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Dali through fresh eyes

Published Aug. 28, 2005

Salvador Dali raised questions and eyebrows throughout his life and continued to do so after his death in 1989 at 88.

Given the images (flies, genitalia, nightmarish distortions), the lifestyle (luxury suites, unsavory hangers-on), his wife Gala (and the ever-younger men who flocked to her), shady business practices and Dali's disloyalty to just about everyone he ever knew, it could never have been otherwise.

But artists have often been provocateurs, even disappointments as human beings, and most critics have given their personal lives a wide berth, judging art on its own terms and merits.

Art history has not looked generously on Dali's work, often preferring to discuss it within the context of his life. The best he usually gets is recognition as a leader in the surrealist art movement in the first half of the 20th century. His best work, many critics have agreed, was behind him by 1940.

Later work, the argument goes, was derivative, a remining of images that were rare and brilliant on early, smaller canvases but later became bloated and sensationalized. And his reverence for Old Masters, seen both in visual references and his technical prowess, seemed quaint, almost stuntish when viewed against the abstract expressionists who were so popular in the 1950s, or overwrought and sentimental compared with the cool cynicism of pop art.

But two major exhibitions this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth, could mean new respect for Dali.

"Dali: A Retrospective" opened Sept. 10 in Venice, Italy, and travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in February. Closer to home, "Dali and Mass Culture" opens Friday at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, the exhibit's only U.S. venue.

Both exhibitions are ambitious in size and intent. "Dali: A Retrospective" contains about 250 works, excluding documents, books and other support materials, and gives viewers a comprehensive study of his artwork, including most of his major paintings, borrowed from museums around the world and the Dali Museum here.

The "Mass Culture" exhibition, which recently closed in Madrid, also features paintings and drawings, but its focus is on his forays into advertising, filmmaking, design and photography. It is, according to many who have seen it in Spain, stunning.

"It's sensational," said Robert Rosenblum, author, art professor at New York University and a curator at the Guggenheim Museum. "I lived through all the snotty attitudes about Dali in the second half of the 20th century. I'm ready for a total revision of Dali."

William Jeffett, curator of special exhibitions at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, says, "Rather than a question of Dali being reappraised, I think he's central to a more important concept of changing art and the rigid categorizations of artists."

"Dali and Mass Culture" should be vastly entertaining, a sprawling bazaar of a show that brings together the artist's far-ranging interests, from graphic design to quantum physics, dime-store postcards to avant-garde filmmaking.

Among the hundreds of works and objects on display:

+ Un Chien Andalou, a collaboration between Dali and Luis Bunuel, and Destino, a short animated film by Dali and Walt Disney, completed by the Disney Studio posthumously, will be continuously shown in the museum, along with a screen test Andy Warhol made of Dali, set designs for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound and photographs of Dali with the movie's stars, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.

+ Parts of the facade of the Dream of Venus Pavilion that Dali designed for the 1939 New York World's Fair will be re-created.

+ Dali works that show his fascination with Jean-Francois Millet's popular 19th century painting The Angelus.

+ Products he designed, such as accessories, fabric and wall coverings, decorative objects, along with dozens of promotional materials such as a record album for Jackie Gleason.

+ Collaged paintings in which he appropriated popular images, prefiguring the pop art movement.

+ Photographic projects with Philippe Haulsman.

Dali was a voracious consumer who saw early on the power of mass production and communication to influence taste and opinion. Even art. What elitists spurned, Dali saw as worthy of aesthetic examination.

"It was considered crass," says Jeffett of his more commercial work. "Today it looks really interesting and not crass at all. He was someone who was really curious about a lot of things, who was preoccupied with modern life."

His critics have said for decades that Dali was a genius at self-promotion, establishing a cult of personality because he had no worthy creative output to promote. Even those who admire his surrealist work from the 1920s and 1930s often denigrate it because they believe surrealism itself was only a minor movement.

Peter Schjeldahl, art critic of The New Yorker magazine, wrote in 2002, "even at (surrealism's) most entertaining, as in Dali, it groans with dated conceits."

"However ingenious his pictorial puns, tropes and double meanings may be" wrote Robert Hughes in The Guardian earlier this year, "they do not necessarily amount to much as painting."

"Dali was his own worst enemy in a way in terms of his later critical reputation," says Dawn Ades, a Dali scholar and curator of the retrospective. "He distanced himself from modern painting _ indeed, attacked it mercilessly _ and, given the dominance of Picasso and Matisse in the history of 20th century art, he has inevitably been out on a limb. He was opposed to the modernist insistence on the medium for its own sake and always wanted his paintings to have meaning."

"Dali was a critic of modern art in ways that are particularly resonant now," says Jeffett. "He once said most modern art is decoration. He believed art is a way of thinking, not just a manual exercise or an arrangement of color and form on a canvas. He asserted the importance of technique when it wasn't the most fashionable thing to talk about."

"How did it get to this?" askes Charles Stuckey, an author and expert in 20th century art who has had senior curatorial positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and now is a professor at the institute's art school. "Dali has to rate in my mind as one of the top five artists of the 20th century."

