Kelvingrove and Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross

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Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.Salvador Dali

I recently went to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. I had heard a lot of good things about it, and it definitely lives up to the hype. The mixture of displays, which include Natural History, Arms and Armour, Ancient Egypt, and Art from many movements and periods, and more, all within the same architecturally stunning building, made for a wonderfully stimulating day out. I was particularly taken with the large collection of shabtis and figurines from Egypt; even though the British Museum has spoiled me for seeing Egyptian relics, the collection at Kelvingrove contained some particularly lovely figures. The AC/DC exhibit was a lot of fun too. There was so much that even though I arrived early I didn’t get to see it all, and I’m the type that rushes around to try to see everything. Definitely somewhere worth repeat visits.

The main reason I wanted to go to Kelvingrove though was to see Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross. I have long been an admirer of Dali’s work and I find this piece particularly intriguing, as it is, by and large, probably his most explicitly religious piece of artwork.

I first came across Salvador Dali as a young amateur still studying art at GCSE. I would sit in the art department at lunchtimes and read from the couple of big shelves there, becoming enamoured with Dali, Blake, Escher and Rodin, among others. It was always Dali in particular though, as his images have a way of transporting you into another world, even through tiny prints in books. It took me a long time to admit his effect on me, as with Rodin to some extent as well, because these were such deeply unfashionable artist’s to like in art school I was, for years, pretty much bullied out of admiring them. Their work was considered “too real”, precisely why I liked it; it was more real than real – hyper-real, as though from a higher dimension. I think it was when I saw Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ the first time I visited the Tate I became an artist at heart. This came back to me when I saw Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross at Kelvingrove. The effect was deeply spiritual in both cases.

What struck me most about Dali’s Christ was the feeling of being in the presence of something archetypal. If not the painting itself, then the experience Dali had that has been captured there speaks of a transcendental force. The fact the Christ figure appears juxtaposed with the rising (or setting) sun upon the skyline places this force immanently within our world, or just beyond it. It’s as if it waits there, just beyond a veil, to reach out to you. He feels as though a mantling bird, ready to take flight, the lack of bondage to the cross, or indeed injury, highlighting the representational nature of the symbol, not as one of sacrifice, but as the triumph of light over darkness. The way he looks down upon the figures below conveyed to me a feeling of benevolent compassion, as if he were the sum of them watching over them. It was an experience to see, a deeply moving piece.

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

— Salvador Dali

This was the first time I have seen a piece by Dali ‘in the flesh’, and I look forward to seeing more. That he was so ridiculed both by tutors and peers in my time at art school still troubles me. Another victim of the iconoclastic decadence of the modern art scene. I find it ironic, not to mention heartbreaking, that this painting itself was the victim of a literal attack by an iconoclast, who apparently found it offensive. As far as I’m concerned that his work provokes such reactions is only testament to its emotional and imaginative power.

 

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