Digging Up Dalí: Late Surrealist To Be Exhumed This Thursday

Even in the bizarre world of Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), there’s a rather exceptionally bizarre bit of news about him making the rounds at the moment.

The Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, which the artist founded in 1983 to promote and preserve his legacy, and which also controls all the licensing and reproduction rights in his work, runs three historic sites connected with the artist. In 2015, the Foundation released “Dalí’s Last Masterpiece”, the first of a planned trilogy of documentary films about these places, describing how the Teatre-Museu Dalí in the Catalan city of Figueres was created. It’s the largest repository of his works in the world, as well as the spot where he is buried. The next installment, which has just been released, is entitled “The Secret Life of Portlligat”, which explores the development of Dalí’s beach compound in Portlligat, a seaside village on the Costa Brava.

Call it perfectly surreal timing with the release of this latest film, but a rather strange development connected to that beach house has caused a sensation in the international art press. For making its way through the courts at the moment is a paternity suit, which claims that the artist and a maid had a secret affair at Portlligat back in the summer of 1954, with the end result being a bastard daughter. Barring some eleventh hour injunction, Dalí’s body is going to be exhumed this Thursday, July 20th, as part of that ongoing court case.

About a decade ago, a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel came forward claiming to be the daughter of Dalí, the product of a summertime liason between the artist and a maid who was working for a family in Portlligat back in the 1950’s. Dalí and his wife Gala had rather strange living arrangements, in that they did not often live together in the same place. In the summer, she resided in a castle he had bought for her in the town of Púbol, while he stayed on the beach in Portlligat, about an hour and a half away. From a purely logistical perspective it’s certainly possible that the artist might have had an affair at the place and time claimed.

Since Dalí and his wife had no children, he left his rather considerable estate to the Spanish state and his Foundation. If Ms. Abel can prove paternity, the fortune teller will be entitled to her own fortune for a change. Under Spanish law, as the artist’s only daughter she may be entitled to something approaching a quarter of the value of Dalí’s estate – which is currently estimated to be worth around $336 million.

So far however, the plaintiff hasn’t had much luck in actually establishing her claim. The Guardian gives the following summary of Ms. Abel’s efforts to date:

Abel won permission from the courts in 2007 for an attempt to extract DNA from traces of hair and skin clinging to Dalí’s death mask, but the results proved inconclusive.

Later that year an attempt was made to extract DNA from material supplied by the artist’s friend and biographer, Robert Descharnes. Abel claims she never received the results of the second test, but Descharnes’ son Nicholas told the Spanish news agency Efe in 2008 that he had learned from the doctor who conducted the tests that they were negative. “There is no relationship between this woman and Salvador Dalí,” he said.

Despite these setbacks, at this point one feels tempted to insert the hashtag, #shepersisted – because back in June Ms. Abel managed to convince the Spanish courts that the only way to conclusively determine paternity was to dig up her alleged father’s corpse. Although the Foundation lodged an appeal, at this point the exhumation is set to proceed at 9:30 am this Thursday, July 20th. So far, it looks as though the museum in Figueres still plans to open to the public that day, or at least, there’s nothing on the website about any plan to close either the galleries or the crypt.

Whatever the end result here, this is certainly a most surreal case – stay tuned.

Puzzle Piece: A New Clue In The Hunt For A Missing Magritte

A major discovery in the art world has museums and collectors around the world on the hunt for the last remaining piece of a major art puzzle, which involves one of the 20th century’s most iconic and popular artists, and one of his lost masterpieces.

The work of Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) is probably well-known to you, even if you are unfamiliar with his name. For example, Magritte’s 1929 painting “The Treachery of Images”, which is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has inspired many Pop Art and indeed pop culture imitations. The canvas features the image of a pipe, with the words “Ceci n’est pas un pipe.” (“This is not a pipe.”) in cursive underneath.

Even more famously, Magritte returned several times to the image of a man dressed in a raincoat, suit, and tie, sporting a bowler hat, with his face obscured by an object such as an apple, an umbrella, a bird, and so on. Among these his painting “The Son of Man” from 1964, currently in a private collection, is probably the best known. You may recall that in the 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair”, starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, the painting inspired the final heist sequence in the film, where a group of conspirators dressed like Magritte’s man in the bowler hat all dashed about, confusing the police.

