Hello, Dali: Surrealist showcased at UCLA

Sunday, July 15, 2001

— With a long, meandering mustache that seemed to have a mind of its own, eyes wild and glaring, and a penchant for flamboyant dress, Salvador Dali was as bizarre as any of the erotic and shattering art he created.

By the time he died in 1989, his notoriety extended beyond Surrealism and his hundreds of paintings, engravings, watercolors and other works. His outspoken opinions on art and his talent for self-promotion, not to mention his dabbling in literature, film, science and popular culture, made him one of the 20th century's most recognizable artists.

"He in some ways was the stereotype of the mad artist, and I think the public latched onto that," art historian Albert Boime says. "He understood very well the connection between publicity and personality, and he took advantage of it. At the same time, he was an extremely talented individual ... and so he could get away with it."

Today, Boime says, Dali's work is judged on its merits and less on his celebrity. A two-week exhibition, "Dali at UCLA," opened Saturday at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"In time, the antics fall away and you actually see the artist," says Boime, who teaches art history at UCLA. "And when the public actually came to look at his work, they discovered it was breathtakingly beautiful."

The UCLA show includes about 500 pieces, including Dali originals and piles of memorabilia. It follows a similar exhibition that appeared last year at the Las Vegas Museum of Art and drew about 30,000 people. The show is sponsored by the Salvador Dali Gallery, a Los Angeles art house.

"Dali at UCLA" is both a commercial enterprise and a labor of love for gallery director Bruce Hochman.

"He was not only an artist but a true genius," Hochman says. "He wrote, he did set designs for movies, he designed jewelry. He even wrote an opera. He had an incredible artistic talent beyond just normal painting on canvas."

By the time Dali died in Figueres, Spain, where he had been born 85 years before, there had hardly been a form of artistic expression he had not attempted.

He wrote popular books, including "The Secret Life of Salvador Dali" and "Diary of a Mad Genius," produced volumes of art criticism and lectured all over the world.

He created sets for the Alfred Hitchcock film "Spellbound," worked with Walt Disney on an unsuccessful effort to make a "Fantasia"-like movie called "Destino" and even collaborated briefly with the Marx Brothers. He also worked with Luis Bunuel on his 1928 film, "Un Chien Andalou" ("An Andalusian Dog"), with its images of a slashed eye and dead donkeys.

Twice booted out of art school in Spain, Dali was embraced by the Surrealist movement he helped popularize during the early 20th century. The movement attempted to express the workings of the subconscious by fantastic imagery and odd combinations of subject matter.

In later years, some contemporaries criticized Dali for what they saw as his excessive commercialization. He designed jewelry and produced glitzy illustrations, projects that would help make him a millionaire many times over.

He also outlived many of his contemporaries, including Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, and influenced a new group of artists. Boime credits him with influencing American pop icon Andy Warhol.

"His public persona was a model for Warhol," Boime says. "Warhol made provocative statements and engaged in flamboyance on the order of Dali."

Despite Dali's self-promotion, Boime says the artist's ability to mesh lifelike images with surreal ones was an overwhelming achievement.

"He found a way of dealing with reality on multiple levels, one that could make it visually entrancing and fascinating," he says.