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The ultimate Dali

In turns glamorous and dark, witty and weird, the exhibit in St. Petersburg on Salvador Dali's career covers the spectrum, and the spectacle, of his work.

Published October 10, 2004

[Images from the Salvador Dali Museum]
Salvador Dali, Shirley Temple, the Youngest, Most Sacred Monster of the Cinema in Her Time, 1939, wash, pastel and collage on cardboard.

Eric Schaal, Salvador Dali and Gala Working on the Dream of Venus, 1939.
Salvador Dali, Night Dreams, 1922, wash on paper.

ST. PETERSBURG - Did Salvador Dali ever sleep? Walking through "Dali and Mass Culture," the big, bustling new exhibition at the Salvador Dali Museum, you would think he slept very little, that he lived on the adrenaline kick of so much fevered activity and output.

Product design, illustration, advertising, filmmaking, fashion, photography, criticism, creative writing and (oh, by the way) a lot of serious paintings reveal a man relentlessly on the prowl for new inspiration, experiences and - Dali being Dali - attention. He didn't dabble so much as plunge into popular culture, devouring ideas in all their variety. We can't really call him a Renaissance man in that classic Medici mold because he seemed curiously indifferent to some pursuits - music and medical science, for example - but in most ways he embodies that ideal of unfiltered, uncensored interest in most things human.

The show is divided into eight sections: Modern Life, Anti-Art; The Angelus: The Tragic Myth; Hollywood: A Place of Pilgrimage; Dream of Venus; Fiat Modes: Pereat Ars; Photographic Documents; Dali News; and Epilogue. It was pared down after its run in Madrid because the museum could hold only about 250 of the 400 items selected from several European museums and the Dali museum here. Most of the scuttled pieces were additional examples of things already represented.

It's still overwhelming in its size and scope.

An enormous quantity of red faux fur attached to the long wall in the first gallery is the tactile announcement that this is no stodge of an exhibition. Punctuating the point, a nearby diorama replicates the famous Mae West Room in the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain, a small version with a red lipstick sofa resembling lips, the urinal as nose and two framed prints for eyes.

The arrangement of the material is thematic, but it is quasichronological in many instances because of the artist's progression into more sophisticated collaborations that unfold through the exhibition.

The Modern Life section of the exhibit contains the most diverse group of works and the most fine art. It begins with a poster Dali painted while a teenager for a fiesta in his hometown of Figueres. It's simple and direct, a harbinger of his interest in the world around him. Once he moved to Paris in the late 1920s, he became, if his drawings are evidence, something of a boulevardier. The monochromatic ink washes picture him, looking catlike, surrounded by a bustling night life and accompanied by his close friends - Luis Bunuel and Federico Garcia Lorca.

Dali was part of an intense intellectual movement in Paris, surrealism, and was constantly experimenting. During those years he created some masterful paintings and at least one bona-fide masterpiece, The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used as a Table, channeling the old masters in creating a technically virtuoso work that brimmed with new imagery.

He also foraged in less-elevated fields for inspiration, taking popular advertising prints and superimposing his own weird iconography onto them. Shirley Temple's head is collaged onto an animal body. A baby's face is skewered onto a globe stand and painted with a map that resembles a big scab; another baby grins sweetly while clamping down on a bleeding rat. Above, Dali has painted the beautiful, mysterious women holding jump ropes that will haunt many of his paintings.

The telephone was another recurring image, used early on in works such as Telephone in a Dish with Three Grilled Sardines from 1939, a dark work of pessimism and decay in which the disconnected receiver represents the failure of peace talks and a foreshadowing of war. Another foreboding work, Atomic Idyll and Melancholic Uranium, painted near the end of the war in 1945 (Dali at that point was in the United States with his wife, Gala), juxtaposes two American preoccupations - baseball and bombs - and plants them in a big black box. Sun Table, painted in a more ethereal style, is awash in strange light setting aglow the beach of Port Lligat on which a table is set with drinking glasses. A boy, in shadow, stands apart gazing at a daytime moon.

