Salvador Dalí loved to shock, but his prints based on botanical illustrations show the whimsical side of his imagination, says Ian Irvine
Salvador Dalí venerated Velázquez and even toyed with the idea that he might be his reincarnation. But while he undoubtedly belongs in that great tradition of Western painting, as the last of the old masters, he was also something new: the earliest example of the artist as global celebrity. Long before Andy Warhol, Dalí had transformed his life and work into a brand, and he took every opportunity, and embraced every 20th century means, to promote it.
These included ballet sets, jewellery, photography, furniture (a sofa in the shape of Mae West's lips), films (the surrealist Un Chien Andalou (1929) with Luis Buñuel, the dream ballet sequence in Hitchcock's thriller Spellbound (1945)), and collaborations in fashion with Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior. Again prefiguring Warhol, Dalí was from early in his career an astute businessman whose acquisitiveness prompted his former friend, the surrealists' leader André Breton, to rechristen him with an anagram of his name: Avida Dollars. Throughout his life he was involved in the production of limited graphic editions, which proved successful both artistically and financially.
The 14 gouaches in the Flordali (Les Fruits) series, offered in Bonhams June sale of Impressionist & Modern Art, were painted by Dali in 1969, and then reproduced in lithograph in 1970 by Jean Schneider, a Swiss art dealer. In the 1920s, the surrealists, and Max Ernst in particular, had pioneered the use of collage, reassembling images, often of 19th-century prints, in startling, subversive combinations. Dali for this series took masterpieces of French botanical illustration and used them as the inspiration for his powerful imagination.
The critic Brian Sewell, who became a friend of Dalí, observes of his working practice: "the inspiration of surrealism became the active process of cultivating fantasy and grafting it onto reality. Dalí proclaimed that his art grew from hallucinatory energy, and that he must paint like a madman, documenting the functions of his subconscious mind and, in his words, 'completely discredit the world of reality'.
Through the obsessive contemplation of objects it was possible for him to enter another plane. By painting them, the subconscious was liberated and the object freed from conventional associations... If [the viewer] is to share anything of Dalí's private eye, he must engage in Dalí's experience of obsession and transmutation."
Yet in this sequence of prints, an unexpected aspect of the artist is revealed – his more familiar baroque obsessions are here tamed into rococo fantasies of charm and elegance. The self-proclaimed heir of Velázquez shows a surprising connection with artists such as Edward Lear in his Nonsense Botany ('Nasticreechia Krorluppia'), and Rex Whistler, with his whimsy and trompe l'oeil illusions. His fame shows no sign of fading, yet Dalí's versatility and range are still under-appreciated.
Ian Irvine writes about arts and culture for The Independent and other publications.