The early literary surrealists of the mid-1920s were skeptical of any visual possibility. Their aim — to fuse art with life, reality and dreams — was to be realized through the immediacy of writing. Painting, by contrast, was a laborious, indirect expression mediated by style and technique. Andre Breton, the leader, central theorist and “pope” of surrealism, held out for a visual effectuation. It arrived with Salvador Dali (1904-89), whose entire career — from painter and sculptor to filmmaker, book illustrator, perfumer, jeweler and media celebrity — is currently being explored at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art.

Dali began painting between 1910-14, though it was in Madrid from 1922 that he attended the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts and met fellow dorm residents, such as Luis Bunuel. It was with Bunuel that he made the infamous surrealist short “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), in which a pig’s eyeball is slashed with a knife as a cloud drifts across the midnight moon’s face. Their later filmic-comedy “L’Age d’Or” (1930), known for its lax mores, so outraged its audience that art works in the cinema foyer were smashed.

While Dali’s educational institute was considered progressive, he thought the instruction antiquated. Provisionally expelled in 1923 for leading a student protest against the failure of painter Daniel Vazquez Diaz to be appointed a teaching chair, Dali then an impressionist/fauvist was dismissed permanently in 1926 for claiming his examiners were unqualified to judge him on his knowledge of the theory of fine art. Thereafter, he was little other than a provincial follower of the succession of Parisian trends from cubism through purism and new objectivity, to which he contributed little of distinction.

In 1929, things changed. With his first cinematic foray, the meeting with his future wife, Gala, and his first Parisian solo exhibition accompanied by a preface written by Breton, Dali was inducted into the surrealist cult. He severed ties to his family and came to think of surrealism as a nourishing placenta resulting in a second birth. Breton was his new father.

For Breton, surrealist painting was now possible and this was premised on Dali’s revelation of the unconscious in representation, termed the “paranoiac-critical method.” The idea was for the artist’s imagination to materialize physical and psychic forms that were yet ambiguous in their interpretative polysemy. “Invisible Sleeper, Horse and Lion” (1930) is one such example. The reclining female nude’s hair gives the mane of the horse, her limp limbs form the long face and its legs. A lion’s head is birthed from the horse-woman’s hindquarters. All three share the same torso in a madly sexualized fantasy of fusion that was both popular and entertaining.

While Dali was the favored surrealist painter, his provocations began unsettling other provocateurs, and in 1934 he was threatened with expulsion from the surrealist camp for favoring retrograde art, sympathizing with Adolf Hitler and comparing William Tell with Vladimir Lenin in painting. It was also the year of his first trip to the United States, financed by Pablo Picasso, for which Dali arrived to a press corps expecting eccentricity. They got it when he disembarked with a two-meter-long loaf of bread (a Dali fetish symbol) and his paintings tied to his fingers by strings. Featuring on a Time magazine cover in 1936, Dali had become an art star.

The outbreak of World War II coincided with Dali’s expulsion from surrealism proper, and he and Gala emigrated briefly from Spain to America, where his celebrity persona began overshadowing his art, with his first retrospective being held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1941. Initially based at the Virginia residence of the art patron and modern brassiere patentee, Caresse Crosby, Dali’s first task was to surrealize her garden. He then went on to paint society portraits of the rich and work on collaborations with magazines, including Vogue. He met Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, and worked with Walt Disney on the animation project “Destino,” which was abandoned until it was finally released in 2003.

With the atomic bombings of Japan, Dali entered a mystical-nuclear phase in the late 1940s, combining scientific themes with his call to Catholicism. It was his return to religion that became a truer severance with surrealism, for the anti-religious spirit of the movement was supposedly embodied by the act of spitting on a passing priest. “The Madonna of Port Lligat” (1950) pictures Gala as the virgin with Christ child, whose torso displays the bread of the Eucharist. A 1949 version was earlier approved by Pope Pius XII. Dali’s thoughts about atomic bombs were more ambivalent. They were, Dali enthusiastically announced, his “favorite food for thought,” and while the bombings moved him “seismically,” they did not appear to fill him with horror. “The Three Sphinxes of Bikini” (1947), for example, were inspired by U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific from 1946. For Dali, however, the mushroom clouds were simply another occasion to invoke the “double-image” of his paranoiac-critical method, in this case to appear as a few trees. The combination of nuclear progress and religiosity, Dali thought, would result in a new generation.

The 1960s and ’70s witnessed Dali’s burgeoning interest in faddish holography and stereoscopy. His final years were spent integrating allegorical themes and the vestiges of Old Master paintings by Michelangelo, Raphael and Velasquez into large-scale canvases that received only scant attention. While reviving his long held interest in the cohabitation of art and science during the Renaissance, he failed to re-fire his own artistic genius, or rekindle his diminishing celebrity.

“Salvador Dali” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art runs until Sept. 4; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,600. Closed Mon. www2.city.kyoto.lg.jp/bunshi/kmma/index.html

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