Visual Arts

The Menil Has Put Together a Small but Fascinating Exhibit of Dali's Work

At the risk of giving away an art reviewer trade secret, it’s all in the first line — or put another way, in the beginning. But coming up with a review’s first line that’s pithy, provocative, amusing and risqué enough to be worthy of Salvador Dalí’s Eggs on the Plate without the Plate (Œufs sur le Plat sans le Plat), the painting from 1932 that was and is the beginning of the lovely (pithy, provocative, amusing and risqué) little exhibition, “The Secret of the Hanging Egg: Salvador Dalí at the Menil,” is a daunting task, I’ve found.

Over at The Menil they do so many things right, and this exhibition is another example. At first you wouldn’t think they’d have much potential for a Dalí show without massive borrowing from elsewhere, since there is such little Dalí in The Menil Collection. Only one drawing, in fact, Gangsterism and Goofy Visions of New York, which, as a work on paper, is only ever on exhibition briefly, for conservation reasons. Otherwise there are some printed items — not a surprise for an artist who, for a time, was the virtual face of Surrealism, that most print-obsessed of artistic movements; and a few later works clearly inspired by Dalí-ism.

Eggs on the Plate itself, the egg from which the show was hatched, seems to be the only loan, coming from the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. That makes the show virtually a one-painting blockbuster. Because of Dalí’s continuing fame, thousands signed up on Facebook for the curator talk the other evening. If only 1 percent of them attended, the event was standing-room only.

Such a small big show is a smart move in a day when insurance and transportation costs for art are astronomical. But it’s also smart as a way of making the permanent collection seem almost new through imaginative contextualization. It’s always thrilling and gratifying to see what intelligent, thoughtful minds can do simply, or largely, by rearrangement and re-association.

The Dalí hangs in the first Menil Surrealist gallery like a weird jewel set in an equally weird mounting — one of those misshapen Baroque jewels that transform scabrous pearls or lumps of gold into fantastic creatures, which Dalí loved. Around it are paintings, drawings, objects and printed items, some of which we’ve seen often over the decades, some hardly at all.

At first it may seem perplexing that The Menil, no slouch when it comes to Surrealist art, doesn’t have something substantial of its own by Dalí. Clearly the de Menils had the money to buy what they wanted. Perhaps Dalí’s corporeal — some might say vulgar — Catalan earthiness was antithetical to a more discrete — some might say repressed — French sense of the appropriate. Perhaps Dalí’s work was already so popular that return-for-expenditure on Ernst or Magritte or Matta — all of whom the de Menils bought in quantity — seemed more prudent. Perhaps they were put off by Dalí’s Flamboyance-with-a-capital-“F.”

In some respects Dalí was the Liberace of Surrealism — or maybe Dalí should get top billing of the duo. But either way, both were masters of marketing and both knew that the package often gets more notice than the substance. Both considered their wardrobes to be work uniforms — costumes for the characters they were playing. The substance of both, such as it may have been, got more notice than many of their more substantial contemporaries and colleagues, in part because they were consummate showmen who knew how to market their wares. Dalí is said to have carried a bell that he rang as he advanced to draw attention to himself, in case enough wasn’t being paid to suit him. That sort of thing would have been oil on water to the de Menils’ sophisticated, understated French-ness.

Though we associate Surrealism with Paris, at least in its earliest days in the 1920s and ‘30s, in fact most of the big names of the movement were not French. True, André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, that got things going, was born in Normandy; and many of the Surrealist poets — René Crevel, Paul Éluard (whose wife, Gala, later became Madam Dalí), Louis Aragon — were also French. But today only specialists really know anything about the writers of Surrealism.

It was the visual artists who made the movement an international sensation and paradigm changer. Among them, Giorgio de Chirico was Italian; Max Ernst, German; René Magritte, Belgian; Man Ray, American; Roberto Matta was from Chile, Wifredo Lam from Cuba, and Dalí, Joan Miró and Picasso (who had a Surrealist phase, though with him it never fully took) were Spanish, or the Catalan subset thereof. The point is that visual Surrealism — the Surrealism with lasting impact — was an international phenomenon from the start, which just happened to happen in Paris, and the French who joined in (Picabia, Masson, Tanguy) were no more the leaders than the led.

