The Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989) is one of the great paradoxes of 20th century art. Like many artists in the first decades of the century, Dali was fascinated by Sigmund Freud's concept of the unconscious and by the role that dreams and the irrational play in human experience.
Yet unlike many of his great contemporaries, Dali rejected abstraction as a pictorial style, choosing instead the precise realism of the Italian and Dutch Old Masters to create unnerving visions of a confused psychic landscape that he himself once described as a kind of "voluntary hallucination."
His paintings were inspired by dreams and visions whose strange juxtapositions -- pocket watches and grand pianos that melt in the sun; bizarre, biomorphic forms made up of recognizably different animals -- give the appearance of physical impossibilities in the "real" world of everyday experience.
The images defy rational explanation even as they evoke a tantalizing glimpse of some mysterious alternative natural order that lies just beyond the viewer's ken.
Dali's "magical realism" has had an important influence on the art and literature of the 20th century (he was also a prolific writer whose theories indirectly contributed to such later movements as abstract expressionism and Op Art), and that influence may yet turn out to equal or even surpass that of the other great bad boy of early modernism, Marcel Duchamp.
"Dali's Optical Illusions," currently at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, explores the evolution of the artist's haunting imagery and its problematic relationship to the mainstream of 20th century modernist abstraction.
Surrealism was the most important artistic movement to emerge in Europe in the period between the two world wars. Its leader was poet Andre Breton, who proclaimed the movement's aims in his first "Manifesto," published in 1924.
Breton defined surrealism as the reconciliation of dream reality with everyday waking reality in a higher artistic synthesis. The surrealist program attempted to combine the exploration of the creative unconscious with a policy of practical action aimed at reforming society, and the circle of artists it attracted included Man Ray, Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico and Jean Arp.
Dali joined the surrealist movement in 1929, shortly after his first one-man show in Paris at the Goemans Gallery. He quickly established himself as one of the most flamboyant and eccentric members of a group already known for its unconventional ideas.
Dali was often criticized as a shameless self-promoter -- he once attended the opening of an important exhibition wearing a metal diving suit, for example -- but he always insisted there was a method behind his seeming madness that was essential to nourishing his creative energy.
He deliberately cultivated his eccentricities to achieve what he called "critical paranoia," a heightened state of awareness that he said allowed him to systematically summon forth genuine delusions, hallucinations and irrational behaviors to use as raw materials for his artistic creations.
Dali came of age as an artist in an era in which traditional notions of "reality" had come under attack not only from artists but also from scientists and philosophers. The old idea of art as a representation of the visual world according to traditional rules of perspective was giving way to a realization that the object world of the senses is misleading and illusory.
According to modern thinking, the "real" character of objects, colors, even of space and time are hidden from direct view. Much of 20th-century art, science and philosophy have occupied themselves with uncovering the hidden structures of consciousness that organize our experience of the world.
That is why modernism in art so often has concerned itself with the abstract, the conceptual and the theoretical as opposed to the material object. Surrealism's heretical status in the modernist canon stems largely from the fact that it attempted to synthesize two incompatible views of reality, the material and the conceptual, by systematically exploring the boundary between perception and reality, internal and external experience.
Throughout his career, Dali was fascinated by the Renaissance science of perspective, and his library contained a number of reference volumes on the subject by both modern and ancient masters.
However, unlike the great painters of the Renaissance and Baroque whom he admired, perspective for Dali was not so much a means for creating the illusion of reality but rather a way of deceiving the eye into accepting the reality of illusions.
Dali created scenes whose dramatic perspective he distorted or altered in odd ways to emphasize the essentially artificial nature of the spaces he depicted, which in his pictures functioned as mental rather than physical landscapes. He deliberately aimed to provoke the maximum degree of what he called "optical insecurity" in the viewer in order to reinforce a sense of anxiety, dislocation and violence.
The Hirshhorn show has plenty of examples of this heightened sense of reality (the term "surreal" literally means "more real than real"). In the painting "Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image" (1938), for example, Dali presents the viewer with a seamless double image that can be viewed either as a landscape and sandy beach seen from afar or as a table-top still life viewed from a few feet away.
Similarly in "Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach" (1938), is another melding of still life and landscape that includes a dog's head and body, figures on horseback, a yellow napkin, a fish lying on a tablecloth and a pitcher full of pears that magically transmogrifies itself into a human face.
Many of the pictures incorporate images of Dali's wife, Gala, whom he regarded as his muse and salvation. In some paintings she appears as a mysterious female figure representing both desire and destruction; in others she takes on the religious symbolism of the Madonna with Child ("Madonna of Port Lligat") or the grieving Virgin praying at the foot of a massive tesseract, the representation on the two dimensional surface of the painting of an imaginary four-dimensional cube ("Crucifixion, Corpus Hypercubicus").
Alas, the Hirshhorn was not able to include "The Persistence of Memory" (1931), perhaps Dali's best-known painting and one of the iconic images of the 20th century. That disconcerting vision of melting pocket watches on a desert landscape is owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which will display it this year as part of its massive "Year 2000" exhibition.
But there are plenty of other treasures in this show, including the artist's experiments made in the 1970s and '80s with stereo-scopic paintings and laser holographs that illustrate the artist's life-long preoccupation with unusual perspective effects.
"Dali's Optical Illusions" is a show that will challenge, enlighten and delight audiences of all ages with its amazing confabulations of reality, fantasy and dreams.
Delighting the eye
What: "Dali's Optical Illusions"
Where: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street N.W. in Washington
When: Through June 18.