Dear Salvador: a Personal Letter to Dali
Salvador, we have to talk. I've just lined up three of your paintings, and I have to say, you really painted yourself into a corner. You set out a showman, shocking, going beyond limits. It is 1937 and you completed Swans Reflecting Elephants. Your surreal period is in its golden age and you report of yet another dream state—visual images, hallucinatory forms, and doubled decked images—confronting common sense experience with uncommon implications. Three hyperrealistic swans cast reflections in water that present as elephants, as tree trunks become legs, clouds cavort as sensualize bioforms, and you even include yourself trying to make sense of it all. Everything shifts under our gaze, and you’ve painted us into a conceptual corner.
But suddenly its 1945. In the midst of global convolution, the science you adore has produced a bomb, and that miracle of achievement has just vaporized whole cities. Particle theory mixed too nicely with our dark angels, and shoved your metaphysical parlour games and playful optical tricks with swans and elephants to the sidewalk. Now you paint Melancholic Atomic and Uraniumist Idyll, a not-so-still life where everything is—really—going to hell. More than clever concepts, here.
By 1952, however, the implications really set in, and this time your elephants and swans had much heavier lifting to do. You paint Galatea of the Spheres. Gala—your beloved wife, the embodiment of all good, all that you yourself worship—deconstructs into a set of dissociated spheres—atomic particles—with infinite regress. Treasures, supposed values, all that we love most dearly, prove themselves ultimately empty.
And it’s coming around again. You were prescient, Salvador. Now I’m seeing my world dissemble, watching all the rocks and elephants, like Gala, turning into swans and flying away into night.
Kendall Johnson writes and paints in Upland, California. He is the Director of Gallery 57 Underground, Pomona. Kendall is author of several non-fiction books on psychological crisis and trauma, and four books of poetry: Fragments: An Archeology of Memory; Johnson’s Pasture: Living Place, Living Time; A Whole Lot’a Shakin’: Midcentury Reconsidered: and A Sublime and Tragic Dance, co-authored with John Brantingham about Robert Oppenheimer.
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