'The Automobile Clothed', Salvador Dali, 1941
Where the Futurists celebrated automobiles for their speed and mechanical perfection, succeeding generations of artists depicted cars less positively. By the time that the Surrealist movement developed in the 1930s, the car was just another object that the artist could show next to other completely unrelated things in order to produce that famed Surrealist effect of things-in-the-wrong-context. For this effect to work (think of the steam train emerging from the fireplace), the objects must be very familiar, so that their placement in an unfamiliar setting registers as somehow ‘wrong.’ This was what had happened to cars thirty years after they first appeared: they had become so ubiquitous that they were taken for granted.
It came as a surprise to me to learn how often Salvador Dali, the most famous of the Surrealists, portrayed cars in his pictures. As early as 1924, a car features in a portrait of a friend called ‘Bather’. A fossilized car appears in ‘Imperial Monument to the Woman-Girl’ (1929). A painting from 1938 has one of the best titles in the history of art: ‘Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone.’ It doesn’t really add much to show the picture itself, except to illustrate Dali’s absurd transitions between contradictory physical objects and spaces. In 1941, he painted ‘Clothed Automobiles’, in which some majestic Cadillacs are shown covered in drapes, like booths in a night-club or a fashion boutique.
The strangest use of a car in Dali’s work was at the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris. He created a work called ‘The Rainy Taxi’, which was described by a contemporary observer thus: “Dali required an old taxi to be extracted from a breaker’s yard . . . it should rain inside the car, and on the rear seat there should be a dripping apparition, clothed by Dali and covered with the celebrated snails of Burgundy . . . The taxi having been found and transported to the middle of the courtyard, a plumber, under Dali’s orders, fitted a trough on the roof of the car, suitably perforated to supply a continuous rain. It remained only for Dali to carpet the interior with lichen and moss and to wait for the ensemble to settle down and take root. A chauffeur was put at the wheel, then into the humid interior were let loose two hundred Burgundy snails . . .”
Several things strike me about this piece. The first is that it was one of the earliest antecedents of what we now call Installation Art. The second is that it reminds me of the scene in Luis Bunuel’s ‘L’Age d’Or’ of the religious procession across some gnarled Oceanside rocks. Like Bunuel, Dali juxtaposes characters from bourgeois society (with Bunuel, priests and parishioners; with Dali, a society lady and her chauffeur) with a merciless organic world that threatens to overwhelm them. There is also the misogyny of artists of the time, who reflexively degraded an image of a women when they wanted to attack society as a whole.
But to return to the theme of the car in art: in Dali’s work, the car moved from being an admired symbol of modernity to a vehicle (pun intended) of absurdist humour. To Dali, the car was the biggest symbol of twentieth-century materialism (and he owned lots of expensive cars), but also just another object to be exploited in his so-called paranoiac-critical view of the world.
Ironically, Salvador Dali never learned to drive, which means he wouldn't have been able to compete in the Indianapolis 500 this weekend.
On Art and NASCAR (2)
On Art and NASCAR (1)
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