Going for Baroque

An exhibit at the Dalí musuem connects the surrealist's art to the Baroque tradition

click to enlarge BY A WHISKER: Velazquez's portrait of his patron, Philip IV, may have inspired Dalí's moustache. - © Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid
© Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid
BY A WHISKER: Velazquez's portrait of his patron, Philip IV, may have inspired Dalí's moustache.

Artists are great borrowers. We might dress the practice up with the more academic term "appropriation" and argue over whether such use constitutes a conversation or all-out piracy, but it generally comes as no surprise to see in one artist's work a glimpse of shape, style or subject from another's.

But a moustache?

The most playful moment in a new exhibit at the Salvador Dalí Museum invites viewers to connect the moustaches in a Dalí self-portrait with paintings by 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, whose moustache Dalí used as a model for his own impudently flamboyant whiskers.

In addition to the facial-hair tribute, the exhibit suggests other, more cerebral parallels between Dalí's work and Spanish Baroque art, through juxtapositions of works by the 20th-century surrealist and 17th-century artists. The comparison, which bridges a span of 300 years, may come as a surprise to viewers accustomed to seeing the artist through a lens of similarities to Cubism, Dada and the surrealists. The Baroque proposition makes a subtler point, but one no less rewarding.

The Dalí Museum's William Jeffett and independent curator Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt selected 14 paintings and one sculpture (borrowed from Madrid's Museo Nacional del Prado and a host of American institutions) to illustrate many parallels between Dalí and the baroque — itself a thing of many definitions.

As director Hank Hine points out in an essay in the exhibit catalog, Baroque (big "B") makes specific reference to a group of artists now recognized as sharing a broad set of subjects (religion, still life, symbolism) and style of representation, while baroque (little "b") has a broader connotation of ornate decoration, complexity, sumptuousness and sensuality. Events surrounding the exhibit — musical performances and screenings of "contemporary baroque" films by Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and Luis Buñuel — supplement the idea of the baroque as a recurring theme throughout cultural history.

The exhibit takes a chronological approach, suggesting Dalí's youthful exposure to baroque art and architecture, first in Cadaques, a town with an elaborate baroque cathedral, then as a student in Madrid, where easy access to the Museo del Prado would have made everyday sights of paintings by Velazquez, El Greco and Murillo.

A cluster of still lifes provides a context to appreciate both the early influence of Baroque painting on Dalí's artistic development and his surrealist treatment of that most prosaic of genres. A hyper-realistic breadbasket illustrates that by the end of his student days, Dalí could already make paintings to hang with the best of history's artists. (Here it shares a wall with an elegantly restrained basket of cherries by Blas de Ledesma and an ample bunch of grapes by Luis Egidio Melendez.) By the late 1930s into the 50s, Dalí turned the still life on its head, adding a string of cavorting figures to the background of a still life with telephone and sardines in a bowl, or in "Nature Morte Vivante," a highly kinetic collection of objects.

Comparisons with vanitas still lifes, which feature memento mori like skulls, clocks, hourglasses and candles, add an historical dimension to the drooping watches and roguish skulls that populate Dalí's images. A Baroque example by an unknown artist offers a rich spread of multisensory pleasures: an elegant harp and glittering metal vessels set against red drapery, with a skull and wilting flowers suggesting the pointlessness of materiality. Suddenly, Dalí's synesthetic vision of a skull sodomizing a piano makes a new kind of sense.

The exhibit suggests that Dalí saw himself, quite literally, as a modern-day heir to Baroque Spanish painters. In particular, he idolized Diego Velasquez, who became not only the point of reference for several of Dalí's paintings but the source of his moustache. Velasquez was court painter to Spain's King Philip IV in the 17th century. His best-known work — and one of the most famous in art history — "Las Meninas," a portrait of the young Infanta Margarita and her entourage, appears in the exhibit as a slide projection on a gallery wall. The huge painting, which hangs in the Prado, is renowned for the ambiguity of its subject matter. The artist himself, Velasquez, appears near the center of the composition, painting an unseen canvas as the petite princess and her odd coterie of helpers (two nearly identical ladies-in-waiting, a pair of dwarfs and a dog) stand nearby. In the background, a pair of shadowy figures — generally assumed to be the king and queen — is reflected in a small mirror.

In a pair of paintings, Dalí makes reference to Velasquez, posing himself at the edge of the pictorial frame in his "The Ecumenical Council," a direct quote from "Meninas." In another, he seems to depict Velasquez in silhouette roaming the halls of the Prado in the shadow of the image of the Infanta Margarita. And there it is: in both "Meninas" and a portrait Velasquez created of his patron, Philip IV, the moustache. Dalí's own, of course, is just a bit wackier.

File under interesting biographical coincidences the fact that Velasquez, toward the end of his life, was named a knight of the Order of Santiago by his patron. Dalí was awarded a similar honor when, in 1982, King Juan Carlos named him Marquis of Pubol (the name of the castle where Dalí and wife Gala lived). It's worth noting that Dalí was born three years after his older brother, also called Salvador, died. His parents may have encouraged Dalí's belief that he was an almost literal reincarnation of his older brother, predisposing him to such fantasies throughout life.

One last, tiny morsel comes in the form of a gallery of images suggesting another identification, this time with the protagonist of 17th-century Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca's play, Life's a Dream. In the drama, a young prince is kept jailed and drugged by his father after an oracle predicts that he will wreak havoc as king. In his hallucinatory state, the prince loses the ability to distinguish reality from a dream. In one — perhaps a frontispiece — from a series of illustrations Dalí created for the play, a cartoonish silhouette of a face (a recurring element of self-portraiture in Dalí's paintings) scoots across the stage on its nose under the inscription of a Spanish proverb: In this double-crossing world, nothing is truth and nothing is a lie.

The combination serves as a metaphor for both Dalí's aesthetic philosophy and the ambitions of a man who dreamed of being something great and, indeed, turned out to be just that.

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