In 1927 Magritte painted and exhibited a large canvas titled “The Enchanted Pose”. It showed a room in which two identical nude women are shown leaning against two column bases. At first glance the picture owes a great deal to the artist’s contemporary, Pablo Picasso, but it also anticipates by almost a decade Picasso’s later, similar series of portraits and compositions featuring his mistress Dora Maar. 

While the painting was exhibited and well-received, it disappeared sometime after 1932 when Magritte asked that it be shipped back to him from the art gallery where it was being displayed. Magritte never told anyone what had happened to the picture, and for decades after his death, art historians assumed that the piece had been destroyed.Howver it turns out that the famously thrifty Magritte found another use – or rather, uses – for his painting.

In 2013, conservators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York were working on a Magritte in their collection ahead of a major exhibition on the artist, and had the painting x-rayed. They were shocked to discover that underneath Magritte’s 1935 painting “The Portrait” was another painting, which also appeared to be by Magritte. Further research led them to conclude that the canvas was ¼ of the original, large canvas on which “The Enchanted Pose” had been painted. Soon after this discovery, a second ¼ of the lost painting was discovered underneath another Magritte painting from 1935, “The Red Model”, which is now in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Then last week, the Norwich Castle Museum in England announced the discovery of a third part of Magritte’s “The Enchanted Pose”, hidden beneath his painting “The Human Condition”, also from 1935. That means that there is just ¼ of the original painting left to be found, although we can’t know for certain whether the missing portion of the painting was kept at the same size, or whether Magritte divided it into even smaller pieces. Given both the last known mention of “The Enchanted Pose” and the dates of the works painted on the three sections of it which have been discovered so far, it seems probable and indeed likely that the remaining quarter – if it is a quarter – was probably painted over in 1935 as well.

While Magritte’s decision to destroy his original painting may seem strange, this is not at all unusual in art history. Sometimes artists will destroy or repurpose paintings which they have been unable to sell, for example, and speculation is that this is what occurred here. At other times, artists may decide to reuse old canvases because they cannot afford to buy new ones, or when they are not satisfied with the result of their work. A great number of paintings, when x-rayed, reveal other images or sections of images, painted beneath what we see on the surface.

Unfortunately, as is almost always the case with re-used canvases, Magritte’s “The Enchanted Pose” can never be reassembled outside of old photographs and virtual reality. To do so would involve destroying the later works of art which Magritte painted over the fragments of his original painting, and that could not be justified given the equal or at least comparable importance of the later works he painted. Nevertheless, the hunt for the missing piece or pieces of his lost painting will go on – providing exactly the sort of nerdy detective story which makes the study of art history so endlessly fascinating.

The Enchanted Pose by René Magritte (1927)

Figuring Out Frida

Over a very long brunch this weekend with friends, there was some discussion as to one of the fundamental problems with contemporary art, which is mirrored in contemporary society, as well.  It is increasingly the case over the past several decades that many of our most celebrated contemporary artists do not actually have any talent, or skill.  Instead, there has been an abandonment of the concept of technical study and celebration of the gifted, in favor of promoting the sensational, the emotional, and the juvenile.

While the art world is clearly dominated by the left, this in and of itself is not an answer to the question of why things have reached this point.  It is as if the literary world which, as it happens, is also dominated by the left, suddenly stopped selling novels that held a structure, told a compelling story, and were generally free from grammatical and spelling errors.  Imagine what would happen to the book trade if Simon & Schuster put out nothing but random collections of pages covered in gibberish, or the poorly written, overwrought diaries of teenagers – though I repeat myself.

Why is it that the art world has abandoned sense for nonsense, and the publishing world has not?  I think the answer lies in how the art world has come to look on the creation of art, and the appreciation of talent.  Too often over the past 40 or 50 years the contemporary art world has looked at the expression of modern artists – i.e. loosely speaking, artists of the first half of the 20th century – in works which defied academic tradition, and assumed that the abandonment of form and technique could, without proper training, lead to meaningful and lasting works of art.  Yet this admitted over-simplification often betrays a lack of understanding of where these modern artists came from, and a denial of the fact that these people studied both artistic techniques and the world around them in order to become better artists, even if they chose to depart from the strictly representational and realistic.

