Rethinking Salvador Dali's Engagement with Pop Culture

Screen shot from Dali's appearance on the 1950's
game show "What's My Line?"

A Dali concept drawing from 1945 for
the Disney cartoon  Destino
Somehow I have never quite understood how the cult of celebrity surrounding Salvador Dali has been able to persist (pardon the pun) for so long. But then again, I have come to Dali via an art historical discourse that has largely been critical of the artist’s blatant commercialism, ambiguous political affiliations, and a sensationalist visual vocabulary that appeals through its facile figurative idioms—imagery that is both misogynistic and in later years perceived as plainly conservative and even strangely traditional. Dali’s work and legacy has also seriously displaced the legacy of the Surrealism art movement's founder Andre Breton, who contemptuously nicknamed Dali  “Avida Dollars” (greedy for dollars) after a falling out between the former friends in 1939. As a result, Dali’s career has been divided by many art historians into what is understood as his productive and avant-garde period (1929-1938), and his neo-traditional and “anti-modern” commercial period (post-1940). 

Screen shot from Hitchcock's
Spellbound (1945)
In recent weeks however, Dali has popped up on my radar through discussions with students concerning Dali’s critiques of high modernism and his engagement with the world of popular American filmmaking, television, and advertising following the Second World War. For example, one of my students brought to my attention the short animated cartoon Destino that was a collaborative project initiated between Dali and Walt Disney in 1945. The cartoon project is both fascinating for its look and feel and suggests how experimental Disney actually was during a period of Hollywood film history that saw the avant-garde influence of Europeans popping up in unexpected ways (as in the genre of American film noir). In the same year of the Disney collaboration, Dali also worked with Alfred Hitchcock on the classic psychological thriller Spellbound, which features a long dream sequence that the artist was asked to direct and design. Dali’s final version ran twenty minutes in length and, like the Destino treatment, revels in surrealist imagery and motifs that were far removed from the typical look and feel of a Hollywood film. In the end, Hitchcock was forced to cut the sequence down substantially for fear that audiences would find that part of the film too disturbing, and like the Disney cartoon project which lay dormant for 58 years (until Disney Studios France completed the project and released the work in 2003), there was something still radical, provocative, and potentially threatening about Dali’s inroads into what many art historians routinely dismiss as American popular culture.

Take also for example Dali’s frequent appearances on television in the 1950-60’s (particularly on the popular American game shows, “What’s My Line” and “I’ve Got a Secret.”) Watching Dali "perform" on TV reveals something both subversive and fabulously unrehearsed in that Andy Warhol kind of way. I cannot put my finger on it exactly, but I am starting to think about Dali differently. As Charles Stuckey suggests in a recent and astute reassessment of Dali’s legacy within art historical discourse (see further readings below), we need to rethink Dali’s “self-spoofing” antics and keen sense of “multifaceted truths” co-existing in the world of elite and popular culture. Perhaps Dali was closer to a post-modern sensibility than anyone cares to admit (even if his later paintings were still so terrible).

Here are a series of clips including Dali's dream sequence in Spellbound (juxtaposed to his famous surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (1929) co-produced with Luis Bunuel) and his appearances on "What's My Line?" and "I've Got a Secret." To see a clip from Destino (embedding has been disabled, so I cannot feature it below), click here (and thanks Stephen for the original link!).

Further Reading:

Lubar, Robert S. "Salvador Dali: Modernism's Counter-Muse." Romance Quarterly 46.4 (1999): 230.

Strauss, Marc. "The Painted Jester: Notes on the Visual Arts in Hitchcock's Films." Journal of Popular Film & Television 35.2 (2007): 52-56.

Stuckey, Charles. "The Persistence of Dali." Art in America 93.3 (2005): 113.