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To see the artist in the company of his peers is to gain a deeper appreciation of the range and breadth of Surrealism.

Will the real Surrealist please stand up? If you expect to see only Salvador Dali, look again _ in the museum that bears his name.

For its most ambitious show yet, the Salvador Dali Museum now presents the artist in the context of his peers, showing the vast diversity of expression within the movement.

More important, it gives viewers the chance to probe works by artists who had a profound effect on art in the first half of the 20th century, and for that matter, ever since. Surrealism, along with abstraction, were the major trends in art prior to World War II. Both were established in Paris, the center of the art world until the war brought German occupation, moving art and many of the artists westward to New York.

The survey was assembled by the museum's curator of exhibitions, William Jeffett. He borrowed heavily from two highly recognized Surrealist collections, the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, and also brought in works from other sources, public and private.

The museum has mounted other overviews of Surrealism, ever since its empty-box interior was transformed by partitions in 1995. The result doubled hanging space and made room for visiting shows to augment the permanent collection which remains on view. The Gilbert Kaplan collection of Surrealist prints, 1997, and the Penny and Elton Yasuna collection of the movement in America, 1998, both provided scholarly assessments. The current show is the first to probe the movement from its origins to the 1950s through many outstanding artworks.

And it has more popular appeal. Usually when works by Picasso, Miro, Magritte or de Chirico visit the bay area, they are lesser examples, and not particularly characteristic. But the works here are in their recognizable styles, and will bring sighs of satisfaction from those more used to seeing reproductions in textbooks or originals in other places. More to the point, they are appropriate to the show.

Surrealism, like all great movements in mainstream art, grew out of the forms and the forces that preceded it. The show traces those strains through Giorgio de Chirico, Pablo Picasso and the Dadaists, who had expressed both images and concepts that the Surrealists appropriated.

De Chirico is known for placing unrelated objects in landscapes of elongated perspective and heightened shadow. Melancholy is typical of his work. In fact, it is almost too typical; it is de Chirico imitating de Chirico. Back-dated to 1916, it was actually painted in 1938, perhaps because, as his work evolved, it lacked the mystery that was so marketable earlier. Jeffett speculates that the artist circulated new back-dated works to create an instability in the market for his paintings.

Dada was an attitude rather than a style, in which nonsense and nihilism were seen as suitable for expression in art. Man Ray, Francis Picabia and Max Ernst, in this show, were members of both groups. The most prominent Dadaist was Marcel Duchamp, represented by two small sculptures and a retrospective-in-a-box, a treat for Duchamp enthusiasts. While Surrealism is positive rather than negative, it too has a preoccupation with the absurd.

Why Picasso, the great Cubist? Jeffett explains that Picasso had broken ties with conventional representation, had reconstructed art into a "dazzling play of the imagination," and was "a significant point of reference." Fittingly, the first work in the show is a 1913 collage by Picasso, once owned by Andre Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement. Though Picasso was never an official member of the Surrealist movement, he was in several of their exhibitions.

These were the artists that Breton had in mind when, in 1924, he issued the Surrealist Manifesto, the movement's "birth certificate." Rooted in Freudian psychology with its basis in suppressed fears and sexual references, it took two distinct paths: The more accessible dream imagery, present in the works of Dali, Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Paul Delvaux, and the more abstract automatism, or expressions of the unconscious, truer to Breton's original concept, exemplified by Andre Masson and Joan Miro. Since the last show to appear on these walls was Masson alone, only one of his works appears currently.

Max Ernst is well-represented by several works that trace his career. The Kiss in the Night, (1927), seemingly an abstract, depicts the spread thighs of a woman, as does Picasso's Nude Woman Lying in the Sun (1932). Ernst's The Joy of Living, 1936, shows ominous insects in a lush forest setting, and recalls Surrealists' preoccupation with insects, especially the cannibalistic mating quirk of the praying mantis. He delivers quite a different message in Everyone Here Speaks Latin, painted in 1943 in the United States after he had immigrated to escape Nazism and the German occupation of Paris. His first wife had been murdered in a concentration camp.

In an intensely realistic style, popular Belgian artist Rene Magritte presents puzzles that are fun to figure out. How can a portrait show the back of a head, even in its reflection? Why is the light source of a sculpture outside the painting of the sculpture? When is a brick wall not a wall, but art? The solution to all these is that they are paintings, not reality. Magritte revels in the freedom of an adept artist.

Alberto Giacometti, known for the long, spindly figures of his later career, exhibits two chunky sculptures placed by a Picasso painting to show how they were both influenced by African art. Alexander Calder's mobile, The Spider, casting a shadow on the wall, again reminds us of the Surrealists' preoccupation with insects. Fantasy in sculpture, as shown here, was very much a part of Surrealism as it grew.

Boxes by Joseph Cornell contain assemblages of objects in unlikely combination. Though Cornell was an American, his inspiration goes back to Dada's penchant for found objects. They are installed in a "drawing room" that also contains cases of graphics and printed matter related to the movement. Peer into the opened magazines and exhibit catalogs, and you'll see photos of works in the show.

Works by Paul Delvaux, Julio Gonzalez, Roland Penrose and Pierre Roy add dimension and understanding for us. The biomorphic abstraction of Yves Tanguy and Chilean painter Roberto Matta Echaurren, usually known only as Matta, complete the exhibit.

The show has a disproportionate number of Cornell's works, while Jean Arp, a Dadaist and prominent early Surrealist, is noticeably missing. The few women Surrealists are represented solely by Kay Sage's 1958 painting.

Still, the show covers the many facets of Surrealism comprehensively. It has all of the educational value of the Kaplan and Yasuna shows, plus a broader appeal through the familiarity of the works. In setting Dali among his peers, it gives us a broader base to go back and look at the permanent collection.

So Dali won't be standing alone. He's in excellent company.

+ What: Masterpieces of Surrealism

+ Where: Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg

+ When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday; 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through April 16

+ Cost: adults, $9, discounts for others, half price after 5 p.m. Thursday

+ Catalog: $39.95

+ Curated by William Jeffett; organized by the Dali Museum; sponsored by Raymond James Financial

+ More Information: (727) 823-3767 (St. Petersburg)

Also on view

+ "Healing Hands," photography exhibition by San Antonio artist Kathy Vargas honoring area health care providers and curated by Maria Castagliola; in Raymond James Room

+ Salvador Dali, selections from the permanent collection