For all his wild-eyed flamboyance and twisted psyche (Did I say twisted? Surely I didn’t say twisted.), in Fried Eggs Dalí was really being quite conservative. He harked back to a tradition of Spanish still-life painting already 300-plus years old in his own day. Such 16th and 17th Century Spanish painters as Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627) and Juan van der Hamen y León (1596-1631) — artists whose work Dalí would certainly have seen in his art-formative years; you can see one of Hamen y León’s in the MFAH permanent collection — employed the convention sometimes called bodegón, which arranged items (often fruits and vegetables) on stone steps or shelves. Sometimes elements even hung by strings from above.

Which is exactly what Dalí has done with his eggs, though he’s turned the shelf into a structure with a window giving us a view of tiny people looking out a window, and all in the context of a surreal landscape not unlike some of the austere, real landscapes of Spain. He’s also included his near-signature suspended watch to remind us that time melts away; and an element that one commentator likened to a “corncob in the shape of a penis” (aren’t all corncobs in that shape?), but which, I think, might be something else — though I’m not sure what.

These aren’t the only eggs, or even the only fried eggs, in Dalí’s work. I’ve just seen a drawing in another exhibition of an omelet having its wrinkles ironed out; and a web search of Dalí and Egg nets a nest-full of image results. Clearly they had some special significance for him.

There’s a story floating around the Internet about Dalí’s sexual escapades, attributed to his friend, the Spanish film director, Luis Buñuel — who knows if it’s true or not, but it’s too juicy not to re-tell, even if apocryphal — to wit: “Salvador Dalí seduced many ladies, particularly American ladies, but these seductions usually consisted of stripping them naked in his apartment, frying a couple of eggs, putting them on the woman’s shoulders and, without a word, showing them the door.”

We can hardly trust Buñuel completely, since he was intensely jealous of Dalí’s affections for anyone else, including their mutual friend, the homosexual Spanish poet and Dalí intimate, Federico García Lorca. Probably best not to delve too deeply into all that in a paper the children might read — though I suppose by now the web has made that a horse-and-buggy scruple.

But maybe Dalí just liked eggs. Recently I heard another artist being repeatedly pressed by a persistent (and annoyingly self-important) viewer to confess the true symbolic meaning of elements in her work. Her response every time: some variation on “it just seemed like that was what it needed there.”

In her Dalí biography, Mary Ann Caws quotes the artist as saying that he intended for his painting to be “available to those with ‘simple hearts and minds.’” Also, on himself from his 1955 Sorbonne lecture titled “Phenomenological Aspects of the Paranoiac-Critical Method” he said: “I, myself, come from Spain, which is the most irrational country in the world and also the most mystical.”

Irrational, simple, mystical, perhaps also crafty; but not unintelligent. Very intelligent indeed, in fact. And exquisitely skillful. Dalí painted the dreams we can have only because he had them first and put them on canvas and paper for us to see. We may not like them. Many haven’t. George Orwell found Dalí’s output most distasteful, but “after all, it pays! It is much less dangerous than crime.” Though not altogether different, perhaps?

In his review of a 1970 Dalí show, Hilton Kramer found that, “As painting, of course, it is complete rubbish.” Even our sagacious fellow Houstonian, the artist and teacher Ola McNeill Davidson, at first seeing Dalí’s work in 1937 on her only trip to Paris, said, “I cannot refrain from registering hearty disapproval — he makes me sick — I may outlive it — but I have grave doubts.”

But they were all talking about him, as we still are today. And all looking at his work. Which for an egotist and artist may be all that matters.

The Secret of the Hanging Egg: Salvador Dalí at the Menil
The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross. 713-525-9400, Through June 19, 2016.
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Randy Tibbits is an independent art writer and curator, specializing in the art history of Houston. He is a member of the Board of Directors of CASETA: Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art and the coordinator of HETAG: Houston Earlier Texas Art Group. He writes art exhibition reviews for Houston Press from time to time.