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Antic Climax : Exhibit Highlights the Extent to Which Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman Went to Make the Real Look Surreal

September 12, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hello again, Dali.

While Salvador Dali's place in art history as a premier proponent of Surrealism is secure, it seems almost surreal that the City of Brea Art Gallery would choose to exhibit "Dali's Mustache: A Photographic Interview by Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman" at a time when appreciation for the once hugely popular painter is at a nadir. (Few argue with his technical wizardry, but today Dali is often regarded more as an opportunistic provocateur--a headline and money-grubbing P.T. Barnum of the art world--than as an artistic genius.)

The reason is that the focus, so to speak, of the exhibit is as much on photographer Halsman.

"It's a show about collaborations," explained Graham Howell, director of Los Angeles-based Curatorial Assistance, which organized the show in conjunction with the Philippe Halsman Archive in New York. "These are two artists.

"This is not so much a redefinition of Dali [1904-1989] as performance artist as a continuation of his surrealist antics--he and his comrades frequently did peculiar things in the name of art. This particular collaboration shows how, with heavy manipulation, surrealist tones are there in the photographic art."

For the duration of the project, Howell said, the two men shared a single goal: "To make the ordinary look extraordinary, the so-called real look surreal."

That duration was not inconsiderable--the project took several months to complete. Howell finds it fascinating that "an artist as famous as Dali would agree to such a long, ongoing collaboration" and subject himself to "some of the most uncomfortable and possibly demeaning acts. . . . It's a real testament to the creative spirit."

To get one photograph of Dali peering through the holes in Swiss cheese, for instance, Dali's face was covered with a mixture of cheese and his own sweat for more than an hour. He endured it without complaint, Halsman reported at the time.

But, Howell noted, "They also were having a lot of fun doing this. There is something quite irreducible about this little chapter."

The 31 photographs first appeared as a book, "Dali's Mustache" (1954), reprinted in 1994 by Flammarion in Paris at the Halsman Archive's behest. "Dali's Mustache" is one of 35 traveling exhibitions handled by Curatorial Assistance; the book serves as show catalog.

Halsman (1906-1979) built a reputation as a leading portrait photographer and is credited with having shot the most Life magazine covers (101). The exhibit includes a photograph within a photograph showing Dali as Svengali holding the 1936 Time magazine cover by Man Ray that Dali adorned; only the mustache seemed to have changed.

The exhibit's format is simple: A question is asked, presumably by Halsman; the answer, presumably Dali's, and a photograph create a visual, often surrealist pun. (Questions and responses were in fact formulated jointly.)

Many of the sequences are delightfully self-deprecating, especially in light of how they might have been perceived in the 1950s.

Q. "Why do you paint?"

A. "Because I love art." The photograph shows two paintbrushes superimposed over Dali's mustache, shaped into an S to form a dollar sign; his face is framed with silver coins.

Q. "What is surrealism?"

A. "Surrealism is myself." Dali's melting face fits right in among his signature timepieces.

But the text sometimes resembles a chicken-crossing-the-road joke.

Q. "Why do you wear a mustache?"

A. "In order to pass unobserved."

Painfully dated? No matter. Howell dismisses it.

"Forget the text," he advises. "The text is not great.

"The pictures, on the other hand, are wonderful. This is one of the pioneering performance pieces."

* What: "Dali's Mustache," a collaborative photographic interview.

* When: Through Oct. 18. Open noon-5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; noon-8 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

* Where: City of Brea Gallery, 1 Civic Center Circle.

* Whereabouts: Exit the Orange (57) Freeway at Imperial (90) Highway; go west. Turn right onto Randolph Avenue, right onto Birch Street and right again onto Civic Center Circle.

* Wherewithal: $1; free for Brea residents.

* Where to call: (714) 990-7730.

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