For example, I spotted in the news this morning that Artisphere, the mixed-use arts complex in Rosslyn, just across the Potomac River from Georgetown, is the only U.S. venue for a new exhibition of the photographs of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).  The simply-titled, “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos” runs through Sunday, March 25th, and features 250 photographs from Frida Kalho’s archive of thousands in her collection, which was sealed after her death and only opened for scholars to study in 2007.  Kahlo is probably best known to those not familiar with art history through the bio-pic “Frida”, starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina, which was nominated for numerous Oscars back in 2002.

During her lifetime Kahlo was often eclipsed in the press by her philandering husband, Diego Rivera (1886-1957), who painted gigantic leftist frescoes not only in his native Mexico, but also across the United States in major cities like New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.  Much of his overrated work looks dated today, characterized by crowds of cartoonish, jostling figures in various shades of beige and puce, looking like something out of a claustrophobic nightmare: it is a kind of Soviet realism without the handsome faces or art deco details.  Kahlo’s work, on the other hand, always seems new and fresh, and indeed often quite literally visceral.

In many of Kahlo’s works there is a joy of color that is emblematic of the vibrant colors of Mexico, which she loved and which she surrounded herself with in the places she lived, the clothes she wore, and in what she painted.  However she also suffered from a number of medical and personal problems during her lifetime, including polio, a horrendous traffic accident in which she not only broke multiple bones but was impaled, and had to undergo dozens of operations for various ailments.  She became pregnant at least three times, with her first pregnancy ending in abortion because it was physically impossible for her to carry the child to term; the second lost through miscarriage; and the third through another abortion as a result of an appendectomy, during which she also had to have three of her toes amputated.  In short, from a physical standpoint, her life was pretty much one endless sea of pain and misery.

Because of this, many of her paintings are visually disturbing explorations of the deeply personal nature of suffering.  Kahlo was able to fuse the various influences on Mexican art, including the often painfully grotesque sculptures and paintings of the Pre-Colombian indians, and the disturbingly detailed scenes of Christian martyrdom and suffering  inherited through colonization by the Spanish, with her own experiences as someone who lived with both pain and the memories of injury and loss every day of her life.  It is a pity that she was an atheist who periodically engaged in blasphemy in her work, for had she turned to God in her pain, rather than making Diego Rivera her god – and one with enormous feet of clay, at that – perhaps she might have found more solace than she enjoyed during her short lifetime.

Regardless of whether one likes her work or not, Kahlo was a painter who knew how to paint.  She may have gone in the direction of abstraction, primitive simplification, and surrealism, but not because she was incapable of producing realistic art: she simply chose not to do so.  Those who doubt this assertion need only look at her “Flower Basket” (1941), to see that this is the case.  It is so not what one thinks of when one thinks of Kahlo’s work, that one would be forgiven for not being able to identify it as being by her hand.

The point here is that Kahlo, as disturbing as some of her pictures may be, was an artist who had studied art – not just history, but also technique.  That she was able to do so in an academic, realist fashion is obvious; that she chose not to follow that path made her art very much her own.  What seems to have happened in the half-century or so since her death is that the values which she and Rivera accepted as artists – study, practice, and observation in order to successfully render emotion – have been thrown out the window in favor of emotion over all. And unfortunately, a great deal of both private and public money since their day has been spent on the promotion and collection of art which comes from the hands of those who have no talent at all, other than for making a spectacle of themselves.

There is no question that Kahlo made a spectacle of herself in her work, and you may choose not to witness that spectacle.  Yet as an artist, she also knew how to pay homage to her culture, to other artists whose work she wished to reference such as Rivera, Gauguin and Rousseau, and to bring about a personal expression of emotion based on her assimilation of all of these factors.   It is a pity that her achievements may appear to many as being diminished, in the face of such an onslaught of mediocrity from the present-day art establishment.


Detail of “Me and My Parrots” by Frida Kahlo (1941)
Private Collection