Friday, February 23, 2018
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Paintings on loan to Dalí Museum prove we don't know artist as well as we think

ST. PETERSBURG

When visiting the Dalí Museum, you probably have had to negotiate the crowds in the permanent collection galleries to get a good look at the paintings, which are hung fairly close together.

You will have no such problem with "The Royal Inheritance: Dalí Works From the Spanish National Collection." Twelve paintings luxuriate in near-solitary splendor on the walls of the special exhibitions galleries. Though the bounty of white space around them is nice, the works themselves generally don't require it and wouldn't have had it. But they do because a show of neo-pop artist Jeff Koons also scheduled to open this month had to be postponed.

So enjoy the breathing room along with two short, lovely videos about Dalí's beloved Catalonian landscape that inspired him.

The paintings are on loan from the trove Salvador Dalí bequeathed to Spain after his death in 1989, and none have been exhibited before in the United States. They're early and late works, complementing the Dalí's collection, which has a dearth especially in Dalí's final paintings, said William Jeffett, co-curator of the show with Joan Kropf.

As always when I see works by Dalí (1904-1989) that I haven't seen before, I find myself reassessing the artist's legacy. It only gets better.

These paintings juxtapose his innate talent with a ferocious curiosity that didn't abate even during his final, debilitated years.

Here is the young student, his gift in thrall to earlier masters of the still life and the nude. At 14, he was painting more-than-competent arrangements of fruits, vegetables and fish, subjects readily available in the family pantry.

Six years later, in 1924, he's an art student in Madrid and far worldlier, palling around with filmmaker Luis Buñuel and writer Federico Garcia Lorca, with whom he had a passionate (though, according to Dalí, unconsummated) friendship. The depth of his feeling for Lorca is perhaps evident in that the two nudes in this show were owned by Lorca, probably gifts from Dalí, who famously gave little away. One is typical student art, a posed female draped in red looking like a class assignment. The other is more interesting: a partial closeup from the back of a woman in the sea, her hand resting on her buttocks. Dalí would often paint women from the back, and this seems to be a precursor. In the distance is a Catalonian landscape he would return to for the rest of his life.

Abstract Composition is an odd painting almost out of place even among the wide exploration of styles Dalí used through the years. Painted in 1928 while he was still very young, it's perhaps influenced by the work of Joan Miro, a fellow Catalonian who was a few years older and had moved to Paris. Its spare black shapes on white, crudely painted, are a disavowal of his talent as a classical painter. But the painting has something in common with works in the permanent collection from that period in which he uses rough, found materials, a technique which had already been used by older artists such as Pablo Picasso.

A year later, his life-changing liaison with Gala Eluard began. Dalí did many portraits of many people, but the only really good ones are of his wife and muse, and the permanent collection has many of them with Gala either as herself or as a symbolic figure. These two portraits from his mature period are different from any in the collection in their treatment. The first, from 1939, shows a turbaned Gala, draped in a rich red against a black background. By then he had painted his Surrealist masterpiece, The Persistence of Memory, and been expelled from the Surrealist Movement for straying from its ideology. Though it has Dalí's exquisite brushwork and is signed and dated, it looks unfinished, especially Gala's eyes. Those wild eyes! The painting has the feeling, with that detail and the enormous amount of black background, of one of Francisco Goya's magnificently disturbing Black Paintings.

Three works are from 1983, the last year Dalí painted. He was physically ill and emotionally devastated by Gala's death in 1982. Still, his elastic mind continued to stretch with new ideas, especially the very complicated ones of Rene Thom's catastrophe theory, which is far too complicated to explain here except to say that it involved forms that Dalí incorporated, the "swallow's tail" and the "cusp," a curve the artist interpreted as the curving f-holes of a cello.

From this period, Bed and Two Tables Ferociously Attacking a Cello is atypical Dalí, which is to say it is pure Dalí, an artist who refused to be categorized. It appears to have as its starting point Vincent van Gogh's painting of his bedroom in Arles; Dalí's bed and tables resemble van Gogh's as does the coarser style in which they're worked. Dalí's scene is one of chaos, though, with everything looking as if a major earthquake is in progress. The vase on the table spews its water much as the carafe does in his great 1956 painting, Still Life — Fast Moving. Dalí used the image of an egg a lot; for him it had multiple meanings, mostly involving life and fertility. Here, the egg splatters to the floor, about to be annihilated as well. The scene shifts and floats above a landscape in the lower right-hand corner where the expected Dalí style is reasserted in flawless, undetectable brush strokes.

Maybe I'm throwing in a red herring in introducing van Gogh to the discussion, since he was not on Dalí's list of A-painters as were Vermeer and Velazquez. That he painted a bedroom, to which he would be increasingly confined, is telling, though. And that he would destroy it and some of his recurring symbols seems a lot like an artistic flipoff to death.

The works in this collection don't qualify as his greatest or, in some cases, even his better ones. But any opportunity to round out our knowledge of where he had been and where he was going is fascinating. And at the end, we see that Dalí wasn't going gently into any good night.

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

 
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