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‘Benefit of Clergy’: Orwell on Dali

February 23, 2010

Salvador Dali, by Carl van Vechten

This essay by Orwell on Salvador Dali is one of the most intelligent pieces of art criticism I’ve read. It’s especially remarkable because it’s so naive. Orwell is, by his own admission, writing without any specialized knowledge of the art involved. Key sentences:

Perhaps they [i.e., Dali’s ‘aberrations’] are a way of assuring himself that he is not commonplace. The two qualities that Dali unquestionably possesses are a gift for drawing and an atrocious egoism. ‘At seven’, he says in the first paragraph of his book, ‘I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.’ This is worded in a deliberately startling way, but no doubt it is substantially true. Such feelings are common enough. ‘I knew I was a genius’, somebody once said to me, ‘long before I knew what I was going to be a genius about.’ And suppose that you have nothing in you except your egoism and a dexterity that goes no higher than the elbow; suppose that your real gift is for a detailed, academic representational style of drawing, your real MÉTIER to be an illustrator of scientific books. How do you become Napoleon?

There is always one escape: INTO WICKEDNESS.

He thinks Dali was a weird combination of the extremely perverse and the extremely banal.

George Orwell

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