Salvador Dalí as a filmmaker? The idea will certainly seem strange to many who think of the twentieth century’s maestro of the dreamscape as little more than a consultant to such major filmmakers as Buñuel and Hitchcock. Even for devout admirers of Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Âge d’Or (1930), there has always been some doubt about exactly how the two young Spaniards collaborated on these founding works of Surrealist cinema. And the fact that Buñuel went on to enjoy a successful 50-year career in cinema has inevitably focused more attention on his contribution than on Dalí’s.

There is another problem, too, which has played havoc with Dalí’s reputation. Although – and perhaps because – he was by far the most famous artist associated with the Surrealist movement in the 1930s, after relations deteriorated, the Surrealists became vociferous opponents. André Breton’s notorious nickname for him, “Avida Dollars”, was only part of the smear campaign. Elsewhere, and especially in Surrealist histories of cinema, Dalí was systematically denigrated (together with the movement’s other bête noir, Cocteau), and his dream sequences for Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) mocked as “superficially Surrealist”.

It must be admitted that the dream episodes credited to Dalí do suffer from their function in the film to represent symptoms of Gregory Peck’s repressed memories, which Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist can interpret to save the man she’s in love with. However powerful the imagery, especially of a forest of giant eyes hanging over a gambling club, with a witty reference back to the sliced eye of Un Chien Andalou as a pair of giant scissors cuts a painted eye, these can scarcely be counted among Dalí’s greatest works. Which is hardly surprising, since they’re only a fraction of what he created and were further reworked by an experienced Hollywood production designer, William Cameron Menzies, at the request of David Selznick, the film’s producer and an even more determined publicity seeker than the artist.

The Spellbound experience sheds important light on the mixed motives and inevitable compromises involved in trying to work within the Hollywood studio system at the height of its confidence and power. Hitchcock was deeply interested in contemporary art and wanted Dalí to create a completely new kind of filmic dream: sharp, detailed and disturbing, with no hint of soft-focus or sentimentality. The two men, both at the peak of their fame, apparently enjoyed each other’s company, and Dalí worked hard to realise Hitchcock’s ambitions, producing dozens of paintings and drawings for various sequences, including an extended ballroom scene that he hoped would finally give him access to the resources and the global reach of Hollywood.

But he had not reckoned with the dream factory’s innate conservatism, and the sheer difficulty of translating painted imagery into convincing cinematography. Bergman notoriously refused to take part in a sequence that would have unleashed a mass of ants – another reference back to one of Dalí’s images in Un Chien Andalou. And Hitchcock also found himself under pressure from Selznick to limit costs and ensure the film was ready for release on time. Dalí, by now far from Los Angeles, cabled anxiously to see if he could retrieve the situation, but Selznick – who had wanted him only for publicity value – held all the reins. Spellbound remains a remarkable achievement, and evidence of Hollywood’s mid-1940s Freudian obsession, which also produced Mitchell Leisen’s lurid Lady in the Dark (1944). But the kind of Surrealist dreamworld experience that Dalí wanted was probably better achieved by the fantasy ballet sequence in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), whose production designer Hein Heckroth was also a painter.

During his first experience of filmmaking, on Un Chien Andalou, Dalí had enjoyed a degree of collaboration that he would never recapture. Indeed, according to Buñuel’s memoirs, it was the artist who suggested “what if we made a film?” as they exchanged accounts of their dream images. And during a week of intense work together preparing the film’s disconcerting sequence of irrational images, Buñuel claimed they never disagreed. There would be disagreements later, when they collaborated on a longer film, L’Âge d’Or (1930), after which Dalí claimed that Buñuel had failed to realise some of his ideas and had watered down the film’s intended assault on its audience. For Dalí, in spite of the Surrealists’ insistence on his opportunism and greed, was also profoundly subversive – more truly a Surrealist, he claimed, than the Surrealist group. Alyce Mahon’s superb recent study Surrealism and the Politics of Eros illustrates an installation created by Dalí for the major Paris International Surrealist Exhibition of 1938, Rainy Taxi, which was intended to mock the same “snobbish Surrealist ladies” to whom the artist was supposedly in thrall as he cultivated his transatlantic reputation.

But for all his social and commercial success in the United States, gaining access to filmmaking on the same level that he could achieve as a painter remained an elusive goal. And Dalí was not alone in his desire to use the most potent medium for communicating a new vision, or in his frustration. Many major artists contemplated doing so from around 1912 – ranging from the British Academician Sir Hubert von Herkomer, who actually produced a string of dramatic films before his death in 1914, to Kandinsky and Schoenberg, both intrigued by the possibility of colour animation in 1912, and Picasso, who considered venturing into film around the time he was getting into his stride with his sculpture. Few Modernist artists managed to realise their plans, however, apart from scattered works by Italian and Russian Futurists. Or if they did, as with Fernand Léger’s 1924 Cubist montage film Ballet Mécanique, it often proved to be a one-off success, heavily dependent on finding a congenial collaborator (the young American cameraman Dudley Murphy in Léger’s case).

After his break with Buñuel, Dalí had no such collaborator. And for all his shrewdness in developing a brand and his lifelong fascination with film, he seems to have remained somewhat naïve, or unduly optimistic, about the business of film-making. He didn’t want to make obscure art films. Even before he collaborated with Buñuel and joined the Surrealists, he had adopted a position similar to theirs: contemptuous of “artistic” films such as the French avant garde was producing and championing instead such “anti-artistic” comic geniuses as Mack Sennett, creator of the Keystone Kops and custard-pie slapstick, and the master of deadpan, Buster Keaton. Once his reputation began to grow, he wanted to work with his equals who had succeeded in imposing their idiosyncratic vision on a mass public, such as the Marx Brothers and Walt Disney.

