Dali's baroque heart

A new exhibit of the Spanish surrealist's work shows the influence of earlier paintings by the Old Masters of his homeland and his journey from tradition to a style all his own.

Published February 11, 2007


Salvador Dali felt a deep connection to his Spanish homeland.

Well, duh, you would be justified in saying.

It's obvious to anyone looking at his sun-bleached landscapes invoking the Catalan coast.

Also obvious is Dali's reverence for his 17th century artistic forebears, those lumped together under the baroque banner.

So, duh again.

"Dali and the Spanish Baroque" at the Salvador Dali Museum offers us no new revelations on either point but nicely underscores and illustrates them, reinforcing the assertion that Dali's roots went deeper than modernism.

Better still, the exhibition does not pummel us with heavy-handed didactics, instead making its case with examples, some immediately graspable and others more subtle, especially in a multitude of drawings by Dali that are not routinely shown because of their fragility.

The Old Master paintings are the advertised big guns of the show. But there are only 14 of them, so we get an overload of the modern master in some of the galleries, with relatively few evidences of his inspiration.

Still, this is the Dali Museum, and given how strong the theory behind the show already is, the concentration of Dali's still lifes in an early gallery is an effective survey of his climb through every 20th century "ism" and his arrival at a peak entirely his own. Arrayed with them are two examples by Blas de Ledesma and Luis Melendez. There is no evidence that Dali was aware of either painting; their presence is meant to demonstrate stylistic and thematic consistencies and how Dali reworked traditional elements of that genre.

Dominating the gallery is Dali's great Still Life - Fast Moving 1956, in which very little is still. His exquisite Basket of Bread (1926) hangs near de Ledesma's basket of cherries, a straightforward work that underscores Dali's ability to infuse even the mundane with mystical portent.

The muse of mortality

Vanitas paintings became a popular genre in the 17th century, usually juxtaposing lush still lifes with skulls as reminders that death waits on all of us. Plunking a traditional example by an unknown 17th century artist in the middle of Dali's surrealist works may confuse at first because Dali didn't paint vanitas as we think of them.

But the show argues that he created his own versions in numerous works using elongated heads resembling skulls. It's a valid point; mortality and death were constant refrains in his paintings, and, related to them, the passage of time - and those melting clocks.

His is a sensibility in some ways far different from the earlier art, as would be expected. He shares with some of them the sense of heightened drama, of freighting the ordinary with larger qualities. In that context, Dali's distortions can be viewed as inheritors of El Greco's famous attenuations.

Vanity and ambition

Dali's enormous ego played into more than painterly conceits. He unequivocally identified himself with Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, one of the greatest painters of all time.

Edouard Manet a century earlier paid self-effacing homage to the Spanish giant. Dali, taking the tribute further, paints himself as Velazquez in The Ecumenical Council (1960), mimicking the pose the former used for a self-portrait in Las Meninas. (That masterwork is not here - it never leaves the Prado - but is projected as a reproduction on a gallery wall.)

Dali painted a variation of the masterpiece, Velazquez Painting the Infanta Margarita With the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory (1958). In it, Velazquez is painted from behind as if Dali were observing the scene, a nod to the artifice Velazquez acknowledges in his painting. The Infanta is painted twice, once on a small monochromatic canvas, larger and almost transparent in the center of the work, looking as if she is about to dematerialize like an artistic interpretation of particle theory. It's a deeply complex and ambitious painting, a gutsy appropriation that succeeds.

Dali vs. Velazquez

Velazquez himself is represented by two works, Philip IV Wearing Armor, With a Lion at His Feet (1652-1654) and The Jester Calabazas (1631-1632). Both are grand portraits, the king's purposefully so. It's smaller than Dali's massive epic paintings between which it is sandwiched, Philip's handlebar mustache echoed by Dali's, and holds its own just fine.

The Jester is humbler. It is the kind of painting that inspired generations of subsequent painters, especially those in the late 19th and early 20th century.

It isn't effectively paired with any work by Dali, and that's telling. The qualities that would have appealed to Manet, for example, would not necessarily have attracted Dali.

Velazquez's technique and his genius for composition are instructive for any artist. But Dali seems more inspired by his baroque grandeur. In that context, I'm not sure how The Jester Calabazas, painted with minimal details and a simple background, fits into this show, but I'm glad it's included because it's a beaut.

Thanks goes to curators William Jeffett and Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt for restraint in wall texts, a peeve of mine at many exhibitions. Too many words slow our visual apprehension of art and are condescending in their assumption that a viewer can't form an opinion without academic spoon-feeding.

Art is to be enjoyed. The extent and sophistication of that enjoyment is up to us. Those wanting more background than provided on the walls may purchase the catalog, which contains essays by Dali Museum director Hank Hine, Jeffett and Stratton-Pruitt.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.



If you go

"Dali and the Spanish Baroque" is at the Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, through June 24. Admission is $15 adults, $13.50 seniors, $10 students, $4 children 5 to 9, under 5 free. Admission is $5 after 5 p.m. Thursday. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Call (727) 823-3767 or see www.salvadordali museum.org for evening hours.