Saturday, 31 March 2012

Salvador Dalí: 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship

And now a break from literature.

In 1948, Salvador Dalí, considered the 20th century’s greatest artist (and not just by his egomaniac self), wrote a powerful how-to manual explaining, step by step, the creation of Art with capital A. Armed only with humour and his delusions of grandeur, Mr Dalí assumed the responsibility of saving modern art from itself by offering the world a ‘kind of culinary initiation to the Eleusinian mysteries of painting’ that will make any would-be painter capable of reproducing the ‘dalissence’ of the Spanish painter’s works. Oh, this tome will upset painters, especially dead ones like Paul Cézanne, and Mr. Dalí doesn’t withhold the fact that the book will be ‘cruel to modern painting’. But if he’s cruel it’s because he cares.

This document, this poetics ‘condemned beforehand to be the most original in the twentieth century” wasn’t widely read, which explains the dire state of modern art. But this humble blogger hopes that this review will lead to a revival of this neglected tome and to the regeneration of painting, the greatest, noblest of arts.

I should, however, warn readers with democratic sensibilities, who’ve been led to believe that everyone can create art. Mr. Dalí will categorically disabuse you of that illusion born from your likely living in a welfare state. The teachings contained in this manual are not for everyone. It’s not just because some lessons are defined by impossibility and absurdity, or because they’re physically demanding, but because they’re financially forbidding. For instance, he advises would-be painters that it’s better to be rich than poor, so one must learn to turn one’s work into gold (and no, I don’t think there’s a deeper alchemical subtext here, in spite of all the magical gobbledegook. Remember André Breton nicknamed him Avida Dollars, which means greedy for dollars), and to chew hashish only five times in one’s lifetime. (Oh, I can already hear the groan of disappointment.) His advice to be rich is reinforced by his secret teaching of the ritual of ‘sleeping without sleeping,’ which stimulates creativity but requires a servant to hold a bell. Of course the reader here stumbles into an impasse: for if he first must create art to become rich, then how can he hire a servant to help him practice the rituals that will stimulate his creativity? It’s a tortuous paradox, dear reader; Mr. Dalí wasn’t just the greatest painter of the 20th century, he was also the Zeno of the visual arts.

Most of the book’s secrets, indeed, have little to do with art and a lot with spiritualism and strange rituals. He explains what plants are better suited for a painter’s garden, and preaches sexual abstinence in order to channel the libido’s stored-up energies into painting. Regarding animals, he recognizes the stimulus spiders can provide painters, and he remembers us of the fun in building Araneauriums. Sadly he doesn’t dwell enough time on this topic since it’s ‘too frivolous for the tone of this book,’ which is an erudite and scholarly work. And here I must lodge a complaint against the book’s editing: Mr. Dalí could have done with a better editor. For if he dispenses with important subjects in a couple of pages, he taxes the readers’ patience by drawing out advices that any novice painter already knows. I give you as an example the oft-repeated lesson contained in all manuals that I probably shouldn’t even mention here because it’s a waste of time; I speak, of course, of the well-known importance of using a sea urchin’s skull to look at one’s pictures through a hole drilled in it. Yes, Mr. Dalí, we all learn about the sea urchin’s skulls in the first year of college; but since we don’t broach the construction of Araneauriums until the sixth year of Painting, I was anxious for your ideas about it, and hence my disillusionment.

There are also points where advanced students will disagree with him. According to him, a painting must be finished in six days, like God’s creation, when anyone who’s studied Mr. Rothko’s red canvases knows masterpieces can be done in one Sunday afternoon. He then obfuscates the matter even more by arguing that it’s impossible to know when a painting is finished, or whether a painting can ever been finished. Oh yes, Mr. Dalí not only enjoys the odd paradox but he’s fond of contradicting himself.

Regarding realism versus fantasy, Mr. Dalí favours fantasy since it’s faster to paint: “If you happen to be one of those droll painters who, instead of sky or earth, prefer to introduce elements borrowed from their fantasies, the painting will go even faster since you will only have to make skies ‘of a sort’ or earth ‘of a sort’ and, having no objective model to which you are bound you will immediately be satisfied with whatever comes out of you.”

Mr. Dalí is also very interested in the personal life of the painter. No wonder that he gives ample advice about the necessity of learning to live with a mistress and a wife, Mr Dali’s wife being Painting, and his mistress Gala, who will have to pass as his legitimate wife. He makes it clear that it’s of the utmost importance that mistress and wife get along in the household, and elaborates on the benefits of ‘being married to a Gala,’ but sadly doesn’t explain how to acquire one. (This blogger would humbly add that befriending poets and then stealing their muses, yields excellent results). Now, dear reader, if you think Salvador Dalí is being impertinent for invading the painter’s personal sphere, that’s only because he’s meticulous: every facet of the painter’s life will ultimately affect his art. In fact there is too much to write about this topic, which is why the author constantly promises future treatises that will develop some minor point. For in art nothing is too small. Art is in the details.

