Salvador DALÍ
Trilogy of the desert: Mirage (1946)

In this third and final chapter on Salvador Dalí, his life and the painting Trilogy of the desert: Mirage, 1946, NGV Senior Fundraising Officer, Caroline Buckley, explores Dalí’s influence and lasting appeal for Australian artists and audiences.

For Australian artists and the visual arts industry, Dalí’s influence was felt as early as the 1920s, though it wasn’t until the 1930s as the Surrealist movement gained world-wide attention that Dalí and his works become more well-known. Australian artists living in and travelling to Europe and the United Kingdom were a source of information about Dalí and his fellow Surrealists, as were Europeans moving to Australia in the years leading up to World War Two. Art journals, newspapers, books and magazines written by international and Australian authors also provided Australian artists with up-to-the-minute information and images of Dalí’s newest creations.

The first painting by Dalí to hit Australian shores came in 1939 in the Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, brought to the country by Keith Murdoch, owner of the Herald newspaper and curated by that paper’s art critic, Basil Burdett. Murdoch later became President of the Council of Trustees of the NGV). In this exhibition, Dalí was represented by his 1932 painting, Memory of the child-woman (The Salvador Dalí Museum, St Petersburg, Florida), which at the time, caused so much controversy – allegedly due to its hidden sexual symbols – that it was withdrawn from the exhibition’s Sydney run for a short period, before being reinstated following public protest.

Numerous Australian artists at the time were influenced by Dalí, including James Gleeson, Eric Thake, Russell Drysdale, Peter Purves Smith, Joy Hester and Albert Tucker; many of whom saw the 1939 exhibition. Dalí’s imagery had a direct influence on young Sydney artist, James Gleeson, seen in works such as We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit, painted in 1940. This painting echoes Dalí’s use of an arid landscape as a location for various symbolic objects and was jointly awarded a prize for most outstanding work (alongside Eric Thake’s Salvation from the evils of earthly existence, 1940) at an exhibition by the Contemporary Art Society in 1940. Gleeson’s and Thake’s paintings, which also arguably employs a Dalí-like composition, were donated to the NGV the following year by an anonymous donor. Most recently, both works also appeared in the NGV’s 2015 exhibition, Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its echoes at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.

Other Gleeson works also attributed to the influence of Dalí include Palaeolithic landscape, 1939, (Holmes á Court Collection, Perth), and The attitude of lightning towards a lady-mountain, 1939, (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) which when exhibited, was observed by Australian writer and art print and publication retailer, Gino Nibbi, to ‘follow, perhaps too closely, the vision of the patriarch of the movement, Salvador Dalí.’ Victorian Peter Purves Smith, who was living in London at the time, was influenced by Dalí’s use of tree trunk, stick-like imagery in his work New York, 1936 (Art Gallery of New South Wales), and both Dalí and Purves Smith inspired Russell Drysdale’s Man reading a newspaper, 1941 (University Art Gallery, The University of Sydney), which in addition to the denuded skeleton of trees, also utilised a desolate landscape. Interestingly, Drysdale included a humorous homage to Dalí in his 1947 painting The rabbiters, which was purchased by the NGV that same year. If you look closely, you will see hidden in the roots of the large upturned tree, a portrait of Dalí surveying the rocky landscape.

While the 1930s and 1940s were periods which most strongly felt the influence of Surrealism, and Dalí as its protagonist, the artist’s appeal has reverberated through the decades; inspiring, stimulating and motivating Australian artists. This was no better revealed than in the NGV’s exhibition, Lurid Beauty which in a non-chronological manner, juxtaposed Surrealist works from the 1930s until now. Art historian Christopher Chapman
describes Australian Surrealism as making use of European Surrealism as a reference point only, and that it is actually ‘a surrealism reinvented, differing and complex.’ For example, Dalí’s use of landscapes and symbolic objects can be seen the haunting dreamscapes of Louise Hearman, and his use of great tufts of tutu fabric for the ballet Bacchanale (1939) were the inspiration behind costumer Leigh Bowery’s Pregnant tutu
head, 1992, gifted to the NGV in 1999. Australian artist, Tim Schultz, in a 2015 essay, even suggests that ‘the history of art may have ended in 1989. This was the year that Salvador Dalí died, the last undisputed giant of modern art, a hero of postmodernism’.

