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Dali's journey from fear to affection in his focus on women


Summer's slower rhythms are being felt in many museums. Gone are the big traveling shows; taking the starring roles are permanent collections, often works in storage for most of the year.

The most recent example is at the Salvador Dali Museum, where the just-opened "Women: Dali's View" is a reconfiguring of the museum's familiar holdings enriched with more paintings, drawings and collateral materials.

No grand revelations in this show. I like it because in new arrangements and contexts, we see works we think we know well in a new way.

Its Big Idea is to present various responses Dali had to women in his art. And whoa, baby, did he have issues with the opposite sex. As he said in an interview once, those issues began with his mother and were resolved only through the love of his muse and eventual wife, Gala. Of course, Dali's idea of resolution is probably greatly different from many people's, so provocation remains a constant throughout.

The question for many students of the artist is which period produced the better art: early works based on fear and loathing or later ones modulated by reverence and admiration?

Changing feelings and techniques

You'll have plenty of material for either view. And affirmation, once again, that Dali could wield a paintbrush like few others. For all of her detractors, we can probably thank Gala for this phenomenal technique, as the exhibition demonstrates.

Not only an ongoing source of creative inspiration, she "set him on a new path," said show curator Joan Kropf, one that moved him away from the rigid didacticism of the surrealist movement into his use of its principles to develop a more personal interpretation and a more classic approach to painting itself.

"He certainly had the innate talent," Kropf says, "but Gala made him the artist he was. Without her, he might have gotten stuck, as so many surrealists did."

Almost 100 works are arranged thematically and somewhat chronologically beginning with a drawing when Dali (1904-1989) was 12, of flying witches that were part of local lore. From there, we see a later watercolor done at age 16 of more witches, these dancing in a circle similar to Matisse's 1909 dancing nudes that Dali, then an art student in Spain, could have seen reproduced in a magazine or journal. From early on, he saw women as mysterious and threatening.

Obsessions on canvas

Two radically different portraits from 1926 indicate his ambivalence toward the subject and his own approach. Both paintings portray his sister, Ana Maria. One, in which he paints her back in warm, glowing colors, her hair cascading down in fat curls, emulates Vermeer, the Old Master whom Dali idolized. The other has her full figure splayed in a foreshortened pose suggesting a crucifixion and sexual surrender that explores the cubist works of the time, especially those of Picasso.

They lead us into an even more startling juxtaposition in the next gallery. Girl With Curls, a voluptuous young woman standing in a Catalan landscape, is hung next to The Bather, a distortion of the female figure that resembles a big toe and genitalia. The first is an erotic fantasy; the second, an erotic nightmare. It ushers in Dali's full flight into surrealist symbolism and his "paranoiac-critical method" of dredging "irrational" images up from his subconscious and finding rational links to them through art. (That's a huge oversimplification that will make scholars cringe, but it's the nutshell.)

He used this method most pointedly in relation to his odd fascination with Jean Francois Millet's The Angelus, a 19th century painting of a farm couple who stop their field work for prayer. For the rest of Dali's life, the man and woman would appear in various incarnations in his work. We see examples of them as the focus or accessories throughout. Sleuths will have fun tracking The Angelus and other repetitions in Dali's paintings. When an image or idea is ruminating in the artist's mind, it is given prominence in paintings; you see it becoming smaller, less important over time as he works through all the possibilities and permutations.

Death, decay and divinity

Gala is the exception. By the early 1930s, she and Dali were inseparable and her influence is by turns obvious and oblique. She certainly had favored-model status and his portrayals were increasingly flattering as she aged. In Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes Abraham Lincoln, painted in 1976 when Gala was in her 80s, her naked body is one of a nubile young woman. Which points, perhaps, to his predilection as he aged for painting what he loved rather than what he feared. (Okay skeptics, I can hear you saying that maybe he was just scared to death of the volatile Gala and had to paint her that way, which may have some validity.)

But in numerous works we see him putting to rest some of his haunting anxieties and looking more to visual articulations of scientific theories that so fascinated him. In general, after embracing all that was new in painting in his youth, he turned his back on modern currents, sticking to the figurative, and flourishing through the force of personality, unique vision and, of course, his skill.

He still revisited his "issues," especially those involving death and decay. Dionysus Spitting the Complete Image of Cadaques on the Tip of the Tongue of a Three-Storied Gaudinian Woman (1958-1960) is a descent into decay and depravity with one of the most grotesque depictions of a woman Dali ever created.

But for the most part, his interest was in subjects that weren't at all macabre.

The Annunciation, a 1956 drawing, is a dramatic rethinking of a classic scene in renaissance art between the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, one we associate with serene acceptance. Dali interprets it as a shattering moment as the two fall apart and dissolve together into molecular particles, a train-wreck of body parts, a bunch of proffered lilies alone intact after the life-changing announcement. He does something similar with Saint Anne and the Infant (1960), an homage to Leonardo.

Dali had by then returned to his Catholic heritage. He seemed to embrace aspects that involved guilt and suffering, not redemption, those elements that stressed the human component of faith. Gala became the madonna, more a savior than Christ.

And why not?

Their temporal life, apart first and then together, as told in this exhibition that ends with a gallery of photographs and a brief documentary film — was more fantastical than any imagined heaven.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]

.If you go

Women: Dali's View

The show is at the Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, through Sept. 21. Hours : 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday, and noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $15 adults, $13.50 seniors, military and police, and $10 ages 10 to 18. (727) 823-3767; salvador

Dali's journey from fear to affection in his focus on women 06/21/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 21, 2008 4:30am]
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