Guest curator Elliott H. King expands and deepens an understanding of Dalí’s evolution, philosophy, symbolism and considerable legacy. The work he has selected showcases the artist’s virtuosity in many media. Yet, the paintings are often bombastic -- in the kitschy portraits for wealthy clients, he even abandons his skill -- and the ideas are inert. They neither supplant nor equal his surrealist work.
Persona -- and portraits -- notwithstanding, Dalí was always serious about art. The Catalan artist conducted an ongoing conversation with his art historical heroes -- Vermeer, Velazquez, Raphael, Zurbaran -- and his peers, particularly Picasso. (You could call it a competition. He literally kept score -- check out the chart in one of the cases.)
He aimed to make a classical art for the 20th century. The exhibit documents his avid engagement with ideas of the times, dominated by Sigmund Freud, whose theories catalyzed the surrealists, and nuclear physics. Long interested in modes of perception, Dalí was fascinated by the existence of unseen atoms and such, which he represented by fracturing forms into cubes, cones and scribbles. He credited these scientific discoveries with returning him to Catholicism and applied his new vocabulary to traditional religious imagery.
This “nuclear mysticism” is not convincing. Perhaps his elaborate philosophizing stifled his expressivity. Perhaps his desire to equal his masters drove him to these flashy displays of technical prowess. The work is stiff and cold, except for “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” in which he channeled his skill to convey a personal and moving reinterpretation of the iconic image.
What a contrast to the energy and freedom of smaller-scale efforts. Examples include the lithographic series illustrating “Don Quixote,” and “Annunciation,” a genre-bending drawing in which Mary and the angel are depicted as energy vectors, and the insouciant photographs made in collaboration with photographer Philippe Halsman. Unfettered by precedents and the need to make important painting, Dalí relaxed and let his imagination go and made the best work of the period.
Perhaps the exhibit's most compelling contribution is to situate Dalí’s relationship to contemporary art. It’s eerie how frequently his work presages developments, from Roy Lichtenstein’s signature Benday dots to Spencer Tunick's combination of performance, photography and body art. (See “Voluptate Mors,” in which the tuxedoed artist arranges nude models to form the shape of a skull.)
More significantly, the artist’s canny manipulation of media, celebrity and provocation as well as his embrace of American capitalism and consumerism live on in the careers of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Dalí intuitively understood more about branding than Don Draper. His persona and the work built on it are, for better and worse, his most enduring legacy.
Catherine Fox is chief visual arts critic of ArtsCriticAtl.com.
“Dalí: The Late Work”
Through Jan. 9. $18; $15 students and seniors; $11 children 6-17; free for children 5 and under and members. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4444, www.high.org
The bottom line: This look at Salvador Dalí's post-surrealist career is illuminating, fascinating and fun. The show might rejigger his reputation as a forerunner of much of what is important in contemporary art, but, as with the probability of making silk purses out of sows' ears, it can't do the same for the alternately kitschy and bombastic painting.