Two controversial figures are making a resurgence in the art world recently, and they return as a very odd couple: Salvador Dalí, and the state of Israel. Dalí is still reviled by many for his collaboration with the Axis-supporting dictator Franco, and Israel is predominantly, well … Jewish.
Unknown to many, the flamboyant Dalí created 25 varied media pieces in 1967 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the state of Israel. Shorewood Publishers commissioned the series “Aliyah, the Rebirth of Israel” series, showing them at New York museums until they were sold separately. Since then, the fate of most of the Aliyah paintings is a mystery – and a bit like the Jewish people, showing up here and there, waiting to be reconnected.
Jon Levine is certain of the precise location of the central painting “Aliyah” because he owns it – but will be sending it to Sotheby’s for auction on May 10th. It features a heroic, epically muscled man draped with the Israeli flag. Speaking in the Algemeiner, Levine reveals his reaction to “Aliyah” – love at first sight.
“It spoke to my feelings about Israel and Judaism. … I look into the eyes of the man in the ‘Aliyah’ painting, I just see a savior, a man running from some persecution and Israel is there to protect him.”
“Aliyah” and the rest were made by gouache or watercolor, sometimes with inks or other added touches. Dalí handled these mesmerizing images in a simple, loose and energetic manner – a world away from his fevered and cerebral paintings. In counterpoint with Dalí’s almost hyper-(sur)realistic and refined oils, some viewers were surprised he turned these out.
Actually Dalí was commissioned to illustrate dozens of things, from “Poems of Mao Tse Tung” to several versions of “The Divine Comedy.” Most are potent images, catching and keeping the eye of the beholder. He effortlessly caught the spiritual and emotive aspects with what appears to be little effort. (Full disclosure: I rabidly adore Dalí’s work!)
Dalí also allowed 250 limited edition prints of this series, and those are easier to come across. Coinciding with Sotheby’s sale, collector and art dealer Hillel Philip is sponsoring a private exhibit in New York City of an “Aliyah” series he owns. Philip felt compelled to reveal Dalí’s Zionist images at a time when the connection between Jews and Israel is questioned and even denied.
“You have all of Jewish history, all the dreams of the Jews for 2,000 years, in these paintings,” he told the Algemeiner.
Is it odd to publicly announce an exhibit from which the public is barred? While I couldn’t contact Philip to ask, I’m doubting this is because of elitism. More likely it’s a cautionary measure to avoid swarms of BDS berserkers and enjoy the art in peace.
The “Aliyah” series dwells on Jewish religion, history and politics, but Dalí chiefly related it to the Diaspora and rebirth of Israel. Subjects range from broadly biblical to contemporary (in 1967). Plate #14 is paired with the beloved Psalm 23: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Masses of people run in terror at the bottom of the painting, while a ghastly red-hinged apparition hovers aggressively over them. There are elements of a skull. Its angular twistings could be many things – buildings, death camps?
Dalí either studied the Bible and Jewish history to complete this, or found someone to help. He heralds “The Pioneers of Israel” with this quote: “With one of his hands, he wrought the work and, with the other, held his weapon” (Nehemiah 4:11).
That contingency was 2500 years ago. But Dalí makes a parallel between the need for defensive arms then, and the 1967 Six Day War, which allowed Jews who were driven from the Old City in 1948 to return to their homes – via weapons and other things.
Reactions run from thrilled to cynical about the sincerity of Dalí’s Zionism. Philip admitted many felt the artist was an anti-Semite, thanks to his support for Spain’s Franco, who collaborated with Hitler. Since Dalí was born in 1904, he was a witness of the birth of Israel himself after the war. Keep in mind it was more fashionable to support Israel – even in universities – until the last few decades. (Jew-hating had taken a sabbatical after the Holocaust – worn and out of ammunition).
Reactions in Jewish papers and readers were strong but varied. Most were thrilled to see Zionist art resurrected for such a time. It’s not like pro-Israeli art is mushrooming in every gallery. Richard commented of Dalí in the Algemeiner: “His humanity radiates in his art. I would like to think his growing up Christian might have had something to do with this capacity to live our reality as it overlapped his.”
Dani was not convinced, calling Dalí an extremely “educated artist” who worked “for money,” not for love. Guilherme was just unimpressed, claiming it was no wonder the pieces were “little-known.”
However Hillel Philip is convinced of the passion and empathy he senses in Dalí’s art. “It’s my understanding that in the end, Dalí bet on the right horse, so to speak, on the Jews, when he saw in the 1960s biblical prophecies coming to life.”
Philip hailed Dalí’s series as “a representation of the legitimacy of the Jews and their right to Israel.”
Dalí’s work is full of mystifying tokens and symbols and he adored science, so it’s no surprise that something technical showed up in at least one painting. Across the length of Plate #22 is a huge pipe, representing the National Water Carrier. Pumping water from the Sea of Galilee almost to the Sinai, it waters the land. In typical Dalí style, angels hover protectively while ethereal beings stroll about the droughted, pre-state landscape. Reference for this is “The Land at the Start of Jewish Settlement: ‘I will make the wilderness a pool of water’ (Isaiah 41:18).
Emory University professor David Blumenthal owns a set of “Aliyah” prints as well, and lectures on them extensively. One tasty morsel he offers is Dalí’s use of “bulletism” in the series, one of his many arcane inventions and techniques. Bulletism is shooting the plates with “paint-filled bullets” via an ancient type of gun, an arquebus. I always assumed he just threw it, but that would be so routine.
If your curiosity is whetted, check out his website Dali, the Jews, Judaism, and Zionism and you will learn much more.
Consider that Israel is in a uniquely uncomfortable place among nations. Forced to plead for the right to exist, they also must prove they currently exist, in spite of new maps claiming otherwise.
That is true surrealism.