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Dali 2.0
A New Home for an Old Master

by Joan Altabe

HE AIMED TO BE DIFFERENT. Famed as a painter of dreams, Salvador Dali deviated even from his fellow dream-painters, the Surrealists, who believed that illusions in paint shouldn’t look as real as Dali painted them. He drew and painted so tightly — even fussily — that his evocation of dreams looks staged.

“We are all hungry and thirsty for concrete images,” he said, mocking artists not given to realism: “Cezanne was a catastrophe of congenital awkwardness. One has to be extremely awkward to be content with painting apples that are such a failure that they cannot be eaten…”

Scorning the Surrealists who kicked him out of their movement, he remained defiant: “The difference between me and the Surrealists is that I am a Surrealist.’’ Not even dream expert Sigmund Freud, who faulted Dali’s dreamscapes for making mystery too clear, could sway him.

That said, Dali was not always an independent thinker. In his early years, you might even call him a copycat for imitating other artists’ styles. And because the 2,140-work collection at the new Dali Museum is the largest collection of Dali’s work outside of his native Spain, you can see for yourself that this fiercely independent-sounding artist once painted like a lot of others, namely the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Cubists.

When Dali was in the grip of the French Impressionists like Renoir, whom he sought to make the guiding spirit of his life, he wrote to an uncle, “I devote all my effort to the color…I just couldn’t care less if one leg is longer or shorter than the other.”

Dali’s Impressionist work shows a clear disdain for academic technique. What you see instead is a single-minded focus on the effects of sunlight. ‘The Lane to Port Llgit with view of Cape Creus’ (1922), calls to mind Claude Pissarro’s ‘Entrance to the Village of Voisins’ (1872).

Similarly, Dali’s technique in ‘Portrait of My Aunt Cadaques’ (1923-24) points to Renoir’s in ‘Nude in the Sunlight’, where he melted the edges of his figure to blend with background foliage. Dali used the same effect of light moving over his aunt, making her nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding scenery.

Dali didn’t merely borrow the Impressionist style; he was genuinely taken with it. In his diary, he wrote of an Impressionist moment at a family picnic by the sea and how he was mesmerized by glass objects on the table cloth reflected in the sunlight. Monet, who fixated on the way the Rouen Cathedral looked in varying lights of day, would have understood.

Then Dali moved on to his emulation of the Post-Impressionist technique. His ‘Study of a Nude’ (1925), alludes to the pointillism in ‘Les Poseuses’ (1888) by Georges Seurat, who turned Impressionism into a rigorous formula of color dots laid side by side to blend in the eyes. Dali dutifully followed suit.

After abandoning the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles, Dali dove into Cubism, apparently right after meeting Cubism inventor Pablo Picasso for the first time. Dali’s diary indicates that he aped Cubism simply to one-up Picasso in the wake of seeing his Cubist work. As he wrote in his diary, “I knew to show my mettle in order to eclipse him.”

Like all good Cubists, Dali rejected the naturalist tradition of multiple views seen simultaneously. His ‘Still Life: Sandia’ (1924), is reminiscent of Picasso’s ‘Still Life with Chair Caning’ (1911-12). The apostle of concrete images fragmented them, ignoring perspective and all illusion of three dimensions.

Another of Dali’s derivative paintings —’The Sardanes of the Witches’ (1920) — looks like a veritable knock-off of Henri Matisse’s ‘Dancers’ (1910).

What you get from the story of the young Dali, who long prided himself on being different, is a slew of unexpected pivots.

Even in person, when he was famous, Dali was a surprise.

I met him when I was going into the St. Regis Hotel in New York and he was coming out. He stopped and touched my face, speaking in French as though he knew me. After that he moved away quickly. Supposedly he understood that I was a stranger. But he was no stranger to me in his velvet-collared cape, silver-handled walking stick and waxed mustache.

Except he was taller than I had imagined, and more handsome too. What struck me most, however, was his manner: gentle, humble, even shy — a way of being that one doesn’t associate with a braggart celebrated for saying that the luckiest things to be are first, Spanish, and second, to be named Dali. The Dali I met didn’t appear as self-absorbed as all that. He didn’t even use his native tongue.

But there’s one constant that transcended time: his passion for dressing up. Even as a school boy, sartorial splendor was important to him. Meryl Secrest’s biography, Salvador Dali describes it this way:

He carried a cane topped by a gilded eagle with two heads and liked to affect a velvet jacket. The result was all that could be desired. Dali wrote of his father’s reaction in his diary, “Soon we won’t be able to go out with you. We’re made a show of every time.” He substituted long trousers for short ones. Worn with stockings and sometimes putees, topping this outfit with a full-length waterproof cloak and large black hat.”

All for a kid, mind you.

One more thing about his work: Dali’s drawings of New York made at the time I met him in the spring of 1964 didn’t look like the city in which I was born and bred. His lines in ‘Fountain Plaza’, shaping a horse-drawn carriage against a backdrop of high-rise buildings, slash the air furiously, evoking an air of high speed. The pace of horses in Manhattan streets is never as quick, never as agitated.

I’ve never been able to resolve the contradiction between that fierce slash of his pen and the faint stroke of Dali’s hand on my face.

I’ll let him have the last word, though.

“Art critics never will be able to understand this [Dali] enigma.’’ •

THE NEW DALI

THE NEW DALI, located eight blocks from the original museum on the waterfront, has already attracted nearly 200,000 visitors from around the world since opening its doors on January 11 of this year. The original museum attracted approximately 200,000 visitors per year.

The new Dali Museum is double the size of the original museum (66,400 square feet), with the largest collection of Salvador Dali’s work outside Spain — 2,140 pieces including 96 oil paintings. Acclaimed as “one of the top buildings you have to see before you die” in AOL Travel News, the museum’s exterior is itself a work of art, featuring more than 900 triangular-shaped glass panels — no two identical. This geodesic glass structure — nicknamed the ‘Glass Enigma’ — is the only structure of its kind in North America and is a 21st century expression of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome as utilized in Dali’s Teatro Museo in Figueres, Spain.

The Helical Staircase — a spiral that ascends to the third floor galleries — is the main architectural focus of the interior. An energetic form created with mathematical precision and resembling a strand of DNA, Dali recognized the helix as evidence of the divine in nature.

The new Dali will feature amenities including a café, theater, classroom, library, student gallery, and expanded Dali store.

The Dali offers new amenities that are open to the public for free and do not require an admission ticket to the museum. Guests are encouraged to dine in the museum’s new Café Gala, offering both indoor and outdoor seating, and serving Spanish-themed cuisine in a casual setting. Museum goers may explore the Avant-Garden overlooking Tampa Bay and shop in the expanded Dali store located on the first floor of the museum. Visitors will find twice the amount of space and a variety of Dali-inspired merchandise created to honor the new building’s architecture.

The new Dali Museum is located at One Dali Boulevard in St. Petersburg, Florida. The museum is open Monday-Wednesday and Friday 10am-5:30pm, Thursday 10am-8pm, and Sunday 12-5:30pm. Call 727-823-3767 for information.

from the May-June 2011 issue


'The Sardanes
of the Witches'

'The Sardanes
of the Witches'