Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 11)

This is a painting by Salvador Dalí that directly addresses the earlier Romantic artwork looked at, the Angelus by Jean-François Millet.  Here Dalí is criticizing it.  The basic shapes of Millet's original work remain intact, but you might say that the substance has completely been replaced.  These are no longer people; they're "archeological reminiscences."  Trees are growing on them like the ruins to some old castle—there are even birds perching and flying around them.  They are still standing in a field, but it's no longer the field of a farm.  No plants grow here; we are in some kind of desert.  There is no steeple in the background.  The sky is dramatically lit in the dim light of dusk again, but now there are clouds and a sickly-colored smog filling the air.  Everything's changed.  And, what is most shocking, Dalí has added the birds and a few onlookers to give perspective to the two central Angelus-inspired subjects—they're huge.  These two stone or brick constructions are towering above what appears to be an adult and a child, holding hands (probably a child and parent) in the bottom center of the work.  The parent stretches out its arm at the scene, as if showing and explaining to the child all about this image.  It's like a monument people go and look at—and that, in his derisive criticism, is what Salvador Dalí describes art as having become.
Paintings like Millet's Angelus had become staple works of historically acclaimed art by the time Dalí painted this.  Future generations are trained to learn from and expound upon the past.  As we have been studying art, we have seen a progression of art from stylistic period to stylistic period, a sequence of evolution in which no single genre can be understood out of its context (precisely why a comprehensive study of art history is so vital to understanding art).  In that sense, then, artists have been building off of previous generations of artists for centuries not merely because it is a phenomenon taught to young artists within the culture of educational development but also because it is a thing fundamentally connected with the medium throughout history.  But there is a danger of "institutionalizing" art in a way that, at least as Dalí characterized it, makes a spectacle of it, which stands on display in some sterilized museum warehouse for a few people to come and blankly gaze at a few days out of the year.  It loses its value and meaning.  It hollows out into a tourist attraction or decays into a recreational monument, like these two statues.  (Significantly, the left figure is literally hollowed out with openings resembling windows).  But, more egregiously than anything else, it removes a work from its original context and begs for it to be equally appreciated in a totally new environment.  Well, Dalí saw the Angelus as a work incompatible with the reality of the Modern world.  The once-verdant field has become a waste land, both literally in the painting and, in the metaphoric sense, historically in the real world.  Ravaged by industrialization and world war, artists like Dalí couldn't see the old Romanticism of beauty in nature as it once had been.  It didn't fit with the contemporary world as they knew and understood it.  In other words, Millet was outdated (hence, the ruins, overgrown trees, nesting birds, and ominous sky).  The two statues have grown out of proportion and extremely large in the symbolic sense like Millet's canonized masterpiece has grown historically as one of art history's staple inventions, but in reaching such enormous size, they've lost their fleshiness and turned into cracked, rotting "archaeological reminiscences" that cast ominous, rather than reassuring, shadows over onlookers.  They stand as completely out-of-place objects in their world.  Is this the death of art?
Perhaps it's more.  Surrealists such as Dalí saw not only the corruption of true art in the Modern world but the corruption of the old thematic principles of art, such as those present in the original Angelus.  You will recall the original painting had very strong religious implications; the two figures were bowing in prayer, with a church steeple in the distance to throw a Christian tone over the whole scene.  But these two figures aren't praying; they're not even people.  They are just stone constructions, incapable of prayer, of thought, of feeling, or of any intelligence.  They're not doing anything (the original two were farmers), and there is no steeple to set the scene in context.  Perhaps it's the old devotion to Christian faith that has been hollowed out, and this, more than the art criticisms, is what makes Millet outdated, incompatible, and no longer legitimate in the Modern world.  This painting conveys a profound loss of innocence and a "withdrawal of faith."  In an earth no longer producing the good fruit of men's labors but instead one which has become desolate in the wake of early 20th century world war and industrial devastation—perhaps in this world, there is no longer any God to turn to.

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