New York in History and Anecdote
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The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí came to New York for the first time in 1934. In a symptom of the Civil War to come, the provincial government of Catalonia had unilaterally declared independence from Spain. The subsequent street fighting terrified him and he would not return to Spain for many years.

He was Catalonian himself. Catalonians consider themselves a people of seny, common sense or wisdom, and rauxa. Robert Hughes, in Barcelona, defines rauxa as “any kind of irrational or Dionysiac or (sometimes) just plain dumb activity—getting drunk, screwing around, burning churches, and disrupting the social consensus.” He suggests “the most pervasive form of rauxa is an abiding taste for…obscene humor.”

In this, as in many things, Dalí was truly Catalonian. Other surrealists had shocked the French bourgeoisie; Dalí had shocked the surrealists with his excremental and onanist obsessions. Hughes once asked Dalí who was the great unknown modernist artist (aside from Dalí, of course). “Joseph Pujol,” Dalí replied. Hughes had never heard of Pujol.

He was a turn-of-the-century Parisian music hall artist who performed under the stage name “Le Petomane” (frequently translated “Fartiste”). Hughes notes that “Pujol had a vast gas capacity and perfect control over his bowels and anal sphincter. Not only could he fart tunefully, but he could absorb a whole bowl of water on stage by sitting in it and drawing it up, like an India yogi.”

Dalí insisted these were not simply natural endowments, but achievements of incessant practice and relentless discipline. With them, Pujol would keep packed houses rolling in the aisles with renditions of popular airs, “La Marseillaise,’ even snatches of Verdi and Offenbach. He would also imitate the posterior sounds of animals—the deep bass elephant, the gibbon, the mouse—and do character sketches, such as the imperious fart of the President of the Republic or the nervous squeak of the “petite postulante de quatorze ans.”

So much for Picasso.

Dalí was not a feminist. He proclaimed, “Talent is in the balls…. Have you ever heard of a great female painter? One as great as Velasquez or Michelangelo? Only men. Talent, creative genius, is in the testicles. Without them, one can create nothing. For women, creation is procreation; they can bear children, but they will never decorate the Sistine Chapel.”

In youth he had been admired by Garcia Lorca. Dalí later said, “He was homosexual, as everyone knows, and madly in love with me. He tried to screw me twice…. I was extremely annoyed, because I wasn’t homosexual, and I wasn’t interested in giving in. Besides, it hurts. So nothing came of it…. Deep down, I felt that he was a great poet and that I did owe him a bit of the Divine Dalí’s asshole.”

Perhaps his perversion was most openly expressed through his aversion to physical contact, reflected in his novel Hidden Faces. Its protagonist tells his mistress that they must reach orgasm without ever touching. Thus it was, apparently, in his marriage. His wife, Gala, would he his business manager, his companion, and for most of their life together his best friend. But apparently ordinary sexual relations didn’t enter into it. Certainly he was impotent: he may have lacked the common courage to drop his mask and his guard, to be simply, nakedly himself.

But he did not lack the courage to conquer the world. In art school, he demanded that his teachers show him how to mix his oils, spread the colors, and blend the tones.  He wanted rigor, method, and objective training. To his disappointment and rage, his teachers espoused a slovenly post-impressionist anarchy: Their students should paint what they saw. In response, when assigned to paint a Gothic statue of the Virgin, he carefully produced a pair of scales. His teacher stopped in frozen silence. “Perhaps you see a Virgin like everyone else,” the professor finally said, “but I see a pair of scales.”

Eventually, like any artist, he trained himself, developing, as one critic observed in the mid-50s, “an absolute mastery of the craft that is equaled by no other artist alive today.”  His approach was strictly formal, as classical as the most hidebound Academician, and however bizarre the subject matter, his paintings always had geometric rigor and detachment. And he usually worked a fourteen-hour day.

He combined intellectual strength with a pose of utter helplessness. When first in Paris, he claimed inability to use the Métro until a friend took him there and then left him on the train, instructing him to get off at the next stop. “You’ll see ‘Exit’ in large letters. Then you go up a few steps and you go out.”

