In our second feature on Salvador Dalí and his work, Dr Ted Gott, NGV Senior Curator of International Art, looks closely at Dalí’s Trilogy of the desert: Mirage, 1946, and writes about the pattern of events that led this outspoken artist to create the work in a time and place where cultural and consumer endeavours were just beginning to overlap.
When Salvador Dalí relocated from Paris to the United States of America in 1940, escaping from the Nazi invasion of France, he controversially declared Surrealism to be dead, and stated that his aim in the USA was
to rediscover the traditions of the Italian Old Masters. His solo exhibition at Knoedler Gallery in New York in 1943 threw down a gauntlet to the predominance of abstraction and other forms of modernism in contemporary American art, with his display of finely crafted drawings and watercolours, and portrait paintings evocative of the Renaissance. Raphael was a name frequently invoked by Dalí during his long sojourn in the USA (1940–48), which he dedicated to reinventing himself as a Renaissance artist working across media and with diverse collaborators, always with astonishing skill and finesse.
Dalí’s next major exhibition, at Bignou’s Gallery in New York in November 1945, took his new classicism a step further, presenting visually complex works with bamboozling titles (Napoleon’s nose, transformed into a pregnant woman, melancholically strolling his shadow among original ruins), painted in a meticulous and fine manner that ran counter to the spirit of most contemporary art then being made in the USA. Writing in the Hearst publication New York Journal-American in December 1945, the widely syndicated gossip columnist Igor Cassini told his millions of readers:
Salvador Dalí is perhaps the most-talked-about, prolific and commercially successful painter in the market. What he paints is strictly monstrous and nightmarish, but all his severest critics agree that Dalí’s drawings have a Michelangeloian strength and that his technique, if not his subjects, approaches that of a Leonardo da Vinci.
Two years later, in the Cleveland News in November 1947, Dalí’s great friend and collector A. Reynolds Morse argued:
Because of the remoteness of classical traditions unapproached by any other single artist of this century, Dalí stands head and shoulders above the mob of moderns. I feel that Dalí is one of the great spirits of our age … the Raphael of our age.
When President Harry Truman expressed his dislike of ‘the splatter dash school of [modern] art’ with its ‘paintings which look as if the artist had merely hurled an egg’, Dalí was quick to respond, as the Baltimore Sun recounted delightedly on 23 February 1946. Calling a press conference in the home of his friend, Hollywood mogul Jack Warner, Dalí broke eggs onto a blank canvas, comparing the results with his own meticulous paintings and pronouncing in his delightfully accented English: ‘I wholeheartedly with Mr Truman agree. Always has been my ambition to catch in painting all traditions. Never I have liked abstractions, never. Against them I fight’.
This is the context in which Dalí was commissioned to create three paintings to celebrate the launch of Desert Flower, a new scent for women promoted in 1946 by the Shulton cosmetics company (creators of Old Spice
for men in 1937). Described at the time as a light, subtle and airy fragrance, Desert Flower was bottled in a fluted cylinder and packaged in gold and white. Dalí’s new classicism was a perfect fit with this new perfume product, both the artist and Shulton cosmetics arguably aiming to further improve aspects of ‘civilisation’ in contemporary America. Dalí’s Trilogy of the Desert paintings were exhibited when the new perfume was unveiled at the Knoedler Gallery in October 1946. Dali’s description of the trilogy’s central painting, Mirage, in the accompanying catalogue drew analogies with his campaign to reinvigorate contemporary art by looking back at the classical and Renaissance traditions: ‘The aura of classic antiquity evokes the desert flower, issuing from the forehead of Apollo’.
In Mirage a curiously gaunt female figure who has the sturdy legs of a Michelangelo, the voluptuous breasts of Raphael’s La Fornarina, 1518–19, and hair by Botticelli, plucks the flower of rescued civilisation from
an apparition of the head of the Apollo Belvedere, c. 350 BCE. This Apollo figure is propelled forward out of the desert by an explosion of fragmentary classical and Palladian architecture, a visual metaphor for Dalí’s argument that the antidote to ‘the laziness and complete lack of technique in our epoch … our time of total decadence of the means of expression’ could be found by rediscovering the traditions of the Italian Old Masters and
This cascade of architectural fragments also reflected another great change that occurred in Dalí’s life during his American years. A turning point for him came with the splitting of the atom and the explosion of the first atomic bomb. As he later recalled in The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali (1976):
The atomic explosion of August 6, 1945, shook me seismically. Thenceforth, the atom was my favourite food for thought. Many of the landscapes painted in this period express the great fear inspired in me by the announcement of that great explosion.
The discovery that physical matter was made up of tiny particles was hugely significant to Dalí, who saw distinct parallels between current scientific discoveries and spirituality. He articulated this through a philosophy that he termed ‘nuclear mysticism’, which was a curious mix of new developments in physics – such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – and Catholic theology. For Dalí, modern physics now
provided proof of the existence of God. Dalí ‘explained’ Catholic miracles through laws of physics; for example, he was adamant that the miracle of the Assumption was enabled through atomic energy, which propelled the Virgin’s ascension up to Heaven.
Trilogy of the desert: Mirage is a complex and beautiful painting by Salvador Dalí, which reflects his engagement with America’s consumer culture, his championing of fine craftsmanship in the making of art, and his religious reawakening in the USA following the cataclysmic birth of the atomic age.
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This article was first published in NGV Magazine March/April 2018.