Early Dali: Work shows a light from within

Salvador Dali, The Basket of Bread, 1926, oil on wood panel

Salvador Dali Museum

Salvador Dali, The Basket of Bread, 1926, oil on wood panel

Art in Focus is an occasional feature that examines a work in the permanent collection of one of our area museums. In advance of the opening of the Salvador Dali Museum's new facility in January, we will highlight some of its more important works during the coming months.

Salvador Dali became rich and famous in part by public cultivation of his eccentric persona. But beyond his voracious appetite for celebrity was a serious, hardworking artist whose restless genius led him to constant re-evaluations of his aesthetic and intense curiosity about both intellectual movements and popular culture. • The Salvador Dali Museum is one of the largest repositories of his work in the world, with art spanning his career along with personal papers and materials (called ephemera) that document his life and career. • Among the many masterpieces in the museum is The Basket of Bread, also one of the most beloved. It's easy to see why.

The artist

Salvador Dali was born in 1904 in Figueres, a small Catalonian town in northeastern Spain, to an affluent family. He spent his childhood there and at the family's summer home in the coastal village of Cadeques. The landscapes of those places would figure prominently in Dali's work throughout his life.

His artistic precocity was encouraged by his parents, who provided professional training for him. His rise to fame began with his first one-man show in 1925 in Barcelona. Three years later, his star climbed even higher when three of his works were selected for the annual Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh. The Basket of Bread was one of them.

In 1929, Dali settled in Paris, which was the art capital of the world, and met his lifelong muse, and later his wife, Gala. Dali became affiliated with a group of young writers and artists called the Surrealists. He became the movement's most visible proponent until a disagreement with Andre Breton, its leader, led to his expulsion in 1934.

No matter; he had begun moving in a different artistic direction and into international prominence. The couple settled in the United States in 1940, where they lived until 1948. During that time, Dali was widely exhibited, including a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

They returned to Europe at the end of World War II and made Spain their primary home in 1955. He established a museum in Figueres in 1974. Gala died in 1982. Dali, sick and reclusive for the last years of his life, died in January 1989.

The painting

Dali created The Basket of Bread in 1926 when he was 22 years old. It's a virtuoso turn for one so young, and almost self-consciously academic. He had studied the Old Masters in school and had already experimented with the looser styles of the Impressionists, dabbled in cubism, and wanted to do something that technically reflected the influences of artists he admired, especially the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaran and the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

This still life is in their Baroque styles. It is of a common thing, bread, sliced and partly eaten. Dali would say much later that it was one of his oldest fetishistic themes. He did use bread in several other major paintings in which the Eucharistic associations are more pronounced. But probably, in his youth, he mostly wanted to show his mastery of a subject and style.

The technique

The Basket of Bread is painted in oil on a wood panel. Dali used a type of binding medium for the oil paint that produced an even richer surface. The basket and tablecloth are meticulously detailed but, oddly, the bread has a slick surface without any of the crumbs we would expect. The slices, even the piece to the right that has been torn, have a luminous glow that seems to emanate from within.

The painting contains a trove of references, stylistic and thematic, that would emerge during Dali's classical period 20 years later.

The history

The painting's earliest history is unrecorded. Dali apparently held onto it until he moved to the United States in the 1940s and sold it to a private collector at an unknown date. That owner lent it for shows throughout the next decade.

Reynolds Morse, a wealthy Cleveland industrialist, and his wife, Eleanor, both art lovers, had first seen Dali's work at a museum exhibition in 1941. They purchased their first Dali painting the next year and more every year thereafter until they were collecting him exclusively. They purchased The Basket of Bread in 1955, at that point interested in amassing a comprehensive body of his work that went back in time as well as forward.

Reynolds Morse had a famous aversion to lending works that stemmed from an incident in 1966 when a photographer was shooting this painting at a New York show. The hot camera lights were positioned too close and caused a section to melt. It was restored but over the years, parts of it began flaking again. It was sent to the Dali Foundation in Spain for conservation that preserved the original integrity of the work.

Even though Morse relaxed his opposition to lending before his death in 2000, The Basket of Bread rarely leaves the Dali Museum and only for important exhibitions.

The expert

Much of the information and insights here comes from Joan Kropf, deputy director and chief curator of the Salvador Dali Museum, who probably knows as much about the artist as anyone in the world. In 1971, Kropf was a 24-year-old art student in Cleveland and a Dali fan when she was hired by the Morses to help organize their collection for public viewing. Kropf has been with the collection ever since. She, the Morses and the collection moved to St. Petersburg in 1982 when the Salvador Dali Museum opened on the downtown waterfront, and she will oversee the placement of the collection in the new museum building a few blocks north, which is scheduled to open in January.

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

The Salvador Dali Museum is at 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with extended hours to 8 p.m. Thursday, and noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $17 adults, $14.50 seniors, $12 ages 10 to 18 and $4 ages 5 to 9. From 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, admission is $5. salvadordalimuseum.org or (727) 823-3767.

Early Dali: Work shows a light from within 04/10/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 4:37pm]

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