Alexander Rozhin

Magazine issue: 
#4 2015 (49)


Many a creative genius of 20th-century art was overshadowed by the two great Spaniards - Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Nobody was discussed, disputed or written about as much as they were; no other artist's work was covered as extensively as that of these two titans in books, albums, brochures and articles.

The early efforts of the young Salvador did not seem to foretell the enormous talent which would produce his shocking, explosive and miraculous art - an art that was to eclipse everything imaginable. To this day, there is no force that can match his phantasmagorias.

The current retrospective from the Fundació "Gala - Salvador Dali. Figueres" collection at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow is the most complete exhibition that Russian viewers have seen of the artist's work. It proves a chance to discover the work of the phenomenal, extraordinary artist, for his admirers, devotees and even former detractors of Surrealism.

So much has been written about Dali that it seems over-ambitious to think that one can add anything new to the tens of thousands of published pages; however, Dali's art remains inexhaustible and mysterious, a secret rite of the "one" genius. For the keen heart and sharp mind, it becomes a source of creativity and inspiration. We will continue asking ourselves questions about the phenomenon of his art, his destiny, and his character - and each of us will seek his or her own answer.

Dali's versatile gift, his talent's mission and the perfect craftsmanship of a demiurge (creator) and an oracle (visionary) - all these dismayed, delighted and angered the public, bringing simultaneously hope and disillusionment.

Let us allow ourselves a degree of liberty when answering the innumerable questions about this Don Quixote of the 20th century - questions about the phenomenon of Dali, his mystery, and the secrets of his genius. I believe that it was the great Catalan's muse, Gala, née Elena Diakonova, who played the most vital part in his life. According to the artist's own admission, this extraordinary Russian woman was responsible for making him the only genius among his contemporaries. It was Gala's presence in Dali's life (her first husband, the French poet Paul Éluard, gave her the nickname Gala, literally "celebration" in French) that awakened his astonishingly sensuous intuition (multiplied by his complexes), and instilled in him faith in his unique excellence and messianic calling. It is more than likely that she introduced him to the literature of Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky - we can only guess about those influences on the artist. Gala was destined to become his model, his mother, wife and lover, and alter ego, the co-author of the genius - the appearance of the double signature "Gala-Dali" in his paintings testifies to that. Diakonova stimulated his miraculous, virtuoso gift for drawing, his mastery of composition and light; it is possible that many motifs, themes and settings for his paintings were suggested by her. But these are all only assumptions...

In Dali's personality, religious feeling and rational, materialistic thinking were naturally combined; he was a master of improvisation - and a shrewd pragmatist. Dali's installations, his art objects and work for the stage, the images in his paintings and drawings did not entertain the public but rather hypnotised it. In his art, the ironic fable morphed into something grotesque. The unrivalled master of colour and drawing, Dali never failed to amaze the viewer with his inexhaustible creativity and the expert implementation of his constantly mystifying vision. He never flattered anyone except his muse, his Madonna, the one he worshipped all his life, even though he was surrounded by some of the most talented individuals of his time - Pablo Picasso, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Guillaume Apollinaire, René Magritte, Federico Garcia Lorca, Carlo Carrà and André Breton, to name only a few.

There is a vast, cosmic depth of feeling and a multitude of thoughts in the microcosm of Dali's early small, sometimes miniature paintings; they stimulate the viewer's imagination with innumerable allusions. His creations are a brilliant example of reckless intellectual mind games - but also deeply thought-through variants and formulas of unique philosophical meaning and monumental significance.

I believe that one of the more vivid, characteristic attributes of the artist's consummate, intricate professional expertise is the possibility to enlarge - both mentally and physically - almost to an impossible extent the miniature images in his art, as well as the smallest details of his bizarre compositions.

Brutal and fragile, shocking and humble - he was a vulnerable and gentle soul; for him, art was not just a form of self-expression, but a shield from obscurantism and bigotry, the know-it-all slavery of corrupt moralizers and virtuous sinners. His in-the-face insolence knew no boundaries; Dali challenged anything he rejected, and yet remained vulnerable himself. His Spanish temperament helped him confront the world as well as his own internal complexes.

I was lucky to be the first Russian art critic to write two modest studies on Dali, the first in 1989, the second in 1992. Exclusively thanks to the courage of the publishers of "Znanie" (Knowledge) and "Respublica" (Republic) and due to the huge circulation of these popular publications, my work received reasonably wide publicity. One of the happy consequences of that publicity was my ensuing correspondence with Gala's sister, Lidia Diakonova (by marriage, Jaroljmek). I mention this here to express my gratitude and honour her memory, and also because she shared with me her recollections of meeting Dali, as well as her impressions of him.

