August 14, 2008
Dalí and The Surrealist Mysteries of New York
Of all the wonders at the exhibition, Dalí: Painting and Film at MoMA, I was especially intrigued by his painting, The Surrealist Mystery of New York (1935), the artist's response to his eagerly anticipated visit to New York in 1934. The occasion of the trip was a solo exhibit at Julien Levy Gallery, and Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala arrived in the city on the ocean liner Champlain on November 14, 1934. Like so many others, Dalí's expectations of the city were shaped by the cinema, and in his case he was particularly enamored of the serial The Mysteries of New York (1914) that portrayed the city as awash in gangster violence. Writing a friend about his visit, he described New York as being "full of monumental tombs, cypresses, dogs, and fossilized humidities." (from MoMA's publication, Dalí and Film, 1997, p. 132).
At the time of his trip to New York, Dalí had in mind to make his own film about the city, Les Mystères surrealistes de New York, one that would incorporate imagery inspired by the gangster genre but freewheeling in narrative logic. He sketched out illustrations for the scenario, and these were published in the magazine The American Weekly. The oil painting from 1935, a work in black, white, and red, depicts a pitiful seated figure in profile, hunched over and draped with a sheet, wearing nothing more than a garter belt. His scalp is held together with safety pins, and blood is dripping out his nose. In front of him is one of Dalí's iconic images, a soft rubbery watch. Off in the background is a mysterious floating object, and underneath is a little sketch of a man holding a child's hand and pointing to the mystery in the sky. I imagine that all of this is Dalí's way of saying, "Welcome to New York!"
Salvador Dalí would return to the city many times in the years that followed, and he developed a cult of art celebrity not unlike that of Andy Warhol. The exhibition at MoMA gives an excellent account of the Dalí-Warhol exchange, including Warhol's Screen Tests of Dalí in 1966.
MoMA will present film screenings and panel discussions on the topic of Dalí and New York on September 10-11. See MoMA website.
Image: "Dalí Behind Bars," by Walking Off the Big Apple. A MoMA exhibition poster on a building on Macdougal Street (facing Houston St.)
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