- Tiny Surrealism: Salvador Dalí and the Aesthetics of the Small by Roger Rothman
“Humility and patience” (50), “self-restraint” (145), “self-control and self-denial” (12), and a concern for that which is “modest, humble, ordinary and inconsequential” (10)—words such as these do not spontaneously arise in conjunction with the name Salvador Dalí or his oeuvre. Yet in a study that is as finely detailed as the very “aesthetic of the small” that it examines, Roger Rothman builds a convincing case for Dalí’s identification with, and dedication to, those entities and experiences that lie on the peripheries of the sensate or the borders of the acknowledgeable. Rothman develops a nuanced perspective on this paradoxical marriage between the artist’s outsized persona and his enthusiasm for the diminutive and forgettable, and thus highlights the critical, and arguably burlesque, nature of Dalí’s attraction to the grotesquely insignificant. Rothman appropriately writes: “One irony of Dalí’s lifelong fascination with the small is that the man was an egotist of enormous proportion” (21). Tiny Surrealism successfully dilutes the generic caricature of a camera-ready Dalí, haunting coffee-table books, wall calendars, and classroom discussions, while at the same time the study maintains an awareness of the centrality of satirical humor to Dalí’s production.
Written in a lucid and readable style appropriate even for the novice student of surrealism, Tiny Surrealism excavates a different side to Dalí: that of the empathetic, stunningly perspicacious, and vulnerable man, who is always favoring the underdog. Ever an aficionado of extremes, Dalí obsessively and awkwardly fixated on boogers, bread crumbs, blackheads, and stray hairs, [End Page 579] among other varieties of “Odradeks” that obscurely linger in the corners of our dwellings. Along with this revolting list of unmentionables that make the surrealist love of dust seem charming, Rothman explores Dalí’s more entrenched inclinations towards “tiny” themes like “parasitism,” “superficiality,” “submission,” and several other regressive emotive traits, in a series of associatively linked chapters. An interestingly anecdotal, symptomatic and intimate interpretation of Dalí’s aesthetics surfaces through the seams of this skillful thematic monograph.
Although at the heart of Tiny Surrealism is the important work of uncovering an overlooked aesthetic typology, much broader cultural concerns also rise to the fore in a manner that may recall Susan Stewart’s exceedingly quotable 1993 text, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Like surrealist pioneer André Breton’s notion of the “point supreme,” explicated in the Second Surrealist Manifesto in 1929—the point at which oppositions dissolve—Dalí’s interest in the small is a crucial counterpoint to his tendency toward the more obvious gesture of the grand flourish. Beyond just the typological-morphological question of the small, Rothman’s study treats larger structural issues concerning aesthetics and epistemology during the interwar period. To mention just one piece of this puzzle, the abolishment of scale and loss of reference points activates a carnivalesque inability of the human subject to perceive the world coherently (the juxtaposition of the “big” and the “small” always begets a laugh). Therein lies an intriguing critical fissure that complements the other kinds of rupture occurring in this historical period. Therefore, questions of perception and phenomenology must also have a place in the analysis that Tiny Surrealism performs, and Rothman astutely overlays these concerns onto Dalí’s technical, formal and historical interest in painting. This tack also enables a new perspective on Dalí’s prominent paranoid-critical method that exceeds former psychoanalytic readings of his work, instead unexpectedly linking back to a more venerable art-historical drive for verisimilitude.
Tiny Surrealism has great potential to serve as an introduction to Dalí’s complex oeuvre, as it balances the investigation of the artist’s visual artworks with nearly as many of his compelling writings, and furthermore because it surveys the trajectory of his career between the 1920s and 1930s. Rothman provides an admirably crystalline distillation of many of the disparate factions of surrealism in this period: from the more familiar juxtaposition...