Dalí later wrote of this ordeal, “Reaching the surface, I stood haggard for a long time. I felt I had been spewed out of some monstrous anus… And, O miracle! My lucidity, my pride, my strength returned instantly…with increased power. I understood I had been through a great initiation.”

In 1931, Dalí created The Persistence of Memory, which remains his most famous painting. His biographer, Meryle Secrest, writes that he had eaten a strong Camembert that evening. He sat at the dinner table meditating on the notion of super-softness that the cheese seemed to exemplify. Then he went to his work-in-progress, a landscape, “deserted, forlorn, lit by a fading sun and with a leafless olive tree in the foreground. He knew it was the setting for an idea, but he didn’t know what, and besides, he had a headache. Suddenly, in a flash, he saw the solution. Two hours later he had added his famous soft watches.”

Times critic John Canaday later called The Persistence of Memory a jewel “in its brilliant colour, its small size, its immaculate precision. It is in the technical tradition of early Flemish and Venetian painting; also, it is parasitic in its forms. The deep distance with its sea and its rocky promontories picked out in golden light is all but a steal from the early Venetian Giovanni Bellini, whose allegories would be Surrealist if their symbolism were morbid instead of poetic.”

His first New York show in 1933 had been mildly successful. A year later, Dalí traveled to New York with Gala (as his business manager, she was described as having “a gaze that could penetrate bank vaults”) in a third-class cabin. He said, “I am next to the engine so that I’ll get there quicker.” During his rare walks on deck, he wore a life jacket.

Upon landing, during the inevitable press conference, he was asked which was his favorite picture. He responded, “The Portrait of My Wife,” which represented Gala with lamb chops on her shoulders. “I used to balance two broiled chops on my wife’s shoulders,” Dalí said, “and then by observing the movement of tiny shadows produced by the accident of the meat on the flesh of the woman I love while the sun was setting, I was finally able to attain images sufficiently lucid and appetizing for exhibition in New York.”

During this first visit, he uttered his immortal observation: “The only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad.” Most of the time, his English was nearly unintelligible. He used an exaggerated French accent, threw in a few extra Catalan vowels as he saw fit, and rolled his r’s as in Spanish. Thus, “butterfly” came out “bouterrrrflaaaaaeeee.” Usually, no American audience understood a word, but if they did the result was deafening applause.

The reporters loved him; so did Society; so did the collectors, who swarmed his new show at the gallery of Julian Levy. By the end of his 1934 visit, he would be far richer in several senses for his stay in New York.  On the night before his departure for Europe, he gave a Bal Onirique, inviting guests to come as their dream and be wined and dined from ten in the evening until ? for only $10 a couple. He dressed as a rotting corpse with a bandage around his head. He had cut a square hole in his white formal shirt, which framed, as Meryle Secrest wrote, “a shadow box for a pair of tiny breasts, decorously enclosed inside a bra.” The ball was a tremendous success: The New York Mirror blared “Mad Dream Betrayal of New York Society at the Astounding Party to its Newest Idol.”

He returned in 1939. He had been hired to design shop windows for Bonwit Teller. The central Feature of the window he called Day was a bathtub lined with black astrakhan and filled with water, beside which stood an old-fashioned mannequin, decorated only with red hair and green feathers. In Night, another mannequin appeared to be asleep on a black satin bed, the canopy of which was composed of a buffalo’s head with a bloody pigeon in its mouth. She lay on a pillow of apparently live coals.

Several complaints were received by the management that the windows were obscene. They changed the mannequins. Dalí was outraged. He protested, demanding that the store either take his name off the windows or restore the work. Bonwit Teller refused to do either. He stepped into the window and overturned the bathtub, which crashed through the plate glass.  He was booked on malicious mischief, later reduced to disorderly conduct with sentence suspended.

On August 16, 1940, Dalí returned for an exile that would last eight years. Unlike most exiles from World War II, he set himself up at the St. Regis, where he painted society portraits for fees reportedly running as high as $25,000.  He diversified into ballet, opera, the novel, and film. He also began to emphasize commercial art.

