Science Fiction Eye, Volume 1, Number 5, July 1989 pp 58-59
JG Ballard on the death and life of Salvatore Dali
By Richard Kadrey
JG Ballard, like Salvador Dali, has always allied himself with the unconscious. Both artists have devoted their lives to mining those unlit parts of the human psyche that most of us would like to forget about, similarly, both artists are obsessed with decoding and deconstructing the iconography of the 20th century. In 1973, in the British science fiction magazine New Worlds, Ballard wrote about Dali for the first time. In an essay called "Salvador Dali (The Innocent as Paranoid)," Ballard wrote that within Dali's genius, "...the marriage of reason and nightmare is celebrated across an altar smeared with excrement, in an order of service read from a textbook of psychopathology. Dali's paintings constitute a body of prophecy about ourselves unequalled in accuracy since Freud's Civilization and its Discontents." On February 22, 1989, I spoke to J.G. Ballard about the recent death of Salvador Dali. What follows aresome excerpts from that conversation.
Dali was without doubt one of the greatest painters of the 20th century and certainly a genius. The range of his skills as an artist and writer extended right across the board, but he'll be remembered primarily as the greatest surrealist painter. The other great surrealists: de Chirico, Magritte, Delvaux, Max Ernst, all relied on a metaphorical approach to painting, whereas Dali was alone in painting his subject matter using a realistic style. His paintings look like film clips from the unconscious. He was unique in that he put everything on the table; he was completely frank about his own obsessions. I think that marks him out as a true modern. He's not to everybody's taste, and that's a good thing. What I liked about him was that he went on shocking the bourgeoisie right to the end. In a sense, all these fakes of his own work, in which he seems to have collaborated by signing thousands of black sheets of paper, was a sort of thumbing the nose at the bourgeois art gallery set-up.
In Dali's paintings, you see the full vocabulary of the 20th century being used to describe itself. With the other surrealists you can see the traditional iconography of fantastic art, like Max Ernst's forests and de Chirico's haunted Italian squares, but Dali uses the unique furniture of the 20th century: telephones, melting watches. He's a paradoxical artist in many ways because he uses a Renaissance technique to describe a very modern kind of anxiety. His academic technique, which very few present day painters can manage, allowed him to portray all the everyday things we see around us with that razor sharp color film style.
The big religious paintings that he started round about 1940 and went on painting through the 50's, I like. I think they're very powerful. He turned his back on traditional surrealism there, but these are religious paintings with a difference. You need to decode them to see what they're really about. In a way, they're as fascinating as his earlier work. Take a painting of his on traditional religious theme, The Madonna of Port Lligat. In this, you can see a traditional Madonna with child, and yet, spaces have been let into both the Madonna's body and the throne on which she's sitting, so she seems to be an exploding figure. What he's trying to do is show that this act of genesis, this creation of this Christ child, has a profoundly unsettling effect on time and space. The infant Christ doesn't just promise redemption to us, he proposes the transformation of time and space as well. I think you see something of the same effect in Dali's Last Supper. The whole of time and space is present, taking part in this last act of consuming the body and blood of the Christ. Many of these great religious machines show Dali marrying traditional religious imagery with huge dislocations of time and space. Not in terms of the more traditional weeping mourners at the foot of the cross, but in terms of mineral forms that are beginning to explode across the screen; strange new geometries that are being born out of the death of the Christ. There you see Dali applying this religious imagery to a scientific imagination in a way that nobody has ever done. He has completely renewed and refreshed the traditional imagery of religious painting. This is where his genius lies. In some of those very large paintings, such as the one where Christopher Columbus is coming ashore, Dali is looking at what happened when Columbus landed. He didn't just see a few Indians in the distance; what Dali shows is the panoply of the possibilities of the new world, with a new time and space, paraded in front of Columbus.
I don't think Dali's talent ceased at the end of the 1930's, which most people think these days. I think that these great religious machines that he was painting up until the 60's will be remembered just as strongly as some of his earlier work. I think his late work certainly stand comparison with the late works of Picasso, and Dali was a much more interesting painter than Picasso. Picasso's paintings now smell a little of the artist's studio, those endless experiments in artistic forms. Dali was interested in the world beyond the studio.
Another very important point which mustn't be forgotten: he had a tremendous sense of humor. Humor is immensely important and too many artists lack humor. Dali had it, in spades. His paintings were full of jests and practical jokes. And he himself was a great showman. He provided endless laughter and always with a serious point. He helped to make two great films with Bunuel, Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'or, and helped to keep the surrealist movement from becoming overserious. That's one reason Andre Breton so disliked Dali. Breton was very puritanical he had a strict set of do's and don'ts, ins and outs, things you could and could not do. That is not the way a great imaginative enterprise like surrealism can be controlled. You can't regulate the human imagination. You certainly can't regulate an imagination like Dali's.
I like to think that Dali's a very important influence on me. The Atrocity Exhibition is certainly influenced by him. In my work, I've always tried to be as honest as I can, as honest as Dali was. I think that it's vital to be honest in the frankness with which you declare the nature of your subject matter and its forces in your own personality. That’s what separates us from the 19th century writers who hid behind a formal persona. They didn’t let on what was really going on. Dali did.
Angela Carter, the English writer, paid me a nice compliment in a review a few years ago when she said, “Ballard is the last surrealist still in business.” I’m glad she said that.