Of these, the Marx Brothers are probably easier to understand as objects of Dalínian fascination. Attracted particularly to the silent harp-playing Harpo, of whom he made several portraits, Dalí wrote a full-blown fantasy script in 1937, Giraffes on Horseback Salad, which would have placed the vaudevillians in a landscape of absurdism, with a “Surrealist woman” on a giant bed, a troupe of dwarfs led by Harpo, indoor rain and a flood followed by a desert fire. Not surprisingly, the Marx Brothers’ new studio, MGM, saw this as heading in precisely the opposite direction to its plans for less anarchy, and nothing came of the project. Dalí, of course, was not alone among artists and intellectuals who were fascinated by the barely restrained mayhem of the brothers, but his ambition to transport them into the truly irrational showed a failure to understand Hollywood’s reluctance to push its audiences over the edge in live-action comedy.

Salvador Dalí Study for the Dream Sequence in Spellbound 1945

Salvador Dalí
Study for the Dream Sequence in Spellbound 1945
Oil on panel
© Salvador Dalí. Fundación Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS, 2007

But what of animation, surely a more natural point of contact between the artist and mass-market cinema? Although Disney might be synonymous today with bland family-friendly entertainment, in the 1930s there was a widely shared enthusiasm for Walt Disney’s seeming desire to realise the full potential of graphic cinema. After his exuberant Silly Symphonies and first feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney became a beacon for filmmakers and artists everywhere who despaired that cinema would ever be liberated from its slavish devotion to theatrical narratives. Sergei Eisenstein, the radical exponent of revolutionary spectacle and of “intellectual montage”, admired Disney to distraction, citing him as an influence on his own Ivan the Terrible. And the English convert to Surrealism, Paul Nash, regarded Disney as “one of the few geniuses of the cinema”, confessing in 1938 that “the mind totters at the very thought of the human machinery that builds up those delirious fantasies of Mickey Mouse”.

Disney had already tried to work with contemporary artists on Fantasia (1940), an immensely ambitious anthology of music-inspired segments in different styles, and the project he embarked on with Dalí in 1945 seems to have been conceived as part of an intended second collection which never happened. At any rate, Destino, planned around a Mexican song by Armando Dominguez, got under way with Dalí apparently spending eight months as a model Disney employee. The imagery of statuary and ruins, with a woman encountering ambiguous symbols in a series of metamorphoses, is the closest of all Dalí’s film projects to his best-known dreamscape paintings. It is also the only one that has been brought to completion posthumously, with the support of Roy Disney, the animator’s nephew.

Fascinating though Destino is as a realisation of the temporality that seems latent in many of Dalí’s paintings of the mid-1930s – rather like the scheme to “animate” famous paintings proposed in Nabokov’s novel Laughter in the Dark – it also points to the limitations of an over-literal relationship between painting and film. More intriguing ultimately is the extraordinary range of other unrealised film and video projects that has been unearthed in the preparation of the Tate exhibition Dalí & Film. Before Spellbound, there was a “nightmare montage” commissioned by Twentieth Century Fox for Moontide, due to be directed by Fritz Lang in 1941. This would have featured many familiar Surrealist motifs, including a giant sewing machine and an umbrella, linked by a process of continuous transformation in what would amount to an intense film-within-a-film. But the impact of America’s abrupt entry into the war after Pearl Harbour led to both Dalí and Lang being dropped from the project, although a detailed script and drawing survive.

Dalí produced a number of complete scenarios throughout his career, ranging from Babaouo and The Hygenic Goat in the early 1930s to The Wheelbarrow of Flesh (1948–52). All seem to have been more or less prompted by his mixed feelings about the success of L’Âge d’Or in demonstrating his “paranoiac-critical”method on screen. For Dalí, this was not simply the product of persecution mania, or cultivated eccentricity, but a way of deliberately generating imagery that reflected obsession or delirium, and so creating works open to multiple simultaneous interpretations. Many of his film projects strive to preserve this paranoiac multiplicity and mutability – which also explains why so few found backing.

Perhaps surprisingly, two of his later screen works, the video Chaos and Creation (1960) and a television film Impressions from Upper Mongolia (1977), both succeeded in breaking new ground. In the former, Dalí performs his own public persona as an eccentric and impractical “genius”, with a dogged television interviewer as his foil. Like much early video art, this is both a parody of television’s condescension and a genuine performance piece that allows us to appreciate “Dalí” as one of the artist’s finest creations. Impressions is a homage to Raymond Roussel’s proto-Surrealist classic Impressions of Africa, directed by José Montes Baquer under Dalí’s supervision, in which realms of suggestive imagery are discovered through extreme close-up photography of a corroded metal band of a ballpoint pen.

It is in exploiting such formal and technical features of the medium, as Dawn Ades has suggested, that Dalí connects with the first wave of Modernists and their enthusiasm for photography and film. The fact that so few of his screen projects materialised also links him with the longstanding frustrated aspiration of visual artists to take “revenge”, as Léger put it, on the stupidity of most film-making. From this standpoint, he was perhaps one of the luckiest. And now that we too can enter the delirious studio of his imagination, understanding his life-long obsession with film may also refresh the over-familiarity of some of his painting.