Sometimes tiny works have the greatest impact. The “Dalí: Poetics of the Small 1929 – 1936” exhibit at the Meadows Museum on the SMU campus in Dallas makes my point better than 1,000 words ever could.
Spanish artist Salvador Dalí was one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. Certainly, he was one of the most influential in the Surrealist movement. Best known for his “melting clocks” as in “The Persistence of Memory,” Dali masterfully layered his paintings with deep symbolism and a personal mythology.
You might not appreciate the mastery of Dalí’s precision so much on a large canvas. But when its shrunken down to a small scale, the viewer is drawn in to get really close to study the amazing detail. You might be surprised at how talented he was as a realistic painter. But, that’s the beauty of Dalí: his balance between realism and raw imagination…the contrast between the inspiration of 17th century Dutch Masters such as Johannes Vermeer and the influence of modern contemporaries like Joan Miro.
The “Dalí: Poetics of the Small” exhibit is in a second floor gallery, deep inside the Meadows. You can’t miss it as there’s a large photo of Dalí and his trademark handlebar mustache over the gallery entrance.
Inside the first room, on the far wall against a dark background, “The Accommodations of Desire,” an 8 3/4 x 13 3/4 inch oil and collage on wood painted in 1929, beckons the viewer to explore. Look closely. It’s hard to separate the collage (a detailed illustration of a lion’s head in the foreground) from the painted elements. The closer you look, the more amazed you’ll become at the detail in each vignette. But these elements are not meant to be analyzed independently, but rather are parts of a greater whole.
What’s the deeper meaning? I’ll leave that to your own interpretation. For me, that’s the intensely personal aspect of an exhibit such as this. Besides, it wasn’t any single work of art that attracted me to this intriguing exhibit. There are nearly two-dozen small pieces of art, most matted and framed, with some behind glass or in a shadow box. All in all, they represent works from each of his early years in Surrealism. The journey as a whole is much more rewarding than a snapshot from a single destination.
The exhibit’s largest work, “Vegetal Metamorphosis,” is only 16 1/8 x 12 3/4 inches. The smallest, “Dreams on a Beach,” a mere 3 1/2 x 2 3/4 inches. Both were painted in 1934. All are hung low, so they are comfortably eye level or lower for most people.
They seem tiny against the large, dark wall until you get close. Really close. There is an intimacy to being inches away from pure genius…or madness, depending on your perspective.
In stark white letters on a dark wall just inside the main entrance is a poem, which works as a mission statement:
“Poem of the Small Things
To Sebastia Gasch, with all antiartistic delight
There is a very small thing placed high in some spot.
I am pleased. I am pleased. I am pleased. I am pleased.
The sewing needles plunge into small nickels soft and sweet.
My girlfriend has a hand of cork full of Parisian fine lace.
One of my girlfriend’s breasts is a clam sea urchin, the other a swarming wasp’s nest.
My friend has a knee of smoke.
The small charms, the small charms, the small charms, the small charms, the small charms, the small charms, the small charms, the small charms, … THE SMALL CHARMS PRICK.
The partridge’s eye is red.
Small things, small things, small things, small things, small things, small things, small things, small things, small things, small things, small things, small things…
THERE ARE SMALL THINGS, STOCK-STILL LIKE A LOAF OF BREAD.”
~ Salvador Dalí
L’Amic de les Arts, 1928
I worked my way slowly from piece to piece. Studying the detail. Trying to comprehend the message he was trying to reveal/conceal. Dalí was all about contradictions.
At the very end, in a small room off the last gallery, stood a monitor with a touchpad so the viewer could pull up a sharp electronic image of each work to study it in the most 21st Century way. In contrast, on the adjacent wall, was another quote from Dalí: “Always I saw what others did not see; and what they saw, I did not.”
I wonder what you will see.
“Dalí: Poetics of the Small 1929 – 1936” runs September 9 – December 9, 2018 at the Meadows Museum at SMU. Directions, hours and more information is available at https://meadowsmuseumdallas.org
Photos and story by David Alvey.