Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 25, 2000
Dawn Ades Dalí’s Optical Illusions New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 1999. 196 pp.; 109 color ills.; 61 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0300081774)

Now that the twentieth century is over it begins to make sense to assess modernism as a whole, and in that context artists like Salvador Dalí become unexpectedly important. For decades he has been an asked-and-answered question, largely on the lead of his expulsion from the Surrealist group in 1939 (when Breton said his work was “little more than crossword puzzles”). He did not help his case by moving so aggressively into marketing, and at the start of the twenty-first century he has the additional stigma of being a favorite among less informed buyers. With the rise of interest in technical skill, kitsch, popular imagery, and (especially since Dave Hickey’s influential work) beauty, Dalí has become ubiquitous. He is featured in mail-order offers and upscale tourist galleries of the kind that also sell cheaper Rembrandt prints, framed reproductions of Norman Rockwell paintings, and smaller works by artists such as Bernard Buffet and Ben Shahn.

What is the case in favor of Dalí? This well-produced book is a good opportunity to rethink the question. The occasion for the book was an exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum, which has a long history of association with Dalí (well documented in an essay by Eric Zafran). The book concentrates, helpfully, on one of the aspects of his work that has done him the most damage among art historians: his optical obsessions. Anamorphoses, optical tricks and puns, and an ongoing interest in persective have all been seen as the exaggerated results of Dalí’s unacceptable dependence on his superior technical skills. It’s as if Dalí’s optical interests are the seal on his acceptability; the marginal part of his already marginal oeuvre. Can Dalí be defended by underscoring his scientific interests? It’s clear that Dalí himself often put his painting in relation to his “omnivorous and eclectic curiosity in contemporary science. . . physics, genetics and mathematics . . . optics . . . perception” and so forth (11). Yet I think it should be said up front that Dalí’s scientific and optical interests, even if they were far more extensive than they are, could not wholly retrieve his reputation. Optical interests wouldn’t place him back in the ranks of essential surrealists—especially in relation to Duchamp’s more ironic sense of opticality, or de Chirico’s more complex perspectives, or Ernst’s more circumspect uses of aleamorphic (chance) images.

It is also easy to overstate Dalí’s dependence on specific optical concerns. Various citations in this text combine to produce the impression that Dalí was actually practicing a number of historically specifiable optical methods. Dalí did know about “relief” or "accelerated " perspective, but it is not accurate to say that such perspective is at play in paintings that show his signature speedy diminution (18). Relief perspective is strictly a three-dimensional technique, and the paintings in question just look like they recede quickly, an effect that requires no special technique.

Likewise Dalí knew what anamorphoses were, and made two or three himself (22, 36, 37). But the “atmospheric skulls” and other distended objects are not anamorphic in any specifiable sense of that word. They are rubbery distortions, more like d’Arcy Thompson’s metrological experiments than anything in Jean François Niceron. The painting Myself at the Age of Ten when I was the Grasshopper Child (Castration Complex) (1933) may depend on a plate of Niceron’s Thaumaturgus Opticus (1646) showing a chair stretched off toward the vanishing point—but Dalí’s stretched table is organic, and has nothing to do with infinity, geometry, or rational rigor. Dalí’s invention doesn’t depend on Niceron’s chair for any of the reasons that Niceron’s chair is anamorphic (94). It depends on Niceron’s chair only in the general sense that Niceron and others put Dalí in mind of topological elongations.

The genuinely optical works in this book are the late stereo-pair paintings, which Dalí did after abandoning the nascent technology of holography. Curiously, Dalí’s methods go entirely unmentioned—"curiously," because this is a book of optical illusions, and it is traditional to accompany reproductions of illusions with the appropriate technical information. The absence of information on Dalí’s own methods, and the stress on seventeenth-century precedents, makes it seem as if Dalí had generalized or philosophic interests in the past, whereas he also had very down-to-earth technical interests. It isn’t easy to set up stereo-pair perspective compositions, and Dalí could have used one of several methods that were developed in the nineteenth century. Ades says they were meant to be seen with mirrors or with optical viewing devices, but they can be seen—like any other stereo pair—by crossing your eyes slightly, until there appear to be three images, and then concentrating on the middle image. (It’s very much in Dalí’s spirit to cross your eyes and have to put up with the ensuing visual disorientation and headache.) In at least one picture, Dalí went deliberately against the stereo effect by putting different things in the left and right pictures. In one pair, called Athens is Burning (1979-80), the same architectural frame from the Stanza della Segnatura is peopled, on the left, with the School of Athens, and, on the right, with The Fire in the Borgo. The eyes fuse the architecture in both pictures, and try hopelessly to fuse the mismatched figures. The result, for me, is an extremely annoying visual fibrillation—just the kind of thing Dalí would have relished, and which he must have both anticipated and experienced. Athens is Burning is very far from an ordinary stereo pair.

