On an ordinary Tuesday morning, I headed out to witness the extraordinary works of Salvador Dalí (1904-89), which dress a conference hall at Dubai International Financial Centre until next month at the Spanish Surrealist artist’s first prominent retrospective in the Middle East. I made my way down the entrance, an air of surrealism infused the surroundings, with Dalí’s famous quips and posters featuring his characteristic waxed moustache and bulging eyes lacing the walls. I entered the hall to a remarkable collection of original works including 50 photographs, 100 lithographs, a painting and a 360-degree virtual reality experience that offers a fuller sense of both the artist and the man.
The show is being held in partnership with Emirates NBD and curated from private collections by Dilyara Kamenova, founder of Dubai-based art and development company Alpha Soul, alongside guest curator and Dalí expert, Nicolas Descharnes. “We want to show people the hidden jewels of Dalí’s works and present them from a different angle,” says Kamenova, who has previously presented works by Spanish masters Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró in the city, in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
Dalí holding a dandelion flower; Portrait with jasmine. Dalí with two dandelion petals attached to the points of his moustache; All at Port Lligat, Cadaques. 11 October 1959.
The most telling among these works are photographs captured by Dalí’s long-time secretary and biographer, Robert Descharnes, whom he met in 1950. “My mentor and father, Robert, who died in 2014, left some 60,000 photographs behind, all of which focused on his privileged relationship with the Catalan genius,” says Descharnes. “From these pictures, I selected 60 photographs through which you can discover him.”
The images capture deeply amusing moments in Dalí’s life. On view, for instance, is a photograph that places together two of Dalí’s greatest obsessions—classical painter Johannes Vermeer’s The Lacemaker (1669-70) and rhinoceros horns. You see Dalí painting casually while sitting on a wheelbarrow at Vincennes Zoo in Paris in 1955, with a poster of the painting hanging in the backdrop as a rhinoceros looks on.
Dali at Vincennes zoo, Paris, during the shooting of the movie 'The Prodigious Story of the Lacemaker and the Rhinoceros'. 30 April 1955.
Other than his fascination with Vermeer, the exhibition takes a comprehensive look at both Dalí’s reproduction of Francisco Goya’s politically-charged etchings titled Los Caprichos (1797-98), which highlighted a tumultuous revolutionary period in Spain. “What Goya and Dalí wanted to show people was that they’re free to think, create and express themselves,” explains Kamenova.
The lithographs span across three series, Memories of Surrealism (1971), After 50 Years of Surrealism (1974) and Dalí and Goya, selected in collaboration with Frank Hunter, director of the Salvador Dalí Archives and a Dalí print expert. “These works are quite expressive. You’ll see recurrent symbols such as elephants with long legs, melting watches, even Freud’s brain,” says Kamenova.
Memories of Surrealism is a set of 12 etchings on coloured lithographs, imbued with dream-like imagery and bright colours that illustrate Dalí’s growing penchant for science, spirituality and self-analysis. From After 50 Years of Surrealism, the set of 12 etchings created using the drypoint technique with hand-colouring, throws much light on Dalí’s inner life, charting key moments including his 1939 expulsion from the Surrealist movement and devout love for his wife and muse, Gala.
Dalí and Gala walking at Es Poal. Cadaques. August 1958; Dalí and Gala on the boat "Gala III" in Portdoguer, waiting for the boat procession of Virgen del Carmel. Cadaques. 16 July 1960.
In The Great Inquisitor Expels the Saviour, he illustrates Surrealism through the image of a burning giraffe being thrown out by a pope in reference to the movement’s founder André Breton, as he himself flees the scene. And then, there is Gala’s Godly Back, where Dalí portrays a skeleton as his last reincarnation looming behind his wife, with his most popular iconography of melting watches setting the tone for the whimsical etching.
The Great Inquisitor Expels the Saviour. 1974. After 50 Years of Surrealism. Drypoint engraving with hand colouring. 65x50cm; Gala’s Godly Back. After 50 Years of Surrealism. 1974. Drypoint engraving with hand colouring. 65x60cm.
With this selection, the exhibition challenges the popular view that Dalí surrendered himself to commercialism and kitsch after thriving artistically between 1927 and 1939, when he broke from the Surrealist movement in Paris and moved to New York. The show examines just how serious he was about continuing to relay a message through his artistic production, and his legacy is felt in the mysterious figures that live in these series. Kamenova shares that the purpose was not just to highlight Dalí as an artist but also as a messenger. “If you talk about Breton and other such artists, they were just painting their observations, but Dalí was trying to express his message through his own paranoiac-critical method, working with the subconscious and psychoanalysis.”
A Shower of Jasmine. c. 1954. Oil on canvas. 25.9x20.3cm
The star of the show is A Shower of Jasmine (1954), a flower that holds great cultural significance in the region. This is an oil painting on canvas that has only been exhibited twice before, in New York in 1954 and in Brazil in 1998. Featuring 10 levitating flowers with one that gently rests on the ground, every petal is defined with meticulous precision in an artwork that is a calming retreat from Dalí’s largely explosive body of work.
This is an ambitious show that goes beyond Dalí’s exhibitionism to unravel the essence of his art and life. So, I met Dalí—not just the artist of myriad talents and eccentricities, but also the man behind the public masks. And I quite liked him.
Salvador Dali. The Memories in Dubai runs until 22 April at the Conference Hall in DIFC, Dubai with plans of taking the exhibition to Moscow and Kazakhstan. Alpha-soul.com