Picasso / Dalí – Compassion and Conflict

An exhibition at Museu Picasso rocks the foundations of art history by placing two iconic artists of radically different reputations together. Picasso_Dalí / Dalí_Picasso is a painstakingly researched and provocative show that spotlights specific points of encounter between the two men, expanding our understanding of both.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): enigmatic Cubist, lifelong hero of the left, fundamentally challenged the way we view reality.

Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989): 20 years his junior, combined violence and eroticism in hyper-real landscapes aimed at ‘liberating’ repressed desires. Later, he stood accused of both celebrity-seeking cynicism, and complicity with Fascism.

Yet these apparent ideological opposites can be compared as well as contrasted, says William Jeffett, Chief Curator of Exhibitions at the Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. He spent a decade gathering key artworks and abundant archival material, including exhibition catalogues, magazine and newspaper articles, etchings, photographs and letters, from 25 art museums and private collections around the world. They help us piece together a complex and contradictory relationship that spanned four decades.

L: Dalí's 'Apparatus and Hand' (1927); R: Picasso's 'Woman in a Red Chair' (1929)

Dalí’s ‘Apparatus and Hand’ (1927); Picasso’s ‘Woman in a Red Chair’ (1929) L: ©Salvador Dalí/Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres 2015; R: ©Pablo Picasso/Succesió Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid 2015

Placing two artists together with such different styles and reputations seems controversial. How did it happen?

William Jeffett: The thesis might seem controversial as there is a tendency in the literature of each artist to assume they had little to do with each other and their art occupied distant and opposed positions. This is partially because of their divergent political positions later on in life. Observed from a distance, however, we can understand both Picasso and Dalí in a more complex and sophisticated manner; by examining their relationship we see that there is more in common between the two artists than meets the eye.

How would you describe Dalí’s early relationship with Picasso?

They were friends from the mid-1920s into the mid-1930s. When, in 1929, Dalí moved to Paris, Picasso was already aware of what he was doing in Spain, as Dalí maintained a correspondence with Picasso. In Paris, it appears Dalí visited Picasso’s Rue de la Boetie studio on several occasions. The studio was in the same street as his dealer Paul Rosenberg, who had prepared a major exhibition of Picasso’s work in the summer of 1926, and Dalí’s first visit coincided with the preparation of the exhibition. As Cahiers d’Art published photographs of Picasso’s studio at this time, between the photographs and the Rosenberg exhibition catalogue we have a good idea what Dalí saw. The publisher Skira was also in the Rue de la Boetie, and he published both Picasso’s illustration of The Metamorposes of Ovid (1931) and (later), Dalí’s The Songs of Maldoror (1934). Both artists would also work closely with the printer Roger Lacourière and may have even collaborated on a print together.

What about later on?

After Dalí began to go to the US and assert himself as a celebrity in the art world, they grew more distant, though Picasso paid for Dalí’s first trip to the US. Dalí’s relation with André Breton also became increasingly tense through the later 1930s. Dalí went to America in 1940, but at the time of the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War (spring 1939), Dalí wrote to Buñuel demonstrating a turn in his politics from the extreme left to support of Franco, perhaps partially because his family (especially his sister) suffered at the hands of the left during the war. Picasso remained a man of the left. From this point onwards they were more distant, especially after Dalí returned to Spain and established a public accommodation with the dictatorship. In 1951-1952 Dalí was the most important artist exhibited at the Bienal Hispano-Americana in Madrid. At this time he famously gave a speech in the Teatro María Guerrero where he called for Picasso to return to Spain (‘Picasso y Yo’). Most likely this greatly irritated Picasso, who at any rate attempted to mount an anti-bienal in Paris.

How is the show organised?

The exhibition looks at the moments when their work is most related. This we can see in the mid-1920s through the early 1930s in the Ingresque classicism first explored by Picasso and then by Dalí.  Here Dalí is assimilating Picasso’s example from the point of view of Catalonia, and has yet to go to Paris. Their common experience of Catalonia in the early period was important for both, not just Barcelona, but also Cadaques. Then there is the young Dalí’s visit to Picasso’s studio in the spring of 1926. At this moment both explored a form of neoclassical realism inspired by both photography and Ingres, and a later form of “poetic cubism” which already incorporates elements of Surrealism, sometimes Dalí’s own works are so convergent with Picasso they sometimes seem indistinguishable.
Then from 1928 into the mid-1930s, they were engaged with both André Breton’s Surrealism and its dissident offshoots represented by the writers Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris. Here there is a form of figurative deformation in both instances, which appears independently as both are contributing to a new and disturbing visual discourse. Both desired a rupture with the purely formal concerns of Cubism and arrived at shocking conclusions at odds with earlier aesthetic positions in line with the new disciplines of ethnography and psychoanalysis. This period comes to a close with the Spanish Civil War (1936) which they each treat in powerful, but often allegorical ways: Picasso with Guernica (1937) here represented by preparatory drawings, and Dalí by Premonition of Civil War, here represented by the final preparatory drawing from 1935.
In the exhibition and its catalogue we have tried to be scrupulously precise in terms of the material presented as well as its interpretation; we have avoided any distortion of documentation and artwork is accompanied by abundant archive materials including exhibition catalogues, magazines and newspaper articles.

Have you made any discoveries regarding the personalities of the artists in comparing their work?

The exhibition is more about artistic and visual surprises than biographical details however, the stereotypes that we have been presented with do break down to some extent when we relate the two men to each other. Dalí is often seen as the extroverted showman and Picasso the introverted figure painting in chateaux. Yet in the 1920s Picasso was a real celebrity in Paris – and a real dandy. He was wealthy, he had his suits tailor-made in London and he spent his summers in places like Beatriz. He had an enormous Hispano-Suiza car which he could not drive as he was afraid of hurting his hands, so he had a chauffeur. So Picasso had a theatrical side too, and Dalí had a quieter side, which allowed him to talk to poets and other artists.

Was there something ‘Freudian’ about their relationship?

Arguably Dalí both loved Picasso, writing extensively about him, and despised him, in what Charlie Miller writing in the catalogue calls ‘the perversion of influence’. So yes, the relation can be seen in Freudian terms, with Picasso cast in the role of father figure later to be killed off symbolically by the recalcitrant son Dalí. Yet Picasso kept all of Dalí’s letters and post-cards… so, certainly, there was both admiration and rivalry on both sides.

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Picasso_Dalí / Dalí_Picasso
Museu Picasso – Barcelona
until 28th June

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