Art & Photography

Dalí in China: A Surreal Legacy

PORT travels to Shanghai for the opening of a new exhibition exploring the relationship of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, Salvador Dalí, and his relationship with the media

Napoleon's Nose, Transformed into a Pregnant Woman, Strolling His Shadow with Melancholia amongst Original Ruins (1945, Oil on canvas, 51.00 x 65.50 cm) © Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015
Napoleon’s Nose, Transformed into a Pregnant Woman, Strolling His Shadow with Melancholia amongst Original Ruins, Salvador Dalí (1945, Oil on canvas, 51.00 x 65.50 cm) © Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015

There’s a scrum at the opening of MEDIA – DALÍ at the K11 Art Mall in Shanghai. Those lucky enough to be on the guestlist have massed at the top of an escalator, adorned in flashing lip-shaped Salvador Dalí badges, as the guards are calling for calm. It is a testament to the popularity of both Dalí and the ever-growing curiosity for art in China that I have to fight my way through the restless, excitable crowd to reach the exhibition space below.

In the quiet before the exhibition opened, I sat down with Adrian Cheng who, apart from administering a vast portfolio of property, hotels and the largest jewellery company in the world, founded the K11 Art Foundation (KAF) in 2010.

“I realised the Chinese art ecosystem was very fragmented,” Cheng explains, when I ask him why he decided to establish the non-profit organisation. “There wasn’t a lot of audience development – most people won’t go to galleries or museums – but there is a lot of good talent and good curators here. So my vision was simple: I needed to create a new art ecosystem for China.”

Salvador Dalí in 1950s © Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015
Salvador Dalí in 1950s © Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015

Despite the ambition of the project, the KAF has, in a few short years, already partnered with some of the biggest institutions in western contemporary art, including the ICA in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou and Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Following the success of Claude Monet – The Master of Impressionism at the K11 ‘Art Mall’ in 2014, this exhibition aims to explore the legacy of surrealism in Chinese contemporary art through the work of one of the 20th century’s most iconic artists.

“Dalí is the epitome of surrealism,” Cheng tells me, when I ask him why he chose to partner with the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, based in Figueres, Spain. “He is very well known here, so it’s a great way to attract people to the exhibition and to get them interested in learning about art.”

Left: PAN. Cover © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015. Right: TIME. Cover © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015
Left: PAN. Cover © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015. Right: TIME. Cover © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015

The exhibition is the product of five years of research by curator Montse Auger Teixidor, and focusses on Dalí’s relationship with the mass-media and how, in addition to painting and sculpture, he used newspapers, magazines, adverts and film to disseminate surrealist ideas. After appearing on the front cover of TIME magazine (shot by Man Ray) at the age of 32, Dalí’s profile, and his moustache, blossomed. His image – associated with mystery, originality and genius – became a regular presence on newsstands and billboards across the world. But Teixidor believes Dalí used this public persona to embody the themes of his painting and sculpture.

“I wanted to talk about his artistic output as a whole, and that includes Dalí as a work of art himself,” Teixidor says, explaining the concept behind the exhibition. “He was always looking for new inspiration, new forms of art – he was the first artist in the 20th century to use self-promotion.”

Loaned mostly from the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, where Teixidor is director for Dalinian studies, the extensive collection of magazines on display at MEDIA – DALÍ charts the establishment of this curated celebrity status.

Left: American Fabrics. Cover © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015. Right: New Yorker. Advertisement [Bryan's Hosiery] © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015.
Left: American Fabrics. Cover © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015. Right: New Yorker. Advertisement © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2015.

Whether it is the dream sequence for the Hitchcock film Spellbound, his set design for Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or an animated film – a collaboration with Walt Disney that was not released until 2003 – the exhibition makes clear that Dalí could imbue any medium with his idiosyncratic style.
Comparing Dalí’s less traditional works with the 12 oil paintings on display gives the viewer a comprehensive grounding in Dalí’s particular brand of surrealism, but it also helps to make the exhibition accessible. In taking work not just from the rarified world of painting and sculpture, but from familiar mediums like magazines and adverts, the curators ensure that the exhibition will engage with a wider audience. It is this broad appeal that Cheng hopes will also encourage the viewers to be curious about their own culture.

“We’re grooming the Chinese audience – we’re attracting them to the exhibition but also getting them interested in learning about art,” he explains. “It’s a great way to tell them about the legacy of surrealism in artists from their own country and to expose young artists.”

Left: The exterior of the K11 “Art Mall” in Shanghai replicated Dalí's design of the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres © KAF. Right: “Clothes Rack”, Zhang Enli (1995, Oil on canvas, 160 x 100 cm)
Left: The exterior of the K11 “Art Mall” in Shanghai replicated Dalí’s design of the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres © KAF. Right: “Clothes-Rack”, Zhang Enli (1995, Oil on canvas, 160 x 100 cm)

To this end, MEDIA – DALÍ is accompanied by two subsidiary shows that reflect on this legacy. Organised by Hong Kong-based curator Robin Peckham, the contemporary works are split between Shanghai Gesture, focusing on work from the first generation of Chinese contemporary artists from the 1980s, and Our Real, Your Surreal, which considers how the language of surrealism has entered the vernacular of emerging Chinese artists.

Clothes Rack, a work from 1995 by the painter Zhang Enli, is one of the works exhibited in Shanghai Gesture. “Before the 80s, no-one had heard of Dalí in China”, he tells me, when I meet him at his studio on the outskirts of Shanghai. “When Surrealism and Dalí came to Hong Kong, it was an inspiration for the Chinese.”

Peckham agrees and with Enli but believes Dalí’s legacy goes beyond simply introducing surrealism into China: “For young artists, Dalí showed that you could use humour in art and he proved that you could be engaged in painting and still have a multi-media practice in video, performance or conceptual art”.

Study for the Backdrop of Mad Tristan (Act II), Salvador Dalí, 1944 , oil on canvas. © KAF
Study for the Backdrop of Mad Tristan (Act II), Salvador Dalí, 1944 , oil on canvas. © KAF

In the work of the emerging artists of Our Real, Your Surreal, Dalí’s influence is not immediately apparent. The installation, video and paintings by six artists from the Chinese mainland do not draw on surrealist tropes, namely the unexpected visual juxtaposition that features so heavily in Dalí’s art. But through the freedom and possibilities that Dalí’s work offers – the “imaginative training” in the words of Ye Funna one artist from the exhibition – he has played a vital role in the development of Chinese contemporary art after 1979.

Some date the end of surrealism to Dalí’s death in 1989, but most accept that it ended much earlier than that. Despite this it was Dalí’s art that inspired a new generation of artists in a country just beginning to open up to the rest of the world.

“There’s always been an interest, a curiosity in Dalí,” Teixidor says of the artist’s enduring, global appeal, “and I think there always will be.”

MEDIA – DALÍ runs at the Chi K11 Art Space in Shanghai until 15 February 2016