My point isn’t that references to relief perspective, anamorphosis, double images, and stereo pairs are inappropriate, but that Dalí’s practice diverged significantly from his sources and therefore calls for a separate, at times independent, analysis. The essays in this book sometimes acknowledge as much. On page 37, Peter Sutton remarks that Dalí’s idiosyncratic anamorphoses are “liberated, mobile, and freely creative.” The question is how liberated, and therefore how much sense it makes to present citations to “classical” anamorphoses as sufficient explanations. Is the pale, languid object in Fantasies Diurnes (1931) an anamorphosis? Is it explained by referring it to an anamorphic drawing Dalí included in a letter to Eluard (84)? Anamorphosis is a distant memory when it comes to paintings like Fantasies Diurnes, which have more to do with a particular shaved-wood model of dream images (which Dalí shared with Magritte), and with the textures of driftwood or the melted shapes of igneous rock formations.

I intend these questions to unfold the descriptions in Dalí’s Optical Illusions in a direction which might re-engage Dalí’s oeuvre with the essential core of twentieth-century painting. Dwelling on Dalí’s optical experiments makes him seem that much more eccentric, but is it a good eccentricity founded on expressive interpretations of past practices, or a treacherous eccentricity weighed down by inappropriate affections for optical tricks? At the heart of this issue is the question of Dalí’s virtuosity, of which the optical illusions are just a part (perhaps the most extreme part). Can Dalí’s technical virtuosity be squared with modernism’s spurning of skill? The Baigneuse (1928) is a sprawling melted nude that wouldn’t have been possible (as Ades says) without Miró, Picasso, and Arp, but it is relentlessly naturalistic about its anatomy: it sports flushed skin, wrinkles, varicose veins, dirty fingernails, cellulite. Its head is shriveled to a disk, which is stamped with two dot-eyes and a logo of a shark’s jaws, more or less in the manner Picasso adopted around 1927 but much more literally. In Picasso’s paintings the tiny heads are far away, as if they cannot be properly seen or imagined. Here the head really is a disk, painted with a cartoon version of a set of teeth. Even when Dalí’s influences are unmistakable, they are somehow wrong: too optical, too literal. Even the sand in Baigneuse is real sand. Certainly Dalí “characteristically push[ed]” ideas “to an extreme” (76), but are they extremes or misunderstandings?

It doesn’t help that Dalí does not seem to have had much distance on his own virtuosity. Ades notes some of his self-deprecating comments (on his “clever tricks” and his “abjectly arriviste and irresistible mimetic art” 10), but it’s never clear how much he believed what he said. He loved Meisonnier and Bouguereau both perversely and genuinely, very nearly the way any nineteenth-century academician might have.

The literature on Dalí is divided into three genres: specialized texts written by a sub-group of art historians who take Dalí as a central example of surrealism; sycophantic writings by gallerists, paid critics, and those who have a stake in the legacy; and a studied silence by the majority of art historians for whom Dalí continues to be something other than a canonical twentieth-century painter. There are good reasons to rethink that divided reception. Not the least of them is Dalí’s influence on postwar figuration. Portrait of My Dead Brother (1963) decomposes a face into Bendé-style dots, at the same time as Lichtenstein and before Polke. Geodesical Portrait of Gala (1936) is a portrait seen from behind, à la Richter. The monumental late compositions (not included in this exhibition) are a kind of over-the-top Pop art, and they need to be discussed alongside Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, and Erro—that is, alongside the whole movement, from the most to the least indispensable.

James Elkins
E. C. Chadbourne Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago