Michaeline: Network of Creativity: Salvador Dali interviewed by Dick Cavett

This morning, a friend of mine shared a Dick Cavett interview with Salvador Dali, and it’s been something to think about, for sure! In the clip, which aired on Feb. 11, 1971 (11 min), Cavett seems to be completely at sea when confronted by Dali’s accent, niche interests and methodology, but 50 years later, Dali’s ideas have become almost mainstream.

For example, Dali talks about the Fibonacci sequence and how it manifests in various natural objects, such as sunflowers, rhino horns and cauliflower, of all things. Cavett asks Dali about Dali’s arrival at a speech in a car filled with cauliflower (I’d like to think it was the beautiful Romanesco cauliflower, which demonstrates fractals so gorgeously), and doesn’t seem to comprehend Dali’s answer.

A graph showing the Fibonacci numbers in terms of squares that are x by x. x = 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc.
The Fibonacci sequence can create an elegant spiral. (Jahobr, Wikimedia)
The Fibonacci sequence as illustrated in nature with aloes, sunflowers and a spiral seashell. (Google screenshot)
It's hard to describe this, but think cauliflower, but instead of the smooth, brain-like flowerets, each floweret is like a spiky Christmas tree.
My mother-in-law has grown this veg for me! It’s a member of the cabbage family, and is known variously as Romanesco broccoli, romanesco cauliflower, chou romanesco. Delicious, but smelly — a cabbage-scented limousine is maybe not what you’d want to ride in on a hot summer day. Still, look at those gorgeous fractals! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

We today may be more familiar with the sequence as part of Elsa’s magic in the “Let It Go” song from the Disney animation, Frozen. The lyrics even mention, “My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around.”

Dali also talks about hypnagogia, that time and place between waking and sleeping where so much creativity happens. A commenter on the video talked about a technique Dali used to access the mysterious place. Dali would sit in his comfy chair with a spoon in his hand, and as he fell asleep, the spoon would drop from his fingers into a metal bowl below. The clanging would wake him up completely and he could capture whatever his brain was putting out.

You can find the experiment detailed better here, and there’s a link to an essay on Dali where the anecdote appeared. (Dali biographer Bernard Ewell, Provenance is Everything)

At the end of the Cavett interview, Cavett asks for an autograph. Dali signs with some violence, and then gently draws a milk crown above his name. The milk crown image come from the stop-flash photographer of Harold Edgerton, who was born in Nebraska. I saw this photo (and bought the postcard, LOL) at the Edgerton Explorit Center in Aurora, Nebraska. Curiously enough, Cavett is also from Nebraska. The photo is pretty well-known now.

A milk crown that moment when a drop of milk hits the surface of a bowl of milk, creating a circular splash with spikes, and a ball of milk on the end of each spike. Also pictured are flash photographs of a bullet blowing through an apple and a banana.
Dali drew a milk crown at the top of his signature for Cavett. The image is from the flash photography of Harold Edgerton. (Google shot)

Before you watch the interview, I think you should also see this brooch by Dali. It’s a gorgeous piece of art, and the basic imagery also shows up in the Dali work that Cavett shows near the end of the clip. (I would really, really love to have one of these eye brooches; I love the blue color, and I love the practical aspect of the jewelry, and it gives extra meaning to the phrase “watch the clock.” The clock is watching back . . . .)

Dali eye brooch: a watch with a blue face and a purple center mimicking the pupil of an eye; the numbers are in italics, and Dali is signed on the "iris" of the eye. The eye is outlined in silver and diamonds, and a diamond-encrusted teardrop dangles from the left side from our perspective. The white of the eye is negative space; see-through.
A tangent: In “Diamond Dogs” David Bowie sings, “Her face is sans feature but she wears a Dali brooch.” Some people think this is the brooch! (Google search screenshot)

Dali pulled his ideas from everywhere. His brain distilled them and let them leak during the half-sleep of hypnagogia. And then Dali had the discipline to move those ideas into concrete forms that could be shared with others and live beyond his own lifetime. He was a master of creativity and composition.

Cavett is usually a smooth and urbane interview and the smartest man in the room, but often seemed baffled by eccentric brilliance, and he’d fall back on Everyman techniques to allay his discomfort (or perhaps it was an act to make the audience feel more comfortable with these strange ideas). You’ll see. Don’t judge Cavett too harshly. For any faults in this interview, it’s amazing that he got these kinds of guests on American TV in the 1970s. For more on Cavett’s own brand of genius, check out this BBC essay, “Why Dick Cavett was the greatest talk show host of all.” (Christine Newland, 2020 04 16)

And with no further ado, here’s the video! (There are more clips of the show in Cavett’s archives on YouTube – where Dali walks on with an anteater.) Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

(This post was expanded from a Twitter thread I did earlier today.)

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: Network of Creativity: Salvador Dali interviewed by Dick Cavett

  1. What a great interview, Michaeline; thanks for sharing it. That Dali Broach is a little creepy, but as a mathematician I love fractals. They are fascinating and beautiful. I have a picture on my wall that is fractal wrapped around a sphere, giving it the appearance of an out-of-this-world planet.

    I’m not sure any of this inspired me with creativity, but it did help me lose quite a bit of time checking out graphic links on the internet so . . . a win?

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