Of camembert cheese, Dali, and me

My first encounter with Surrealist artist Salvador Dali was when I was 13. I was in secondary school, and tasked to paint a picture just like The Persistence of Memory. We weren’t told how or why, but were just supposed to ape the same style. My second encounter with Dali was when my Junior College literature tutor was interpreting a Seamus Heaney poem, Personal Helicon, which had a reference to Narcissus and Echo. Apparently Dali had painted the “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” with a different interpretation from the Greek myth, where Narcissus was immortalized as a flower.

Now, my third encounter with Dali, was at Singapore’s very own ArtScience Museum at the Marina Bay Sands. Opened only in February 2011, I felt proud that Singapore had a museum fit enough to exhibit 250 pieces of Dali’s works, in themes such as Femininity and Sensuality, Religion and Mythology and Dreams and Fantasy. My excitement at visiting a world-class museum on my country’s own shores, and a world-class art exhibit, was just bubbling over, right until I saw this.

The view of MBS from the ArtScience Museum, Singapore

Then it all became surreal, too surreal. Heh. Featuring 21 gallery spaces totally 50,000 square feet of exhibition area, the ArtScience Museum, inspired by a lotus flower, was designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie. It was clean, sleek, modern, even beautiful inside, with the space and the high ceilings. Even the toilets smelt like a lovely citrus blend.

As for the entrance fee, there was a special price for OCBC card holders (20% off), so it made it less painful to my friend and I, coming up to S$23.00  a person for three exhibits, though we had to add S$6.00 extra for a museum interactive audio handset that was essentially an iPod Touch with disposable earphones. 2 full exhibitions later (Shipwrecked and Van Gogh Alive), we were ready for the main highlight of our visit.

The Dali: mind of a genius exhibition.

And boy, was I surprised.

There is less madness to my method

than there is method to my madness.

– Salvador Dali

It was an exhibit which was altogether perplexing and evocative at the same time. For an artist to go full head-on with raw sensuality and flamboyancy,  to tackle the brutally honest in our innermost parts… I did find him very refreshing. He was a talent, no less. I don’t pretend to be well-versed in the history of art, so I found the explanations from our audio guide and the commentary on the walls VERY helpful.

Dali: Mind of a Genius exhibit poster

As surrealism was an artistic movement founded in 1924, and directly influenced by Freud and Jung’s psychoanalytical works, it is all about art from the subconscious. It was deemed without boundaries, and logically incomprehensible at parts. Born in Spain, Dali was expelled from the Surrealist movement in 1934, when he was accused of being a Hitler supporter. The Spanish civil war forced him to move to Italy in 1936, where he was influenced by Italian rennaisance art. He later met Freud in London, and Hitchcock in the US, though he settled back down in Spain towards the end of his years. But throughout, he garnered a following, and exhibited his works in many cities, one of them being at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Dali became one of the Surrealist movement’s iconic artists, and he unleashed his own obsessions, fears, desires, and delights, through his art.

With a sense of almost trepidation at being in the presence of so many great works, I embarked on visiting the galleries one by one. I particularly connected with “Woman Aflame”, a sculpture that was supposed to unite 2 of Dali’s obssessions: fire, and a female figure with drawers. Gala, his wife and his muse, lent him an insight into the beauty and mystery of a woman. Drawers were a symbol of the hidden secrets in her, and flames, that of intense and subconscious desire. As a woman myself, I was drawn to the enigmatic idea that beauty was in the complexity and innate power of femininity.

Woman Aflame, first cast in 1980 in bronze, Salvador Dali

Dali used many symbols: crutches, butterflies, snails, grasshoppers, ants, each meaning something different. And also, things which were hard outside and soft inside, like eggs, melted watches, bread, and lobsters.  This gave me a gamut of thoughts to my interpretation of the works. I loved his etchings, lithographs and woodcuts in the “Femininity and Sensuality” gallery.

Romeo and Juliet, 1975, lithographs, Salvador Dali

But as much as he liked to twizzle his mustache, he was best at casting his sculptures, from what I saw. Each was striking. I couldn’t determine what was running through his mind at the point of conceiving the works. There were Adam and Eve (1984, in bronze), St George and the Dragon (1977, in bronze), and I really admired Lady Godiva with butterflies (1976, in bronze). Legend had it that she tried to help the people of her city, suffering under her husband’s rule. Riding a horse, and playing a trumpet into the city, the butterflies perched on the bronze statue represented the souls flocking to her.

Lady Godiva with butterflies, 1984, bronze, Salvador Dali

We even saw the pieces of furniture, one of them the Mae West Lips Sofa, a luscious red piece of lounge furniture that he had made with his own hands. His breadth of talent wowed me, but what stirred me about him was the freedom of his artistry.

Mae West lips sofa, 1974, Salvador Dali

He had developed the “paranoiac-critical method”, which was a way of discovering concealed meaning and symbols from his subconscious, and being able to make that into a piece of art. He believed that myth was a repressed aspect of human nature. And having wanted to lose the shackles of the old ideas of art, he explored a realm of expression so creative yet unconventional, that bordered at times on the absurd.

I cannot understand why man should be capable of so little fantasy . .
I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone; I do not understand why champagne is always chilled and why on the other hand telephones, which are habitually so frightfully warm and disagreeably sticky to the touch, are not also put in silver buckets with crushed ice around them. – Salvador Dali

A pity the “lobster telephone” wasn’t on the display at the museum.

I experienced an individual so infectious that he made me question my reaction to what I perceived as reality. His obsession with melted clocks represented the interplay of the hard concept of time (Einstein’s 4th dimension space-time continuum) and the soft concept of time – malleable memory, fleeting youth, unavoidable mortality. Hence, the prolific use of the melted clocks in all his works. That was what first brought me to Dali, and what will stay with me as a blurred recollection (aka a melted clock).  Why do all of us live as though we are immortal, the hard, pronouncements of each hour taking precedence over the soft treads of what is true and enduring in each encounter?

As I had found with my first encounter with him, I finally did understand, that I really did not need to understand, whenever I engaged with the works of Dali. I just needed to let my imagination run away, unrestrained.

The Dance of Time II, 1979,Salvador Dali, bronze

The motif of a melted clock was inspired by Dali observing the melting of soft Camembert cheese on a hot summer’s day. Dali: mind of a genius, is on exhibition at the Marina Bay Sands’ ArtScience Museum in Singapore from 14 May to 30 October 2011.

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