Was Salvador Dali — who proclaimed himself a genius and "divine" — one of the world's greatest artists or one of the world's biggest showoffs?
For years art critics wrestling with this problem were forced to carve up his 70-year career into the "good" Surrealist years and the embarrassing "bad" decades — when the mustachioed eccentric was accused of megalomania, catering to dictators and selling out through his numerous TV stints. In France in the late 1960s, Dali was more known as the face of a chocolate ad than as a painter.
But a landmark exhibit at Paris' Pompidou Center — featuring more than 120 paintings including the melted clocks of his famed 1931 work "The Persistence of Memory" alongside film work and TV appearances — aims to rewrite the art history books. It shows how his mass-media period, shunned by critics, was in fact extremely influential and must be reconciled with his early work to fully understand the scope of his genius.
"The surrealists said that we shouldn't like his 'bad' years... But we can no longer ignore their influence on art in the 50s, 60s and 70s," said curator Jean-Michel Bouhours.
"We are not babies," said contemporary artist Orlan, who viewed some of Dali's later work for the first time at a preview of the exhibit. "We must see Dali warts-and-all for ourselves, and make up our own minds independently. Yes he was a show-off, but so are many artists. Why have we censored him?"
Organizers of the exhibit use reels of Dali's theatrical TV appearances to show the influence of his obsession with mass media, which began when he moved to the U.S. at the outbreak of World War II.
One famed appearance, for Lanvin chocolate in 1968, shows an exuberant Dali biting into a large chocolate bar, and proclaiming "I am mad" before his moustache curls up.
"Dali evolved with TV and cinema, and was the first to embrace mass media," said Bouhours, calling the artist "the initiator of the pop-art (movement)."
Works featured in the exhibit invoke the celebrity-obsessed themes of pop art. One piece from 1934, the sprawling exhibit's best, features a huge construction of Hollywood siren Mae West's face, with bright yellow hair, and bright red lips transformed into a couch. Its similarity to Andy Warhol's printed image of Marilyn Monroe, made some 30 years later, is striking.
So if Dali was the precursor to something as major as pop art, which catapulted Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein into the spotlight, why has it been swept under the carpet for so long?
One of the reasons, the exhibit organizers suggest, is political.
In 1948, Dali moved back to his homeland, Spain, which was still under the iron fist of dictator Francisco Franco.
Dali, a former Communist, was criticized for courting Franco, painting a picture of his niece to win the fascist's favor to get permission to found a museum dedicated to Dali's work in Spain.
"Dali always had an obsession with dictators. But in Spain it got dangerous," said co-curator Thierry Dufrene. "In 1975, when the old Franco was already very frail, he ordered the execution of Basque activists. Dali responded on the radio, saying 'It's very good — we should kill even more of them.' This is part of the reason his reputation was tarnished in his later years."
The exhibit is the first to seek to show how Dali — who died in 1989 aged 84 — was a genius because of, not despite, his contradictions.
Why has this not been possible before?
"A lot has changed. It's 2012 and Dali is dead. In the last retrospective in 1979, he was still alive, it was too soon," said Pompidou Center Director Alfred Pacquement. "We are for the first time in the realm of history. The first time we can clearly see beginning to end."
Dali once said: "At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven, I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since."
The true scope of his bombastic ambition — both famed artist and annoying showoff — can be seen until March 25.
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