I quote from one of the short letters she sent to me from Vienna, where she was living at the time: "Quite a few articles and brochures have recently been published, and they are full of the most improbable stories that make use of the fact that he [Dali] was an extraordinarily odd person, and people reacted to him in all sorts of ways." Remembering Dali, Gala's sister stressed his modesty, shyness and surprising tenderness - all qualities that became obvious within his family circle, among the select few who were close to him. "When we met in Paris or Italy, he could be the sweetest and the most down-to-earth of people," she wrote. As someone who was not at all a stranger to Dali, she shared with me these and other frank accounts of the artist's inner world, one that was hidden from the curious public, and her recollections fell in line with my own ideas about Dali and his art.

This modest dedication does not aim to describe the paintings and drawings that are part of the Moscow exhibition (Boris Messerer's brilliantly-designed artistic presentation also deserves mention). Quite a few translations of materials on Dali's art and heritage have recently become available to the public, including books by Dali's closest aide who worked with him for many years and was his main biographer, Robert Descharnes. It is also worth mentioning the brilliant translations of the artist's literary work by Natalya Malinovskaya, which excellently introduce it to Russian connoisseurs.

The spiritual, philosophical and symbolic meaning of Salvador Dali's art possesses a magical appeal; it transcends time, not just because the world of his images is governed by the historical scale of his artistic thought, where humanity's vices and virtues, good and evil, beauty and ugliness are inter-twined to give rise to an incredible, all-consuming divine energy. As a true creative genius, Dali had the ability to foresee, to anticipate; he created his own aesthetic values and meanings; he revived the art of the past and heralded the art of the future.

Dali's heritage is enormous. He expressed himself in various forms of holiness and sin, in painting, drawing, sculpture, cinema and literature, decorative art and design; he became a universal dramatic figure of 20th-century culture. His art has always been and will always remain unpredictable, impossible to label formally or dispassionately. Surrealist manifestos aside, the mystery of the phenomenon of Dali's art doctrine will only be revealed by time.


"Historical Surrealism" is a unique phenomenon in the art and culture of the 20th century. It strived to create a new mythology, and managed to change and broaden both human perceptive abilities and forms; its impact on evolutionary changes in art cannot be overestimated, while it anticipated the emergence of both the "trans-avant-garde" and the most recent post-modernist movements. The recorded history of Surrealism lies in the period from 1924 to 1968: from the "Bureau of Surrealistic Research" and the publication of André Breton's "Surrealist Manifesto", to the "Prague Spring" - at least that is how it is defined by Alain and Odette Virmaux. In their encyclopaedic study Les Grands Figures de Surrealism they wrote: "Surrealism, as no other trend of art had, undoubtedly, a great impact on the history of the 20th century.

A few subsequent generations, having crossed the 'border line' of 1968, absorbed its lessons around the world." There is considerable evidence of this in the creative efforts and achievements of Russian artists - painters, sculptors and graphic artists, who in no way are feeble imitators, "epigones", unconditional followers of Surrealism or bearers of the surrealistic postulate. In the case of the Russian artists it would be wrong to speak about any direct influence and impact of the concept of "pure psychic automatism", "paranoiac-critical doctrine" or any other such attributes used in the analysis of Surrealism. Of course, there are certain links with Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Paul Delvaux, Victor Brauner, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Joan Miro in the works of a number of Russian artists of the post-War generation; however, this says nothing about any direct connection with the surrealistic tradition on their part. On the contrary, it is evidence of the independent character of the origin of such a phenomenon. Some particular works of art of such Russian artists as Alexander Rukavishnikov, Sergei Sharov, Andrei Kostin, Oleg Safronoff, Igor Makarevich, Andrei Yesionov, Valery Maloletkov, Konstantin Khudyakov are the best examples of such a special alien "parallelism", which arose independent of visual associations and comparisons constructed by art-critics. The creative activity of each of these artists is absolutely individual - and thus very far from general collective tendencies. At the same time, many talented and respected Russian artists are developing and following certain surrealistic ideas, principles and canons, a fact that in no way belittles their personal creative results and achievements. Among them are Genia Shef (Sheffer), now settled in Berlin; Viktor Krotov, who divides his life between Moscow and Paris; Sergei Chaikun, Sergei Potatov, Igor Kamenev, Mikhail Gorshunov, Alla Bedina, Yury Yakovenko, Alexander Kalugin and the recently-discovered Max Haase (1938-1998).

A certain inclination towards phantasmagoria, mystery, buffoonery and to some kind of gameplay allows the critic to speak of the surrealistic vision of Alexander Sitnikov; the works of Valery Vradii are somehow connected with Surrealism, as are those of Vladimir Lobanov, although in an absolutely different way.

