We’re nearing the end of November now, and men even in the most remote corners of the office block are sporting startling moustaches. “Movember,” the month-long annual event in support of men’s health awareness, is now in its ninth year and going strong. Still, no matter how many guys participate, there’s one moustache we just can’t seem to get away from. A poll by MSN Him in 2010 rated it the most “recognizable.” At her listening party a month ago Lady Gaga wore it herself.
Yes, in the world of facial hair, the ‘tache of Salvador Dali still reigns supreme.
Not that there aren’t other seminal moustaches scattered throughout art history. Albrecht Durer’s (1471-1528) stunning self-portrait of 1500 is a good example – though you might be forgiven for missing its impact under all that hair. Antony van Dyke (1599-1641) shows off similarly luxuriant locks, complimented by a thick moustache in his early self-portrait. Diego Velasquez (1599-1660), on whose moustache Dali reportedly based his own, has the same upward twists on the sides that defined that of the Surrealist.
Dali was certainly a gifted artist, and he also had gifts for the arts of self-promotion, bombast and eccentricity. Fixed on a never-ending scheme to perpetuate his personality, he was amazingly productive in his life, contributing not only to fine art, but also to film, fashion and design. Such positive creative output was balanced – some critics would say overbalanced – by whacky performances and nonsensical pursuits. On the path to fame and beyond, the moustache became his icon, inextricably linked to his deeds and art.
Possible the most important and definitely the most well known of the Surrealists, Dali was not the only modernist to turn to the moustache as a way to comment on his culture. Modernism, which was defined by self-conscious creative commentary, redefined the way that artists – and their public – viewed the world. Often this involved rebellions against what had gone before. The popularity of the moustache in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras made it a prime target.
Moustaches in the decades leading up to modernism were the territory of gentlemen. Servants were generally required to go clean-shaven. Officers in the British army at the outbreak of World War I were required to wear one. A whole host of paraphernalia for the upkeep of one’s bristles were invented and retained by fanshionable European men, including moustache wax, moustache mugs, moustache curlers and moustache protectors for a confident night’s sleep.
But in the early 1920’s artist Jean Arp (1886-1966) incorporated the moustache into his visual vocabulary, where it symbolized pomposity. Like the “gentlemen” who had led Europe into the First World War, he argued, the moustache was vain, bourgeois and stupid.
In North America, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) painted self-portraits that were deeply involved with self-identity. In them she included her thick eyebrows and beneath them can often be seen the shadow of a moustache. By maintaining and even emphasizing these features, she created a definite and recognizable identity for herself to present to her viewers.
Finally, throughout his career Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) altered reproductions of the Mona Lisa by adding a thin moustache. This “assisted readymade” was called L.H.O.O.Q. (a phonetic reading in French translates to “her ass is hot” – or, “she’s horny”), and subverted the meaning of painting altogether.
Simply adding the moustache drew attention to the sitter’s androgyny as well as alluding to the artist’s tendency for cross-dressing.
Through the exercise, the artist became a work of art himself. Dali, who had started out his career among Dadaists took Duchamp’s idea and made adjustment of his own later on.Ultimately the moustache, which was traditionally an elegant yet masculine accessory, was subverted at the hands of the modernists, culminating in the efforts of Dali. His moustache was at once minimal and gravity defying. Though would claim that it was the most conventional thing about him – a traditional Hungarian moustache – in fact, it became a symbol that transcended the artist and seemed to take on a personality of its own.
So here’s to Dali, who’s still making facial hair news 25 years after his death; he would have loved it. And the next time you see a guy sporting an ironic twirly moustache, drink from a hilarious moustache cup or tattoo a ‘tache across your finger as a party trick, spare a thought for the Dali – he did it first.