Dali on the Geography of Great Painting

Great painters don't pop up just any old place, or so claimed Salvador Dalí.

I came across this while reading his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, a mix of his ink drawings, some bits of thoughtful advice and quite a lot of image-maintaining Dalíblather.

Here are some extracts from pages 62 and 63:

The ideal prison for the delicate eye of the painter is therefore vegitation, and the best of all vegitations is that of the olive tree, and consequently also that of myrtles...

You must understand now that since the light of the olive trees has the equivalent of certain screened lights of the Ile de France or of Flanders it is exceptionally conducive to educating and refining your retina. On the other hand, nothing in the world can be more harmful to the education of your young eye of sixteen -- this is the moment when you must already have decided your vocation as a painter -- than the frequent sight of colors that are too vivid or absolute. ...

[footnote:] The worst enemy, for your eye of a painter who respects himself, is exotic and tropical flora, which besides is absolutely and radically antipictorial. The chromatic hyperchloridity of a Gauguin should suffice to cure the acidity of any young painter for the rest of his life. For that matter, the idea of a good painter coming from the tropics would be as absurd and ludicrous as that of that of a good Swedish painter.

[following footnote:] The Russians, with the whole vast expanse of their territory and their eminently artistic temperament (consider their writers and their musicians) have in spite of this never had a single great painter. They don't have one today and never can have one, and the explanation of this astonishing phenomenon is, besides many other more subtle ones, the snow. No snow country has ever produced good painters, for snow is the greatest and most harmful enemy of the retina.... The white of snow is simply blinding, and it is for this reason that the colors of their painters are violet-hued, congested by anilin acids, and poisonous to the eye as well as to the spirit. This is why the Russian painter is the worst colorist of all.

This is a case where Dalí sounds fairly serious. Can he be right? Well, I can think of some Scandinavians and Russians who painted pictures I liked; Edelfelt, Zorn, Gallen-Kallela, Serov and Levitan are names that quickly come to mind. And as far as I'm concerned, their ability as colorists is no less than Dalí's.

On the other hand, I can't think of many important painters who originated in the tropics. Pissarro might be an example, though he moved to France at age 12. Others might be the Mexican muralist school exemplified by Rivera -- whose work I'm not generally fond of.

I suppose Dalí's little game makes whatever sense it might if one feels that color is the most important factor in good painting, more so than composition or draftsmanship, for instance.

Then there's the larger issue of whether or not some parts of the world produce better artists and art then others. But it's a huge subject where conclusions usually boil down to the biases of whoever is making the analysis. When Dalí wrote what was excerpted above, it was just after the end of World War 2 when the center of gravity of the Western art world was still shifting from Paris (where Dalí had made his reputation) to New York. So Dalí's view is Paris-centric. And I wouldn't be surprised if he made the claim that the best of the Scandinavian, Russian, etc. artists had some part of their training in Paris. Which is largely true, because it seldom hurts to be trained by the best if you want to eventually joint the ranks of the best.