Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Dalí: copying and chance

Notes from Salvador Dalí’s museum.

Mon, Nov 18, 2013, 11:05


I was in the Theatre-Museum Dalí in Figueres on Saturday which is the largest surrealist object in the world. It’s an old theatre that was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, and Dalí got the opportunity that most artists don’t: he built his own museum.

It’s a wild place, with a boggling number of paintings, sculpture, jewelry and installations. Most of the time, unless you end up going to massive retrospectives or study an artist intensively, you only ever confront an artist’s work on a kind of fractured basis, being aware of a part of an artist’s output, but never really as a whole. But when surrounded by an entire back catalogue of work in an environment constructed by the artist himself, things click into place.

Two things struck me in particular. The first was a small collection of paintings where Dalí was imitating Picasso – an artist he hugely admired – and Matisse. There’s one piece imitating Matisse’s La Danse. I asked the guide whether Dalí was making fun of Matisse, placing musicians in the corner that seemed to offer a cheeky ‘backstage’ view to the previously ethereal and frivolous action in the original painting. The guide – who really knew her stuff – said no, but that Dalí was just copying a painter he admired. Obviously most artists, filmmakers, musicians, etc., start out trying to emulate those they admire until they find their own style, vision and voice. Copying is ok, especially if you’re imitating something that’s amazing. Imitation isn’t just about flattery, but treading a way along a path until the footprints become your own. It’s encouraging that even genius copies. Loads of artists and writers have spoken about the pros of copying through the ages, but I’ve always liked the psychologist Vygotsky’s take on it: that through others we become ourselves.

The second thing that struck me was looking at a self-portrait of Dalí that hung opposite a portrait of Picasso. They both bore Dalí’s trademarks of softness, seemingly melting and malleable faces with strange additions. Dalí’s face is held up in places by crutches – a object he used a lot – and flies emerge from his eyes. You could read a lot into it, but chatting about it, the guide said surrealism transcends reality, so even Dalí sometimes didn’t know the meaning of elements of his paintings, as ideas and images came from dreams and his unconscious and subconscious. Sometimes even if a meaning is projected on to something afterwards, it bears as much relevance as an intended meaning. Chance can be just as valid as intention. Happy accidents in creativity sometimes yield things more important than what you set out to do. You can stumble upon something by mistake, or figure out something about it afterwards, and that means as much as an intended goal. That’s not just about process or afterthoughts, but a meaning can emerge when you weren’t even aware of it.