At some point between Christmas and New Year I went to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. I had heard a lot of good things about it, and it definitely lived up to the hype. The mixture of displays, which included 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 we arrived early we didn’t get to see it all. 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 his work.
I first came across Salvador Dali as a young amateur still studying art at GCSE. Unlike some of the children I went to school with I did not come from a background of books, private tutors and trips to museums and galleries. I came from poverty, madness and misogyny, a world where passing my GCSEs would be a feat achieved alone if at all and spending the rest of my short wretched life as an abused single mother smoking and drinking myself to death felt almost the expected future for me. But I digress. I would sit in the art department at lunchtimes and read from the couple of big shelves there, or in the library, becoming enamoured with Dali, Blake, Escher and Rodin, among others. I remember my first trip to the Tate; I went with a group of friends from my GCSE year, lovely girls who all seemed to know their way around and where they were, while I was lost in the city I was supposed to come from. Part of me loved the grandeur and beauty, while the rest felt shy of it, engrained with the feeling that I didn’t belong. I think it was when I saw Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ at the Tate that year that 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.
It was the first time I have seen a piece by Dali ‘in the flesh’, and I look forward to seeing more. He was one of many that I admire that were often ridiculed both by tutors and peers in my time at art school. 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. It seems telling of our general attitude as a culture toward the sovereignty of individual self expression. More on this in another post.