But Mr. Dalí doesn’t conclude this tome without offering genuine advice. Amidst the absurdism, the contradictions, the paradoxes, the mock secrets, it turns out that Dalí actually knows a lot about painting. And when the reader least expects it, he launches into a long analysis of the several types of brush, their cons and pros, and when and how to use them. Although Dalí spends almost two hundred pages making fun of the idea of that painting can be learned, he proves to be an excellent student of the basic rules that have been handed down from century to century. It seemed incongruous to me that his warmest praise is reserved for the ancients: “I would be perfectly capable of allowing my left hand be cut off, but this under the most interesting circumstances imaginable: on condition, namely, that I might for ten minutes be able to observe Vermeer of Delft seated before his easel as he was painting.” Dalí has a great admiration for this 17th century Dutch painter. He also exalts Raphael and the 15th century mathematician Luca Pacioli. At every turn he remembers the reader of the importance of the ancients, of studying them, of knowing how they worked, of learning to imitate them before breaking the rules.

It’s curious, but Dalí, the surrealist, the iconoclast, didn’t care much for modern art. Throughout the book he laments the loss of technique in modern painting (a sentiment shared by Giorgio de Chirico, the only painter ever to match Dali’s megalomania, and who in 1919 published the essay "The Return of Craftsmanship," making a break with his avant-garde metaphysical paintings that garnered him fame and returning to a classic style, a decision that damaged his career), and longs for the lost secrets of the ancients: “[I]n 1948 a few persons in the world know how to manufacture an atomic bomb, but there does not exist a single person on the globe who knows today what was the composition of the mysterious juice, the ‘medium’ in which the brothers Van Eyck or Vermeer of Delft dipped their brushes to paint, No one knows – not even I!”

This loss, Dalí claims, has led historians to speculate that the recipe was a tightly-kept secret. But he disagrees. In his opinion, “such recipes must in their time have been precisely  so little secret, so incorporated in the everydayness of the routine life of all painters, so much a part of an uninterrupted tradition of every minute of experience, that such secrets must have been transmitted almost wholly orally, without anyone’s even taking the trouble to note them down or, if so, only by means of that elegiac charcoal pencil with which the masters traced so many unknown, effaced and often angelic ephemerides.”

I think he brings this up to argue that modern painting has become an hermetic art, cut off from the quotidian, which is double ironic since his paintings are so dream-like. But Dalí, like I pointed out before, is not a writer worried about contradicting himself. The difference, however, is that perhaps Dalí could draw a Raphael-like painting if he wanted, or make a good effort at it. One wonders if Roy Lichtenstein could when he couldn’t even surpass the comicbook artists he plagiarized. What painters have lost is the ability to draw what they wanted. “Modern painters, having almost totally lost the technical tradition of the ancients, we can no longer do what we want to do. We only do ‘whatever comes out of us.’”

In tandem with this lack of technique, Dalí deplores the disappearance of beauty from modern painting. He complains of artists looking only for the ‘defective’ and lambastes critics who admire ugliness: “The moment a Venus resembles a toad, the contemporary pseudo-aesthete exclaims, ‘It’s powerful, it’s human!’ Certain it is that Raphaelesque perfections would pass totally unperceived before their eyes.” Instead he admires the ‘magic’ of the ancients and loves the beauty imprints on paintings, what he calls the ‘patina’ of the paintings.

I liked this book. It revealed a facet of Dalí I didn’t expect. I never imagined he’d come down so hard on modern art, especially because so many of his criticisms can be easily levelled at him. But then he has to be a bit blind about himself, doesn’t he, if he thinks he’s going to single-handedly save modern art? Half-serious, half-parody, 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship is a hilarious diatribe masquerading as a manual for painters. His teachings are mostly useless because in the age of subjectivity, keeping pet spiders or knowing the composition of lapis lazuli is the same. When there's no need to know the difference from painting a secco from painting a fresco, there's nothing to teach. I think it's a powerful point he makes. It doesn't invalidate that I love Marini's stick-like horses and Pollock's drippy canvases. But if someone had the talent to take on his contemporaries, that was Dalí.

The book contains hundreds of illustrations by Dalí, down to some very unusual footnotes, and every page emanates independence of thought. He wasn’t just a brilliant painter but a fine writer too. Although it’s not a useful guide, it’s a rip-roaring read, and I got what I hoped for.


  1. Hi Miguel - Another great post and commentary.

    P. S. - I have recognized your blog on my blog with a Liebster Award:

  2. Brian, thank you for the Liebster Award. I had never heard of it until now. And now you've given me the difficult responsibility of finding five blogs to award too.

    I'm glad you enjoy my writing. Sadly my posting has become irregular because I now have less time than when I started the blog a few months ago, but I'll try to maintain the level of quality and to review interesting books.

  3. Please do not feel obligated to pass on the award. Please do just keep up the great blogging!

    1. Brian, do not worry; as soon as I can, I'll choose five blogs. It'll be fun. Thanks again for the award.

  4. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.