The Angelus section will probably be the most esoteric for many because it deals with Dali's obsession with a 19th century painting by Jean-Francois Millet, The Angelus, which depicts two peasants praying in a field. It was wildly popular in its time, spawning untold numbers of kitschy reproductions on everything from plates to coffee grinders. Dali associated the man and woman with a contemporary power struggle between the sexes and overlaid their sentimental poses with references to the praying mantis. The female mantis always wins the power struggle, devouring the male after mating, and Dali's rendering of the woman usually resembles an insect in some way. Dali painted about 10 oils using the motif; several are here. And he collected items and advertising that referenced the original painting, some of which are on view. He found at some point a metal inkpot and stand with the Angelus figures and used them in an assemblage, balancing it on a loaf of bread perched on the head of a mannequin he decorated with ants (death and decay) and a "scarf" of corn cobs (fecundity). The original sculpture from 1933 is understandably fragile; the version here is painted bronze made in 1970.

The most glamorous section chronicles his years in Hollywood when he collaborated, or attempted to do so, with Alfred Hitchcock, the Marx Brothers and Walt Disney. Sketches for characters and sets, photographs of Dali at work, and art inspired by his experiences are part of the display.

Dali's interest in film really began much sooner, in Paris, and clips from two films he made with Luis Bunuel, Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or, are projected onto flat screens in the gallery along with the dream sequence he designed for Hitchcock's Spellbound. Chien is truly remarkable and was considered one of those plate-shifting moments when it debuted. It's still innovative.

The Eye, an oil, was completed when he and Hitchcock were working together and was in the director's collection until he died. It underscores Dali's facility and ability to use an image to great effect for commercial purposes - the eyes in his set designs, for example - and transforming it into high art.

His work with Disney was nothing short of curious and, on the surface, an incongruous pairing. But Disney, for all the sweetness of many animated movies, had "artiste" aspirations. He and Dali planned an extraordinary short animated film titled Destino. Dozens of Dali's drawings for it are on display. The film never was made, probably because Disney balked at its cost.

Several years ago, the Disney folks finally finished Destino. They have loaned it to the Dali Museum for the duration of the exhibition, and it plays continuously in the Raymond James Room. It is a story of unrequited love that unfolds to a romantic score as images of a man and woman melt, change, disappear but are always kept apart until they achieve a spiritual union of sorts by transforming themselves into a stone statue and metal bell. It's both very Dali and very Disney if you can imagine, and flatout fine.

Chaos and Creation, a documentary he made with Philippe Halsman, is an eccentric screed on Dali's aesthetic, highly self-promotional and also very funny. In having pigs and a nude woman "paint" on fabric, for example, he's posing the "what is art?" question that dogged discussions for most of the 20th century.

In the 1960s, Dali endorsed a lot of products, appearing in TV ads or creating print campaigns. If his intention was to shock or provoke in Chaos and Creation, he wanted only to amuse in the commercial stuff. Dali was a natural ham who knew how to play to his audience, and he's generally hilarious on camera, shilling for Braniff Airlines, Datsun cars, Alka-Seltzer and Osborne brandy.

A screen test Andy Warhol made of Dali rounds out the exhibition and reminds us how mesmerizing he was as a personage, staring down Warhol's camera. And how influential. Backtrack to Chaos and Creation or the area documenting Dream of Venus, Dali and Gala's surrealist pavilion for the 1939 New York World's Fair, and you see instances of pop, installation and performance art, early versions of happenings, before they had those names.

If we mapped Salvador Dali's life, it would look like Saul Steinberg's map of New York, exaggerating geographical space to chart one's sense of self and self-importance. If Dali had dark nights of the soul or crises of confidence, he never let his public persona reflect them. He lived his life in forward motion, while constantly looking back for the artistic values that would help him translate his ever newer experiences into art. For all his peripatetic interests, he was faithful to his personal lexicon and visual vocabulary throughout his life.

Many critics have called that derivative and repetitious. I find the varying incarnations over the years to be cumulative, a layering and deepening of ideas. Along the way, he takes detours that entertain himself and us enormously. Was he seduced by the lure of filthy lucre? Sure. Does it matter to his art? No.

This is a monumental exhibition that deserves to be visited more than once. If it can't get people rethinking Dali and his talent, I don't know what will.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or

Images from the Salvador Dali Museum

"Dali and Mass Culture" is at the Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, through Jan. 30. Museum hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday with extended hours to 8 p.m. on Thursday, and noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, military and police, $9 for students 10 to 18 and $3.50 for ages 5 to 9. Admission after 5 p.m. on Thursdays is $5. A catalog of the exhibition is on sale in the gift shop. 727 823-3767 or

[Last modified October 7, 2004, 14:15:25]

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