Dalí believed his serious painting was the standard by which he would be judged. Everything else was for sale. He would take on any kind of advertising project if it paid well enough. By 1947, he was being paid up to $2,500 for an ad and $5,000 for book illustrations. His dismembered arms, limp watches, ruined columns, pieces of driftwood, tables with women’s legs, crutches, and ants were advertising Gunther’s furs, Ford cars, Wrigley’s chewing gum, Schiaparelli perfume, and Gruen watches, as well as the products of Abbott Laboratories and the Container Corporation of America. His waxed mustaches, rolling eyes, and walking sticks became trademarks, thanks largely to photographer Philippe Halsman, who over thirty years contributed as much to the Dalinian image as anyone save Dalí himself.

Halsmann photographed Dalí in every conceivable position and juxtaposition: nude in the womb; his face melting like one of his watches; his mustache on the Mona Lisa, or its pointed ends piercing a newspaper that he was reading, eyes crossed. His “Dalí Atomicus”—with Dalí, cats, water, canvas, and chair suspended in midair—was only one of their many collaborations for Life magazine; they even created a book about Dalí’s mustache (one hair of which Dalí sold to the Beatles for $5,000).

He usually wintered in New York, believing it to be “the most stimulating town in all the world…It’s the only place where I can do my deals.” In 1970, one writer observed that “forty years after his soft watches dropping over a barren landscape made him famous, Dalí is still Everyman’s idea of the mad genius of modern art, and mad genius sells like nothing else.” He was earning half a million dollars a year after taxes, and was worth around $10 million. He was designing shirts, fabrics, ties, cognac bottles, calendars, ash trays for Air India, stamps for Guyana, bathing suits, and gilded oyster knives. The only proposition he was known to have refused was that of the American who proposed opening a chain of “Dalícatessens.”

Until the 1960s, Dalí had produced few prints. Now he made up for lost time. His prints became a happy hunting ground for fraud. There were reprints of supposedly limited editions; unlimited artist’s proofs; plain outright counterfeits. Worse, he began signing blank pages. Then, a forger might merely use sheets with authentic signatures to produce completely fraudulent prints—neither drawn nor overseen in any way by Dalí.

As Secrest wrote, “Why bother to create an image? All he had to do was sign a sheet of paper to receive $40. An eyewitness described the way it was done. One aide slid the paper under his pencil and another pulled it away, for the greatest possible efficiency, meaning that the artist could sign one every two seconds. Assuming he could keep it up for an hour, Dalí was $72,000 richer—the easiest way to make money.” It was very Catalonian: the transformation of merde into gold.

No one knows how many he signed. His American lawyer doubted it was more than 40,000. His former agent once claimed as many as 350,000. The market in Dalí prints has never recovered. New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s affected even Dalí, who complained that city life had become, “Total decadence!  Even the St. Regis is not what it used to be…they have cut out the cherry on the breakfast grapefruit!”

In 1980, he left New York never to return. After Gala’s death in 1982, Dalí was devastated.  He lived in solitude, increasingly aware of his own mortality. During one of his last trips outside, a friend pointed out an orange tree laden with fruit. Dalí shook his head. “Do not show me things that I have loved so much and that hurt me now because I know that I must leave them.”

He died on January 23, 1989, listening to his favorite scratched record of Tristan und Isolde, which reminded him of sardines frying in oil. The Marques de Dalí de Pubol (King Juan Carlos had ennobled him in 1982) now rests above the women’s room in the museum that he founded in his home town.

For many, Dalí remains a genius and prophet. I think of a friend’s father, a tough, cynical, and supremely unillusioned journalist. In 1955, he covered the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s opening of Dalí’s Corpus Hypercubus. He entered the gallery, gazed at the painting of Christ crucified, and wept.

The gaudy old fraud had shown him a truth, perhaps the Truth.

New York Press, March 21, 1999

March 21, 2015   No Comments