A Modern Cartoonist’s Surrealist Visit to L’Espace Dali in Montmartre

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A Modern Cartoonist’s Surrealist Visit to L’Espace Dali in Montmartre
A bizarre and exciting temporary exhibit was installed a few weeks ago within the existing permanent exhibit of Salvador Dalí’s works at the Espace Dalí in Montmartre. It is an entrancing and complex exhibit. I visited it thrice during my recent Paris sojourn, and will go back yet another time if I find myself in Paris before it leaves on March 31 of next year. I have always found the Dalí museum — called Espace Dalí — a little gem of a museum, an intimate space with almost a church-like feeling in a quiet corner of the Butte Montmarte just around the corner from the craziness of Place du Tertre. It’s the perfect venue to take in the strange and wonderful works of Dalí slowly and quietly as is appropriate. I have visited numerous times and each time, I see details I had not noticed before. Surrealism is a form of art depicting the artist’s visions while in a sort of delirium – in a kind of dream state free of rational control. Viewing good surrealist works is to me just plain fun – and I have a special love for Dalí’s works – whether or not I always understand his symbolism. Some of his symbols have come to be known well: the drawers (memory and unconscious – concealed sexuality), ants (decay and decomposition), melting clocks (omnipresence and the flow of time), and crutches (reality; an anchor). Sometimes the symbolism is not so clear, but this allows my imagination also to run free. Espace Dalí houses the largest collection of Salvador Dalí artworks in France – including paintings, prints and sculptures – running the gamut from the dreamlike, erotic and theatrical to the drole and poetic, and including such well known sculptural pieces as the melting clock, Alice in Wonderland, the skinny legged elephant adorned with an obelisk and the snail with wings; and such hanging artworks as the “Dali Illustre Casanova” suite, which includes the “Nude and Lobster” piece juxtaposing a lobster with a nude female crotch. This new Joann Sfar exhibit of surrealist cartoons by the renowned cartoonist literally wraps around the space of the Dalí museum – recreating through his cartoon drawings what Sfar describes as a tour of Dalí’s brain through dreams and reality– a tour experienced by him and four fashion models who during their time together sometimes wore dresses designed by Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli (with whom Dalí at one time collaborated) but, for the most part, wore nothing at all (duplicating a famous photo of Dalí with four nudes). As described by Monsieur Sfar, they thus interacted with each other and with reproductions of Dalí’s works and through those interactions could call forth the great man’s spirit. Sfar is a well known French comic book creator and artist, novelist and film director, known for, among other things, being one of the most important artists in the new wave of Franco Belgian comics, a co-creator of the Donjon series, and the creator of children’s books such as “The Rabbi’s Cat” (“Le chat du rabbin”) and the graphic novel version of Le Petit Prince. He is also the writer/director of “Gainsbourg: Vie Heroique” -a biopic that used fantasy artwork, puppetry and animation. When visiting Espace Dalí you enter the museum from street level as if visiting a small residence and then, after paying the entrance fee, climb down a flight of stairs to the lower level where, as you enter the gallery, the first wall – seemingly pointed out by the clawlike extended hand of Dalí’s strange sculpture of a Woman with a Head of Roses – features one of Sfar’s brilliantly colored cartoon drawings framing an explanation of the exhibit. Sfar explains there that the models were encouraged to recreate the works through gestures, dance and theater so that Dalí himself could be “recreated” through his artworks – a sort of cryogenic process that Sfar insists is required to save the world. He apparently feels that art rather than religion is required to save a world that is sinking into “obscurantism.” He goes on to say that the idea that a “priest knows more than a painter” is “absurd” – and that in the end “nothing is more alive than the emotion that you feel when you finally understand a painting” and that, finally, he was through the experience of preparing to mount this exhibit “forever changed” by the consequent “psychotropic and ontological emotions” engendered thereby – and he realized that Dalí “brings Velasquez to life and robs religion of its sacred function” and that in these ‘troubled times”, “God is too serious a subject to leave to the religious alone.” Admittedly, these are not easy ideas, and I don’t pretend to understand everything he is talking about. However, such understanding is apparently not necessary to experience the exhibit, since Sfar states that the visitor is simply supposed to experience the show as if in a fairytale – just let it wash over him or her. And that is what I urge you to do. On my first visit, I was enchanted even though I had no background other than previous visits to the space and had never heard of Sfar. On the other hand, for those of us who sometimes also want to add some intellectual content to an experience,…
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Lead photo credit : Profil du Temps, Salvador Dali, at the Espace Dali. Photo: Michele Kurlander

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Michele is a corporate lawyer and writer who visits France often and is convinced she must have been French in an earlier life -probably hanging around with Ernest Hemingway during what she calls his "cute" stage, living on Cardinal Lemoine and writing on rue Descartes - which just happens to be be her usual stomping ground. From her first time in Paris and that first feeling of familiarity she has returned often as if it is her second home. Now the hotels are Airbnb apartments and she enjoys being a short-term local and shopping at the market, cooking her own meals. Sitting on her own Paris balcony , a wineglass or morning coffee in hand, she writes her journal, describing her walks around town as the proverbial flâneur and taking notes for the future’s stories and travel pieces.