Sunday, 25 March 2012

Benjamin and Dali in Catalunya

One of the things I most wanted to do when I visited Catalunya for the first time in 1989, was to go to the town where Walter Benjamin died and is buried.  In the event on that occasion I wasn’t able to, but what did happen is that my personal interest in his life and work was put into strong relief by a visit to another Catalan shrine, a place I didn’t even know about before I went.  This was the Dali Theatre and Museum in Figueres.

At the prospect of visiting this item, one friend, who had OD’d on Dali while working in the Tate Gallery giftshop during the big Dali exhibition in 1980, was interested but critical: ‘All tits and bums’, was her succinct summing up.  I remembered weird landscapes and melting clocks.  I recollected his moustache, his reputation for publicity stunts, and that he had died about two years before.  I had the idea that he could still be seen embalmed and lying in state, and this added a frisson of ghoulishness to the attraction of going to Figueres.   I said to myself that I didn’t really like Dali, but we were only staying 30 kilometres away.   And, after all, he was a surrealist: hadn’t Benjamin written an important essay on Surrealism?   The visit to Dali’s museum would also be a kind of homage to Benjamin.  So we went….

The Museum building, though bizarrely decorated, merges structurally with the surrounding buildings right in the centre of Figueres.  The entrance is down a narrow street which opens into a tiled Plaça surrounded by the Museum, a Library of Surrealism, and the tables and chairs of a bar.  In front of the main entrance is a huge decorated tree stump, which with an egg shape for a head, looks like a seated person, head in hands.  Bit and pieces of plaster and sculpture are stuck into the niches of the stump, which is closely hugged by railings.  Also in the courtyard are two columns of tractor tyres, each with statues of enthroned kings on top, about thirty feet high or more.  There is also a totem pole of TV sets, covered in plaster that looks like petrified semolina.  The building itself is Theatre Del Arte-style, like a paper cut-out model, but full size.  Golden science-fiction figures with raised hands and no features are arranged around the parapet.  There are decorative eggs everywhere you look.  A huge bearded head in a glass case has a TV in its forehead and dolls eyes for eyeballs.  Its case is dotted with eggs stuck to the walls and floor.

Inside the building is a small courtyard surrounded by four floors of enclosed galleries and show rooms.  These contain pieces of Dali’s collection, much by himself.  One floor contains dozens of paintings of human shapes discovered in piles of stones.  A life-size statue of a naked woman, painted to look real and with no pubic hair, is in a glass case brightly illuminated with neon lights.  A nude human shape is painted on polystyrene boards, with a shell placed at the crotch.  One doorway is a brightly-rouged mouth, festooned with corn-cobs.  In the courtyard is a black Cadillac our of a Bogart movie, with three figures inside and a lot of ivy growing around them.  There is also a column with a real fishing boat on the top, painted yellow and white, from which blue globules are suspended as if falling.  All around the fourth gallery level, visible from the courtyard, are yellow reliefs of washbasins.

At the back of the courtyard on a sort of enclosed stage, serenaded by a white plaster orchestra with real instruments, is an amazing 20 foot-high portrait of Abraham Lincoln.  From close up his face consists of a nude woman and a series of square blocks of colour.  From afar it’s an uncanny portrait of the man.  You can’t stand far enough back in the room to be able to appreciate this, and I can only tell you about it because I happened to catch sight of a postcard of the picture in the gift-shop window, from the other side of the Plaça.

There were hundreds of people, and the galleries narrow and no complete circles, so that you have to keep retracing your steps, squeezing past those behind you going forward.

 This building and its decorations and artefacts are Dali’s tombstone, and his 1000 decibel-epitaph.  He is buried beneath it.  (I was mistaken about him lying in state, though I feel it would be perfectly consistent with everything else here.)  It represents homage to Dali from himself.  The public are amused and bemused bystanders, in fact voyeurs, in the great show Dali is giving to himself.  His throwing together of images and textures is done with dazzling technique and pazazz.  He made a stupendous effort to achieve immortality, amazingly consistent throughout his career, by apotheosising the effort itself.  His life’s work has no purpose but itself, and its meaninglessness follows from this concentration on effort – meaning diverts attention from the star of the show.
What would Walter Benjamin have made of it?  His great essay on Surrealism, published in 1929, makes no mention of Dali.  Benjamin’s interest was in the extent to which Surrealism was revolutionary and subversive by making revelation which could be utilised in political ways.  To me Dali’s effort seems to have been to domesticate and channel the dangerous energies unleashed by Surrealism.  His Museum provokes at best a kind of urbane amusement: it does not shock or disturb, and few of the images and objects provoke thought, as opposed to bewilderment or sniggers.  There is nothing here remotely as shocking as Bunuel’s image of the razor slicing through an eye in Le Chien Andalou, and nothing half as powerful as an insight, or with as much metaphorical content.  Dali’s stuff is not particularly funny either.  One gazes, impressed by the undoubted energy and technique, but there is no answer to the question implied by this: what is it all for?  It is possible that people looking for significance and meaning will be assured that it is there, even if they cannot detect it, just because of the impenetrability of the images.  But this impenetrability is the adman’s illusion of a world of surfaces and appearance.  There is nothing to penetrate, no underlying significance or point to uncover, not even a joke to get.  Significance can be attached to meaninglessness in an alienated world, but Dali in no way represents pressure for change.  He was a public supporter of Franco, who won the Spanish Civil War with the support of the Nazis, and who suppressed Dali’s own Catalan language.

Walter Benjamin died and is buried at Port Bou, on the French Catalan border, about 35 kilometres from Figueres.  He was fleeing from the Nazis, and, held up by the Spanish authorities after an asthmatic climb to the border, he committed suicide, in September 1940.  His life’s work, a collection of essays and notes for unfinished projects on a huge range of cultural activity, have nonetheless a consistency, which is his struggle to articulate the real complexity of the relation between history, culture, politics and human experience.  His memorial is a gravestone overlooking the sea at Port Bou.  His legacy is a provisional whisper of wisdom, in contrast to the shouting fairground medicine show of Dali.

I didn’t get to visit Walter Benjamin’s grave on that trip.  My friends dropped me at Girona on their way to the beach, from where I planned to take the train the relatively short distance to Port Bou, but found after they had left that there was a train strike that day.  Somehow, after I got over my disappointment, it seemed appropriate.  Benjamin lives on in his ideas, not lying in state.  Nevertheless, I said to myself, I will go there one day.

Benjamin, W. (1929, 1979 edition) Surrealism.  In One Way Street and Other Writings. London: New Left Books

1 comment:

  1. George Orwell wrote a powerful review of Dali's Autobiography