For Australian audiences Dalí has been a celebrity since the early 1930s when he became the Surrealist movement’s most famous artist. Certainly, the outcry surrounding the removal of Memory of the childwomen, 1932, in the Sydney display of Exhibition of French and British Modern Art is testament to the appeal of his work for Australian audiences. Fascination with the artist, his life and works, has remained strong even after his death at the age of 84 on 23 January 1989. The NGV’s 2009 Melbourne Winter Masterpieces Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire was the first full retrospective of Dalí’s works ever staged in Australia. Several years in the making and curated by the NGV’s Senior Curator of International Art, Dr Ted Gott, this exhibition attracted more than 330,000 visitors, making it the fourth most popular exhibition in the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series to date. Globally, Dalí exhibitions are staged at a constant rate.

The enduring appeal of Dalí surely cannot be summed up into a one-size-fits-all explanation; Dalí and his work means different things to different people. For some, it’s Dalí the outrageous character, with his whimsical upturned moustache and expressive eyebrows, walking his pet anteater down the streets of Paris. For others, it is his visually stimulating works which have the power to explore the depths of our imagination, their rich symbolism speaking to us in numerous and divergent ways.

For me, it is the breadth of his creative output over a career that spanned many decades that I find immensely fascinating. I could not pick that his lesser-known works of the early to mid-1920s, for which he sought inspiration from the French Impressionists, are from the same artist who gave us possibly the most famous Surrealist painting, The persistence of memory, 1931 (Museum of Modern Art, New York); those melting clocks so familiar to us all.

Similarly, Dalí’s jewellery pieces from the 1940s and 1950s, which include brooches, pins, bracelets, earrings and necklaces often in gold and embellished with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, pearls, emeralds and other precious stones are imaginative in their form and delicate in their crafting. The NGV has in its permanent collection a wonderful Bird brooch (c. 1937) designed by Dalí for the Paris couture house, Schiaparelli. Signifying a bird in flight, white ostrich feathers form the bird’s wings and tail, while the golden metallic body is decorated with cabochon rubies, along with glass, sapphire, emerald and topaz stones. The NGV acquired this work in 2017 thanks to the generous support of NGV Foundation Board member, Krystyna Campbell-Pretty, and it is currently on display on
Level 2 of NGV International.

Salvador Dalí is an icon of twentieth century art and a household name. His life and creative output provides endless inspiration and fascination for artists and audiences today, as much as they did when many of his works – be they paintings, drawings, sculptures, jewellery, film or photography – were created. Despite Dalí’s profile and artistic prevalence, there are no paintings by the artist yet held in the NGV Collection, nor any other public collection in Australia. The NGV hopes to right this and with the community’s help, acquire Trilogy of the desert: Mirage, 1946, for all to enjoy, now and in the future.

The NGV has been lucky to secure Trilogy of the desert: Mirage on a long-term loan and it is currently on display at NGV International. This is a wonderful opportunity to see this masterful painting up close. Do also look out for Dalí’s The Persistence of memory, 1931, featured in the NGV’s 2018 Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition, MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art opening on 9 June.

The NGV warmly thanks everyone who has made a contribution to this appeal to date. We still seek the community’s support to raise $1 million to secure this exceptional work and welcome gifts of all sizes to make this possible.

The NGV welcomes gifts of all sizes. To make a donation, please visit ngv.melbourne/donate or call the NGV Foundation on 03 8620 2415. If you are interested in making a significant gift to this campaign, please contact Misha Agzarian, Associate Director, Fundraising, on 03 8620 2392 or Misha.Agzarian@ngv.vic.gov.au

This article was first published in NGV Magazine May/June 2018.