One can find very many brilliant examples of Surrealism in Russian literature, in the works of Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov and Daniil Kharms. Thus, literature might be the source of the interpretational pluralism, one which nurtured the development of Surrealism as a historical Russian national phenomenon.

Unlike those foreign artists who cultivated different aspects, themes and modes of "historical Surrealism", the Russian Surrealists are led by different emotional-semantic dominating ideas and associative links. Brutality and aggression, an integral part of the metaphysical and occult imagery in the works of the Western artists from this trend, are virtually absent in the works of the Russian masters, in whose surrealistic thinking other subconscious motivations, emotions and foresights dominate. Their sacral meta-psychosis is connected with a particular romantic sensitivity and a special kind of intuitivism: one can mark certain dramatic metamorphoses in the works of the Russian Surrealists, which give another confirmation of their readiness to sacrifice not for the sake of - but rather against - the mutation of the spiritual consciousness, the destructive pathos of an aggressive resistance to everything. Russian Surrealism implies more sentimentalism, self-torture and estrangement than an instinctive obedience of everything and everybody to some "super-task". The "play culture", and the metaphoric and grotesque character of Russian art injects the surrealistic strategy with an additional touch of sensitive expectations and dreams, and some passive estranged contemplation that does not exclude spontaneous courage and devilishness.

As the French literary critic, semioticist and philosopher Jacques Derrida stated: "There is no literal meaning, its 'appearance' is a required function, and it should be analyzed as it is within the system of differences and metaphors." These words may refer more to the analysis of literary texts, but nevertheless in our case a linguistic, philosophical and literary methodology can be applied towards a better understanding of the heritage of Surrealism, and become a key tool in the interpretation of the works created by its founders and followers.

The words of Salvador Dali, the centenary of whose birth was celebrated internationally in 2004 - a great mystifier of the myths and reality of 20th century art - also deserve mention: "... when the Renaissance wanted to imitate Immortal Greece they received Raphael. Ingres wanted to imitate Raphael, and became Ingres. Cézanne wanted to imitate Poussin, and became Cézanne. Dali wanted to imitate Meissonier. And he became Dali! Those who do not want to imitate became nobody. After pop-art and opt-art, art pompier will appear, but this kind of art will be strengthened by anything valuable and with any - even the most crazy - experience of the great tragedy that is called 'contemporary art'."

Surrealism as a new phenomenon of art and culture has become a logical continuation of Dadaism, of the search for a particular meta-language through the use of which one could find an explanation, or analysis, of the other - figurative - language. One of the main historical services of Surrealism is that the ideas formulated by its ideologists were adopted by outstanding poets and artists, film-makers and musicians - all those who personify the great epoch of the 20th century Sturm und Drang, namely Tristan Tzara and Antonin Artaud, Philippe Soupault and Andre Breton, Andre Suris and Luis Bunuel, Andre Masson and Alberto Giacometti, Hans Arp and Eric Satie, Yves Tanguy and Pablo Neruda, Francis Picabia and Pablo Picasso, Paul Eluard and Suse Takiguchi, Salvador Dali and René Magritte, Max Ernst and Man Ray, Wilfredo Lam and Paul Klee. These great personalities remain ever-living symbols of the 20th century, who managed to globalize their own egoistic individualism. Great Russian artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall and Pavel Filonov - though not directly connected with the surrealist manifestos - can be included in their ranks, too. "Something that was not born from within," wrote Kandinsky, "is still-born." This thesis once again affirms the viability of Surrealism as a timeless phenomenon - as if the whole of "avant-garde art" is nothing but an intellectual game without rules.

At the threshold of the new millennium the interest of the public in the personality and artwork of the Spanish genius has not in the least abated. The great master's exhibitions, attended by hundreds of thousands of spectators, are a compelling evidence of this. These shows include the 2011 exhibition at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, the largest Dali retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 2012-2013, the Parisian display of 22 street artists from different countries on Montmartre in 2014-2015, featuring little known works of contemporary artists such as Fred Calmets, Jérôme Mesnager, Arnaud Rabier Nowart, Valeria Attinelli and others.

André Malraux wrote "we exist in order to live, and [engage in] art, in order to come alive" - to come alive in our imagination, subconsciousness, memory in order to be necessary. Just like Dali drew his inspiration from the images created by Bernini, Vermeer van Delft, Velázquez, Meissonier, Millet, the new generations of artists, who revere him, will always admire and marvel at his fantastic mirages and visual passion plays, and discover in his works, for themselves and the world, the boundless depth of one of the Geniuses whom we have always needed and will always need.





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