This is the Hallucinogenic Toreador, which means, “the bullfighter that you see in your imagination.” Can you see the woman in the blue bathing suit on the yellow raft? That’s Dalí’s way of saying that the tourists are ruining Port Ligat. And here, where the artist has signed his name: Gala Salvador Dalí. He wrote his wife’s name first, to show that she inspired all of his paintings.In Museo Sophia Reina, the labels are less explanatory than my fifth-grade self on Student Docent Day, my whole gifted program class each given a painting to memorize, me with the longest one, a page and a half single-spaced. The parents and teachers and the unsuspecting public subjected to our practiced spiels followed floor paths of red and green tape from painting to painting, stopping off at the ones with a sweaty-palmed grade-schooler standing in front, carefully not fidgeting in our dark pants and white shirts.
Now, here, the paintings must speak for themselves. Miró. Dalí. Francis Bacon. Misti and I have only two days to share in Madrid, Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, and we are not going to waste it on minor paintings by minor artists. For us it’s the Lichtenstein special exhibit, the Guernica room, Surrealists, only as much as our attention spans can handle before going back to the room for siesta, late dinner, coffee, and the street of clubs that beckon with Spanish techno and Euro techno and American techno which is really Euro techno at its heart, remixes and dance mixes and Kylie, Kylie, Kylie.
Here, there are three Venus de Milos. The first Venus de Milo is next to the cliffs. See how the fabric draped over her hips is also part of the cliffs, and at the same time, it makes the cape of the toreador. Notice how they fade into the background and become less complete. This is Dalí’s way of showing that classical art is disintegrating, and it reflects his painting, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, which you heard Mark talk about over there. Dalí thought that if you looked at atoms, you could understand God. He called that Nuclear Mysticism, and that’s why a lot of his paintings have things not touching each other.
I ask Misti if she wants to see a bullfight? It is Spain, after all. She does not. I do not. I hear only the expensive tickets are in the shade, and we are both nearly broke, I’m charging the hotel on my card. As much as we are the kind of friends who do that for each other, Misti still carries a backpack filled with shame, despite her transition to big-girl luggage with wheels, to traveling in skirts and the pretty sandals that hurt her, so she will not look like a hippie any more.
Misti is also a vegetarian. Compromises have been made in Morocco, where it is almost impossible to get food that is only vegetables—you would think a couscous country would have dishes that are only vegetables and grain, but even the lentils are flavored with fat. A bullfight would not be a compromise. It would be a capitulation. I wish I felt that strongly about something, anything, that I could stick to my guns on one thing, one lousy thing that I wouldn’t give in on, no matter what. That I could say why I came to Madrid, why I hope she’s here, too.
The toreador has a pink cape with gold sparkles, and the curve of the arena above him is also the curve of his hat. Here, below him, you can see the bull’s shape emerging from the cliffs. The straight lines sticking out of the bull’s shoulder are banderillas, long spears with hooks in the end that the bullfighter’s assistants use to distract the bull and tire him out. The bull is kneeling, which means that he is very tired.
Guernica, what we came for, the one thing in Madrid I really want to see, is huge and black and white, a surprise to me. I have been imagining blood and gore and Bosch-like excess, but it is spare and cubist and terrifying.
Misti comes over to me, and says in a whisper, “It’s Picasso.”
I don’t know why she’s telling me this, is it a joke I’m not getting? I give her the “and?” look.
She says, “You’re looking for Guernica. This is by Picasso.”
I say, “Misti, Guernica is the name of the painting. I know it’s by Picasso.”
There must be something in my tone, because Misti looks around the room of people gazing at Guernica, gazing at a painting finally freed from bulletproof glass with the change of government, a painting whose commissioners’ sole instruction was “Make it big,” a painting famous enough to be our reason for this museum, and says “Oh.”
I have already shamed her once today, refusing to put our things in a pay locker when there was a free coat check, saying in front of the clerk who almost certainly spoke very good English, “They’re employees of a national institution, they don’t make their living robbing bags.” In Morocco, it’s a legitimate worry.
Notice the collar button here at the toreador’s neck. It’s painted so realistically that most people think it’s real. You can see that it’s not by moving to the side of the painting and looking for the edge of the button. This is Dalí’s way of getting the viewer to question their perception of reality.
We see one more room of paintings after Guernica, that’s all we have eyes for, we’re cloudy with images and need ice cream to revive. I recognize them from down the hall, the first glimpse through the doorway. There’s something snobbish in knowing a painting’s artist from across the room, Vermeer or Hals, Renoir and Monet (Impressionists are easy) and sometimes Judith Leyster, but Dalí is the easiest. It’s not the brush strokes or the colors or the subjects alone, it’s all of those, recurring images, recurring themes, the nurse from boyhood and the cliffs of Ligat and the Venus de Milo and drawers in bodies and Dutch merchants and Gala, Gala, Gala.
We stand for a long time in front of Bust of Gala, her head an island of light in the low right, the rest of the board black as ink. Our hands are by our sides, obedient guests, respectful friends.I softly read the signature aloud, “Gala Salvador Dalí.”
Misti looks at me, and I say, “do you know why?”
I hope to ask the right question, I hope not to shame her yet again, to presume ignorance instead of enlightenment as is my wont.
She does not know. She would like to know.
I say, “Gala was his wife. He wrote his wife’s name first, to show that she inspired all of his paintings. As if she was part of him.”
We turn to the painting again. Her pinky finds my pinky and we squeeze.
Below the button is the toreador’s tie. See how the vertical dark line of the tie leads your eye to the blue water below. The water is in the place that the bull’s blood would be, but it’s a swimming cove in the cliffs instead. There are more Venus de Milos here, hovering as though they are each separate atomic particles. Dalí imagined that nuclear forces stopped them from touching each other.
Outside the museum, we eat ice cream, Magnum bars with truffle and dark chocolate and the little paddle-shaped stick inside after the last and best bites. While we sit on the bench, the men turn to us like sunflowers as they pass. I cannot kiss her, so I take her to a sex shop. I cannot kiss her, so we siesta from eight to ten at night. I cannot kiss her, so I dress her in my dress. We make up, tell each other, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful.
At the first club, I realize, this is what the man feels like. She’s lovely and fun and smart and I can’t keep my eyes off her breasts and I’m afraid to kiss her in case it’s wrong, in case it wrecks everything. The pounding techno reverberates in our chest, disintegrates the last of the barrier between us. We hold hands, we dance together, we see the sunflowers turn towards the only blondes in the bar. We walk hand in hand to the big club, the twelve-Euros-cover-even-with-our-discoun
And in the end, we walk home as the sun rises. I make Juan Carlos say the “star light star bright” rhyme in broken English and Catalan, and she falls behind with Santiago, so far behind they finally call us on Juan Carlos’ mobile to find out where we are. We are on the way to the hotel. We are in that hazy morning place after dancing all night. We are safely away, safely averting danger, the kind of danger that comes when you kiss someone you really like instead of someone you met in a club.
Here is the curve of the toreador’s face. His chin is the stomach of the second Venus de Milo. His nose is her breast. His eye is her face. Below his eye, you can see a single tear. Perhaps he is mourning the fate of the bull, or perhaps he is sad that the tourists are ruining Port Ligat.
whipchick wishes Misti a very happy birthday. One day, Beautiful Girl...