Salvador Dalí (1904-89) is always labeled "Spanish surrealist artist," inadequate shorthand to explain his style (though, yes, I use it myself all the time). The truth about his art is far more complex and nuanced. His questing, creative soul was too expansive for the narrow, pure confines of the surrealist movement of his youth. He was an independent, breakout star of the pack and could never return to it. In 1934, he was formally expelled from the surrealist group, specifically for his ambivalence toward political issues. But he never lost his love for playing with our perceptions and assumptions in looking at the world, especially the worlds he created on canvas.
"Marvels of Illusion" at the Dalí Museum examines the artist's most famous mess-with-your-mind technique, the optical illusion. It's designed so that you can just have fun (kids will love it) or go all-out wonk with the science.
The centerpiece is Gala Contemplating You, an interactive installation based on the 1976 work Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko). It's one of the most popular paintings at the museum and can be, for some, its most confounding. It shows a nude Gala, Dalí's wife and muse, standing at a window with her back to us. The wall surrounding the window is composed of colored squares, painted as tiles. At 20 meters, about 66 feet, Gala and the tiles become an image of Abraham Lincoln. It's an extraordinary illusion. The painting is on a gallery wall, next to a similarly sized screen with a reproduction of it. A booth is set up for a viewer to be photographed. The photograph is fed into a computer and then projected onto the wall as a pixilated image similar to the Lincoln image. People can participate in a virtual experience from almost anywhere in the world, too, with a downloaded app. (Go to thedali.org.)
The young computer wizards who created the program came to the press preview and one of them said, "We analyzed the image and removed Lincoln. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. It took us weeks on the computer. Dalí did it all without a computer."
The lone work not by Dalí is Autumn, a 16th century painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo on loan from the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. His fame rested on a series of allegorical portraits that look like normal heads but at a certain distance become piles of fruits and vegetables pertaining to a season. He was, understandably, a favorite of and an inspiration to surrealist artists.
Dalí's famous-paranoiac critical method was employed in his double-image paintings such as Old Age, Adolescence, Infancy (The Three Ages), which he created while visiting New York around the time of his expulsion from the surrealist circle. The method refers to the irrational process in which our brains strain to find links between unrelated things. Dalí exploited that tendency for many of his works. In Three Ages, a landscape and figural elements become three heads, for example.
He created a lithograph series titled "Changes in Great Masterpieces" in which he used portraits and images of Old Masters for more optical illusions. In the one with Rembrandt on view here the initial composition is that of the artist peering through a door. Squint and you see the door and hallway become extensions of the portrait itself.
After a bit, you might begin to feel that all this visual hide-and-seek is stuntish.
There is always Dalí's ego, and his flamboyance, of course. But I don't believe he was just showing off his remarkable skills. Dalí's brilliance extended to his deep studies in scientific theories that he interpreted in his art. And he saw things in images that most people wouldn't until he created works to illustrate his visions. Prints by others that he painted or collaged over create not so much an optical illusion as an altered reality.
The museum has purchased 10 LED screens that are debuting in this exhibition. Information about the art and the science is rotated on the screens, sometimes with diagrams and illustrations. I loved reading all of them but sometimes had to wait for the whole program to loop and begin again because I didn't read a screen quickly enough. They're wonky fun, too.
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.