Saturday, June 29, 2019


“I woke up with this marble head in my hands;
It exhausts my embows and I do not know
Where to put it down.”   Giorgos Seferis.

“Trilogy of a Desert Mirage,” painted in 1946, is one the most arresting of Salvador Dali paintings. Recently acquired and housed in the National Gallery of Victoria, I never grow tired of viewing it.

The gaunt, female figure, with the sturdy legs of a Michelangelo, the voluptuous bosom of Raphael's "La Fornarina' and the hair of Botticelli's Aphrodite, a walking contradiction, stands within a wasteland. Like Jason, of Greek mythology, she wears only one sandal. Does this indicate the fulfilment of a prophecy? Is she destined for greatness? Why is she depicted without any facial features whatsoever?
Occupying the western edge of the painting, her feet seem barely to touch the desert sand as she turns ecstatically towards the east, in order to pluck a desert flower from the head of the ancient sculpture of the Apollo Belvedere, who is being propelled towards us on marble tram tracks, overhung by broken arches, staircases that lead nowhere, stone buttresses, classical ruins and a depiction of the entrance arch to the ancient stadium of Olympia.

The result is a superlative capriccio on contrivance, the past, and its reconstruction. Dali, an expert draughtsman is making a set of deliberate statements as to the place of classical culture and the legacy of the Greek heritage within western civilisation. In so doing, he presents a tableau of extreme movement but also, great ambiguity.
The sweeping embrace of the animated woman is mirrored exactly behind her by a set of shadowy megaliths or rock formations. Juxtaposed against the aridity and ostensible featurelessness of the desert, she appears to be creating a new geography with which to define our place within the world, one that orients itself, worshipfully, towards the East of the past, reminding us of Kenneth Hanson’s poem, “Take it from Me:”
“But look at it my way.
Here was a new geography
a mind where anything that grows
grows by a kind of tour de force
requiring only unconditional surrender.
Here was the pure perfection of an art.
Nothing like it in the British Museum.”
Whereas the lady’s place of departure is dark, brooding and devoid of grace, from the enlightened east comes the head of the Apollo Belvedere, considered the greatest ancient sculpture by ardent neoclassicists and for centuries epitomising ideals of aesthetic perfection for the West. This is an image of power and of appropriation. In 1881 Denton Snider noted that ancient Greece, which: “has created to a large extent what we may call the symbols of our western world” and has provided “the ideal by which we mould our work and to which we seek, at least partially, to adjust our lives,” belongs as much to “us,” [ie. The West] as to the present inhabitants of Greece. Does the solution to the impasse of modern western civilisation thus lie in a re-genesis of the ancient Greek world within it, like that of the Renaissance before it?
Certainly, the “trilogy” appears to be a discourse between the past, depicted as a land distant, but verdant, from which glorious gifts emanate, the emaciated lady of the arid present and, slightly left of centre, a mysterious figure traversing the desert, swathed in shadow. From the direction of that serpentine, oil-slick like shadow, we assume that it has, some time ago, travelled from the past, and is headed towards the brooding megaliths, bypassing the lady altogether. Is it “us,” moving, not towards a megalithic present, but rather, an arid future?
Indeed, why avoid an Annunciation that promises Salvation? The lady’s plucking of the desert flower from the head of Apollo, is a scene that reminds us of the Theotokos receiving a lily along with Good Tidings. Here, the Good Tidings of Salvation evidently refer to the rebirth of the ancient past. After all, the regeneration of the ancient world offers a solution to the cultural and malaise of the individual in society. As Percy Shelley declared of the Greek War of Independence: “the final triumph of the Greek cause,”should be viewed, “as a portion of the cause of civilisation and social improvement.” Viewed from this perspective, do we understand Dali’s vision as a contemplative, even mystical form of Hellenism existing apart from the various forms of political philhellenism, imbued with western liberalism? Must “we”, like the Holderlin’s Hyperion and Shelley’s Laon, both heroes of philhellenic texts written to celebrate the Greek Revolution, go through a spiritual withdrawal from the world to renew our souls and embrace the truth before preparing to take part in our own respective revolutions? Is Dali, in fact, actually depicting the progress of our preparatory sojourn within the wilderness?
If so, the revolution must be pictorial because the renewal and reformation of the individual soul precedes mass action and the evident is anathema to those who have undergone such spiritual transformation. In this enthralling manner, Dali thus seems to highlight the transient nature of ignorance and error and the eternity of genius and virtue.
Having emerged from that wilderness, the transformative nature of embracing and revivifying the Greek classical legacy appears to be full of promise. In his “Ode Pindarique à propos la guerre présente en Grèce" French philosopher Voltaire put in the mouth of Pallas Athena, his own hopes for the Greek struggle representing a new beginning for mankind:
“I want to revive Athens./ Let Homer sing your combats,/ Let the voice of a hundred Demosthenes/ Revive your hearts and your arms./ Come forth, be born again, lovable Arts,/… Take back again your antique brilliance.”
Yet the very nature of the “angelos,” bearing salvation is fraught with ambiguity. As much as the Apollo Belvedere is a symbol of perfection, he is also a cliché, one uncritically acclaimed and fervently championed by such leading lights of the Enlightenment as Wincklelmann, Goethe, Schiller and Byron, but ultimately rejected and criticised in the Romantic Era by such luminaries as Ruskin and Hazlitt. In 1969, art historian Kenneth Clark aptly summed up its place in modern culture:
"...For four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon’s  greatest boast to have looted it from the  Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture."
Accordingly, it may be possible to say that not only is the Apollo Belvedere trite, it is also abounding in colonialist and imperialist connotations. It reeks of appropriation. Is the moral of Dali’s cautionary tale that we should carefully consider the implications of enthusiastically and uncritically accepting past blooms offered as salvation without first examining the qualifications of the would be saviour to provide it, or indeed the ability of modern day recipients to contextualise it? Or is he in fact parodying his own return to the classical tradition as a means of inspiring his art, late in his career?
Compounding the conundrum is the inconvenient fact that “Trilogy of a Desert Mirage,” whatever its inspiration, is a commercial commission, the centrepiece of a triptych ordered by William Lightfoot Schultz, founder of Shulton Cosmetics, to promote ‘Desert Flower,’ a new brand of perfume and makeup for women.  The extraordinarily deep perspective suggests a kind of magnetism, implying that when a woman wears Desert Flower, flowers will bloom and men will be drawn to her like never before, even as she ponders the relevance of Greek civilisation in her own life.
 Essentially, it is the word “Mirage” in the title of the painting that provides the pivotal clue as to its decoding. As a mirage is an illusion, so too might love and seduction, sex appeal, as well as ruminating about the aesthetic and moral bankruptcy of modern civilisation and the perennial resort to the ancient Greek tradition, whether during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and beyond as a means of re-genesis, and of remaining forever young, be largely an illusion – albeit created or evoked by the olfactory allure of a distinctive and these days, long forgotten and soon superseded perfume. Nonetheless, though ‘Desert Flower’ is dust, Dali and the enduring problems posed by the Greek legacy remain.
Ultimately, we remain, as we did when first we ventured into Dali’s painting, trailing a meandering shadow, interposed between a bleak, sterile future and memories of an idealised past, viewing salvation as a mirage we can either believe, accept or reject in its entirety. In this, the final word belongs to Patrick White, by means of his 1970 novel, “the Vivisector,” which posed the question which as to whether it was possible to be a human being and an artist at the same time:
"It was I who was foolish enough to believe in the idea of regeneration...Do we come all this way for nothing? Yes of course we do; it is not so extraordinary."

First published in NKEE on 29 June 2019