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Dali’s picture show

Special to The Times

“Dali: Painting and Film” was organized by the Tate Modern in London, where it premiered this summer, but Los Angeles figures so prominently in the story it tells that its appearance at LACMA feels like something of a homecoming. It’s a fascinating if not entirely persuasive exhibition whose portrayal of the artist’s frustrated flirtation with the film industry is likely to find a sympathetic audience here.

Salvador Dali’s interest in cinema dated to nearly the beginning of his career: He published his first article on the subject in 1927, at age 23, and produced his first film, “Un Chien Andalou” (with Luis Bunuel), two years later. Like many in the European avant-garde, he was enamored of Hollywood -- or aspects of it, anyway. He admired Buster Keaton, Walt Disney and Cecil B. De Mille; he adored Harpo Marx. When he first came to L.A. in 1937, he was already a celebrity himself, riding high on the tide of surrealist notoriety, and clearly identified with what he encountered.

“Nothing seems to me more suited to be devoured by the surrealist fire,” he wrote in a subsequent article for Harper’s Bazaar, “than those mysterious strips of ‘hallucinatory celluloid’ turned out so unconsciously in Hollywood, and in which we have already seen appear, stupefied, so many images of authentic delirium, chance and dream.”

His enthusiasm, like that of many an aspirant, would be tested over the years by financial constraints, the challenge of working collaboratively, the conservatism of the industry and the countless other factors that make the production of an artistic-minded film all but impossible. Of the dozen or so projects included in the exhibition, only a handful were actually made: “Un Chien Andalou” and “L’Age d’Or” (both collaborations with Bunuel in Europe); the dream sequence for Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945); a video called “Chaos and Creation” (1960) involving, among other things, seven mealworms, two scantily clad female models and a pigsty built in the shape of a Mondrian painting; and a peculiar pseudo-documentary called “Impressions de la Haute Mongolie -- Hommage a Raymond Roussel” (Impressions of Upper Mongolia -- Homage to Raymond Roussel) that has something to do with magic mushrooms.

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“Destino,” a seven-minute animated film commissioned by Disney in 1946, was abandoned by Dali but completed in 2003 by one of the original collaborators, John Hecht. Its inclusion here offers an intriguing, if weirdly Disneyesque, suggestion of what Dali might have accomplished with the resources of contemporary animation.

The rest of the projects exist only in the form of screenplays, notes, sketches and proposals. The effect, in the context of the exhibition, is not as frustrating as it might seem -- in part because all this textual documentation is generously supplemented with drawings, paintings and other visual stimuli, including such dorm-room classics as the artist’s canvases “The Persistence of Memory” and “Metamorphosis of Narcissus,” and in part because Dali’s ideas, as the presence of these works makes clear, were generally far more interesting than his products.

Indeed, one of the strongest and most curious impressions to emerge from the exhibition, perhaps inadvertently, is this artist’s relative awkwardness with the materials of his trade. He was primarily a painter, but I’m not convinced he was a particularly good one. He was fairly original, certainly skilled, but strangely ill at ease with pictorial space. Most of the works feel less like cohesive paintings than like visual notations collected on a canvas.

As for the films, the nature of Dali’s visual (as opposed to conceptual) influence is difficult to locate. “Un Chien Andalou” and “L’Age d’Or” are by far the most exciting works, involving some of the most potent images in early cinematic history -- and, in the former’s eyeball-slicing scene, certainly one of the most revolting -- but this seems largely thanks to Bunuel’s nuanced direction. (Dali is credited as a screenwriter for both.)

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The “Spellbound” sequence, by contrast, bears the distinct stamp of Dali’s aesthetic: The set is basically a painting in three dimensions. The effect, however, although novel, is rather silly.

That said, the imagery contained in his letters, notes, scripts and articles is fantastic, and the writing itself is surprisingly accomplished. Take this wonderful passage from the Harper’s Bazaar article, concerning his beloved Hollywood muse: “I met Harpo for the first time in his garden. He was naked, crowned with roses, and in the center of a veritable forest of harps (he was surrounded by at least five hundred harps). He was caressing, like a new Leda, a dazzling white swan, and feeding it a statue of the Venus de Milo made of cheese, which he grated against the strings of the nearest harp. An almost springlike breeze drew a curious murmur from the harp forest. In Harpo’s pupils glows the same spectral light to be observed in Picasso’s.”

Next to prose as rich and beguiling as this, the world of Dali’s paintings feels strikingly thin, the imagery piecemeal and the atmosphere contrived. Only rarely -- as in “The Persistence of Time,” perhaps -- does a canvas cohere into a complete visual statement. Film would seem a better fit, which is part of what makes this show so compelling, but he seemed not to manage to make that click either.

What’s most compelling, ultimately, is the air of noble failure. One gets the sense of Dali as an artist who, despite (or perhaps because of) great success, never quite found his footing, slipping instead into an art historical crack, somewhere between Duchamp on one side and Warhol and David Lynch on the other, and partially embodying qualities that each of those artists would come to crystallize: the articulation of conceptual logic, the performance of personality, the development of a seamless surrealist vocabulary in cinema.

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It is fitting, then -- though maybe a little sad -- that the show should end with Warhol: a Dali “Screen Test,” produced in 1966, with one image of the artist’s face projected right side up on one wall, the other upside down on the opposite wall. As he attempts to hold up the mask of his persona -- raised eyebrows, twitching handlebar mustache -- over an almost excruciating four minutes, the mask seems to flicker in and out, revealing behind just an ordinary old man, with an ordinary old man’s wealth of emotions and sensations.

It’s a brilliant work, almost mocking in its simplicity, epitomizing with a downright precocious lack of effort the kind of psychological intensity that Dali, who lived for 23 more years, had been striving for all along.

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‘Dali: Painting and Film’

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Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

When: Noon to 8 p.m. weekdays, to 9 p.m. Fridays,

11 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends, closed Wednesdays

Ends: Jan. 6

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Price: $17 weekdays, $20 weekends

Contact: (323) 857-6000 or www.lacma.org


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