One of Scotland’s favourite paintings, Salvador Dali’s depiction of Jesus on the cross, has been dismissed as a “clever trick” and a “con” by leading art experts.
Christ of St John of the Cross is one of the world’s most famous images of the crucifixion, and the painting, owned by Glasgow City Council since the early 1950s, was last year voted the most popular art work in Scotland.
However, in a BBC documentary to be broadcast on Friday, Ian Gibson, one of Dali’s leading biographers, and William Crozier, a Scottish artist who once campaigned against Dr Tom Honeyman’s purchase of the painting for Glasgow, suggest that Dali only painted it to give himself a false appearance of committed Catholicism.
Although the work receives lavish praise from figures such as Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, Mario Conti, the Archbishop of Glasgow, and Moira Jeffrey, The Herald’s art critic, Mr Gibson pours scorn on the painting as a religious icon.
Mr Gibson, Dali’s biographer and a leading expert on surrealism, says Dali painted the Crucifixion to give himself the reputation as a Catholic and pious artist, but was nothing of the sort.
In his lifetime, Dali was criticised by other artists who attacked him for his alleged support for Franco’s fascist regime in Spain, and for his apparent drift from anarchic surrealism to religious art.
“It does not give you any feeling of true spirituality at all,” Mr Gibson says of the work.
“It looks to me like just a very clever trick. I think with that painting, he has done something to make himself very popular and to give himself the reputation as a Catholic painter, but I think that is another con trick.
“I don’t think for one second that Dali was a convinced Catholic.”
Mr Crozier, one of the Glasgow School of Art students who protested when the painting was bought by Glasgow for £8200 in 1952, said: “It is more suitable to Las Vegas than a public gallery.
“I don’t believe it is a crucifixion, indeed I don’t believe it is a Christian picture – it is something that belongs to a Barnum and Bailey [circus] more than a museum.”
The painting currently hangs in the St Mungo Museum of Religious Art but will be moved back to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in the summer for its reopening after its multi-million pound revamp.
The documentary, The Private Life of an Easter Masterpiece, shows how Dali conceived the painting from a number of disparate sources – a visionary depiction of the crucifixion by the sixteenth century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross, the bay of his home of Port Lligat in Spain which forms the landscape of the painting, the discoveries of the nuclear age, and the Hollywood model who posed for the picture.
Mr Gibson, however, says that compared to true crucifixion paintings, it falls short.
“I can see no suffering there – it is a very pretty body on the cross and there is no sense of crucifixion, the horror.”
Indeed Dali’s Christ shows none of the wounds of Jesus, nor nails or crown of thorns, and he is not attached to the cross at all.
Neither does the paper held above his head bear any inscription. However, in the documentary Archbishop Conti says this does not matter.
“There are no nails… so how do I feel about that, do I feel comfortable with that?” he says.
“I think it asks you to think at a deeper level about the mystery of the cross.”
Mr Macgregor said: “It does not matter whether the artist believes or not, what he has done is create an image which allows other people to articulate what they believe.” Last year The Herald held a poll to discover Scotland’s favourite work of art. Dali’s Christ was the overwhelming winner, beating Avril Paton’s Windows in the West to second place.
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