For most of my life, I’ve been only a cautious fan of the paintings and drawings of Salvador Dali. I’ve always loved his tiny The Persistence of Memory from 1931 for example (who doesn’t?), but have always deplored those empty, pompous, late pseudo-epics (despite their astonishing technical skill) such as his truly awful Santiago El Grande (1957) or The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1959). This is pretty much the standard response, I think, to the trajectory of Dali’s art.
But I have also been, for most of my life, a tireless enthusiast of Dali’s writings. Dali was a brilliant writer. His The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942) is one of my very favourite books (see Voyage Around My Library # 6).
Dali was extremely well-read, and was a thoroughly literary painter (his paintings were always like texts); he drew frequently upon works of literature for the nourishing of his art, and was an enthusiastic, if a somewhat invasive, illustrator of the texts of other writers.
Sometimes, as with his illustrations for, say, a hectic, opulent work such as The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (Doubleday, 1948) or for a proto-surrealist work like Alice in Wonderland (1969), everything works out reasonably well. These sinewy texts can take and absorb Dali’s graphic feints and lunges, his parryings and thrustings.
But a quiet, ruminative work like the Montaigne essays cannot. Here Dali is mostly a bull-in-a-china-shop, aesthetically speaking.
But there are a few moments of essentially inexplicable grace which make the whole project worthwhile. There is drawing on p. 310 of the Montaigne (reproduced here) that calmly and authoritatively works with Montaigne’s text, enhancing it and enriching, it rather than trampling all over it. The drawing shows a cluster of skulls, hanging, like grapes, from a leafy length of vine.
Grapes not of Wrath, but of Death, the final fruit of life’s development, the bloom at the end of the tunnel. “Why doest though fear the last day?” writes Montaigne, in his essay “Study Philosophy to Learn to Die”). “It contributes no more to thy dissolution, than every one of the rest: the last step is not the cause of lassitude; it does but confess it. Every day travels toward death: the last only arrives at it.”
Here, for once, Dali’s skulls are not fierce and terrible/ Here, they are merely the produce of time, dancing in the wind, tender grapes awaiting the winepress of eternity.