Whitney Pow: Salvador Dali, the Pixies and surrealism

BY WHITNEY POW
Fine Arts Columnist
Published March 8, 2009

Gigantic melting watches in a barren, desert landscape can only mean one thing: surrealism. Dalí’s 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory is probably the first thing that comes to mind when imagining the odd, characteristically trippy imagery of surrealists. This idea of using bizarre imagery as a counterpoint to conventional perceptions of reality was pointed at obliquely in “Un chien andalou” (“An Andalusian Dog”), a film Dalí and prolific filmmaker Luis Buñuel collaborated on in 1929.

In this short film’s opening scene, a man smokes the stub of a cigarette as he sharpens a straight razor. When he steps outside onto a balcony, a woman’s face suddenly appears in his hands. He stretches open her left eyelid gently with his fingers, and then he slowly runs the razor blade across her bare eyeball, splitting it open upon contact. The contents of her eye ooze all over her white skin: the lens, the iris, the whites; all a translucent jelly.

I’ve watched this film at least three times in my film theory classes, and I haven’t yet been able to sit through it without cringing. The beginning sequence serves as a warning about the rest of the film, which contains unbelievable imagery including dead donkeys stuck inside of grand pianos that are being pulled by priests and live ants crawling out of a hole in a man’s hand.

Dalí and Buñuel seem to say, in those unsettling first 30 seconds, that they are slitting your eyeball; they are taking your comfortable view of reality and maiming it with the film’s unsettling imagery and subversive themes. For example, the priests trying to pull the dead donkeys (they are, ultimately, unable to budge the awkward loads) could be commenting on the futile purpose of mainstream religion and faith. This subversiveness was just as important to surrealism as its incredible imagery.

Pixies song “Debaser” pays homage to this particular Dalí film. Frontman Black Francis howls, voice as scratchy as sandpaper, “Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs / I want you to know … Don’t know about you / but I am un chien Andalusia.” This surrealist ideology seems to have been adopted and respected by the likes of the now-legendary rock band at the turn of the ’90s, where, similar to the song’s title, the band attempts to debase the idea of reality in its music.

This surrealist theme echoes in songs like “Wave of Mutliation,” where the lyrics cryptically map out odd beach landscapes that one might be able to find in a Dalí painting: “I’ve kissed mermaids, rode the El Niño / Walked the sand with the crustaceans / Could find my way to Mariana / on a wave of mutilation.” What does this mean? The imagery might be solid and tangible (versus the cloudy ether of some Radiohead songs, like “Sail to the Moon”: “I sucked the moon / I spoke too soon / And how much did it cost?”), but the presence of solid images doesn’t require that meaning is obviously inherent in them.

Surrealism is really a mentality more than an aesthetic. It’s the idea of subverting expectation and making audiences realize that what is not immediately present in their consciousness is really there with them, lurking behind their eyelids. The “sur” in surreal alludes to that which is on a plane above reality. And giving voice to these hidden impulses and inclinations through surrealism is not only somewhat scary and unsettling to internalize, but it also reveals, to a certain extent, the untamable qualities of the id (if I may indulge in Freudian terms).

Strange and irrational imagery can create meaning and understanding through the id, according to surrealists. This, if you think about it, is the purpose of the Rorschach print — to bring out mental associations that arise from our subconscious minds. A butterfly-type pattern on a print might take you back to fields of honeysuckle, but it could also bring to mind allusions to bloody “butterflied” meat. Either way, these interpretations lend expression to what is behind our realities: our inner minds, the ones of which we are not completely aware, and the ones that are not consciously perceptible or connected with the outside world.

While at times slightly disturbing and unsettling, surrealism still brought about amazing advances of innovative films and visual art during the 20th century. Keep in mind that Dalí was active in the early 1900s, just following the period where the impressionists had finished muddling their shoes in pointalism and tossing photorealism by the wayside; the surrealist movement was way ahead of its time.

We could not have landmark films like Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” with its odd, dreamlike themes and imagery, or self-portraits by Frida Kahlo, where vines grow around her neck and a monkey sits on her shoulder, without surrealism. We wouldn’t even have albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall (and its ensuing film adaptation) without there first being the idea of surrealism as an aesthetic, and, more importantly, a way of thinking. These works of art have all been slicing up eyeballs for years, one eye at a time.