The viewing and buying public has always loved Dali. He is probably the most popular 20th century artist in the world, his famous imagery, such as the soft watches, transcending cultures and languages. And in his early years as an artist, the critical world loved him, too.

His paintings from the 1920s, and his collaboration with Luis Bunuel on the groundbreaking film Un Chien Andalou brought him international attention and praise. He wrote several intellectual treatises that are admired even today. But though surrealism launched him and brought him early prominence, he was far too much of an egoist, and far too ambitious, to stay long within an ideological box, even one as big as surrealism was at the time.

The French writer Guillaume Apollinaire coined the word surrealism in 1917 to describe a new type of artistic expression in which the objective, external world and the subjective, individual psyche "collaborated" to form a new "truth" beyond realism. Another writer, Andre Breton, appropriated it to baptize a literary and political movement that was, among other things, a revolt against the conventional assumptions of bourgeois life.

Intellectuals and artists flocked to Paris to join the new movement, among them the young Catalonian, Salvador Dali, in his 20s and mightily ambitious. He soon became a leading light in the movement, though, as Fiona Bradley points out in her book, Surrealism, it "was never a style as such, and surrealist art took many different forms." Dali was particularly interested in the writings of Sigmund Freud, and he used Freud's theories on the interpretations of dreams and retrieval of memories to develop his famous "paranoiac-critical method" seen in landmark paintings such as The First Days of Spring (1929), which is rich in images of free association. That the painting includes a small photograph of the artist as a child and a commercial illustration of a cruise-ship deck party collaged onto the canvas among the sexually loaded references is an early intimation of his easy integration of "high" and "low" art.

The surrealists and Breton ultimately repudiated him for what they considered fascist sympathies that overrode allegiance to the surrealists' left-wing political agenda. But Dali didn't need them anymore. The world was ready to heap on him the adulation he craved.

Dali, now accompanied by his muse and wife, the Russian-born Gala, took New York by storm in 1934, the first of many visits. After seeing an exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery, art critic Edward Alden Jewell of the New York Times called him "one of the greatest, a magnificent draughtsman." Thanks to Levy's promotion of Dali beginning in the early 1930s, and an exhibition of modern art at the Wadsworth Atheneum that included Dali, the artist was already popular with the American public. The Persistence of Memory, purchased by Levy in 1931, was widely known and admired.

In 1936, Man Ray's photograph of Dali landed on the cover of Time magazine. In 1939, he was commissioned to design a store window for Bonwit Teller in New York, then was arrested when he broke it after window dressers made unauthorized changes. He had lucrative gallery exhibitions. He was hired to design a surrealist pavilion for the 1939 New York World's Fair, called the Dream of Venus, which he filled with tableaux of strangely juxtaposed objects and, most sensationally, bare-breasted women floating in pools wearing hosiery painted to look like a piano keyboard, or lounging on a red satin bed as Venus.

Dali was coming under fire for his relentless self-promotion, but his celebrity also led to commercial partnerships. And commercial they no doubt were, but creative and innovative, too, on Dali's own eccentric terms.

The covers he designed for Vogue and Town & Country magazines are both glamorous and intellectual. A campaign for Bryans hosiery featured the standard disembodied, stocking-clad leg that Dali juxtaposed with his provocative iconography. He worked with designer Elsa Schiaparelli on fabrics and accessories, inspiring some of her most memorable fashions. Never a photographer himself, he partnered with Philippe Haulsman on a series of remarkable photographs featuring the artist (who else?) cavorting with cats, lunging in the air to escape a gush of water thrown at them. He was involved in a number of television ads in the 1970s. One he made for Alka-Seltzer has Dali drawing on a model's body, then dousing her with a bucket of yellow paint to signify the overall effectiveness of the remedy. Viewers were put off, and the company stopped running it.

As much as he yearned to pursue filmmaking, Dali never made a great success in Hollywood. Collaborations with the Marx Brothers and Walt Disney were never completed. Most of his work on the design for the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound wound up on the cutting room floor.

But in his failures are the evidence that he never abandoned his artistic standards. The problem was probably that in most cases he simply wasn't commercial enough. His fascination with popular culture and the ways it could be appropriated for artistic purposes seem prescient today. His product endorsement and manipulation of his celebrity, scorned in his time, are standard modus operandi for savvy artists today.

By the time of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941, Dali was a celebrity who had burned a lot of personal bridges. His relations with his father and sister, living in Spain, were strained. Old friends and patrons who had been early cheerleaders were dismissed. His ballast was his wife, Gala, whom many blamed for the artist's descent into mediocrity.

"Gala was the issue for many people," says Stuckey. "Here's this brilliant Catalonian who was full of promise, then one day this vixen came along and ruined him. It's terribly unfair. On the contrary, she participated so fully. (After 1930) he cosigned his works saying, in effect, she deserved half credit for the creative act."

The dynamic of their relationship was unusual. Ian Gibson, who wrote an exhaustively researched book, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali, published in 1997, chronicled their sad and tawdry journey into old age _ the quarrels and money-grubbing, the retinue of hangers-on they supported in return for attention, the publicity stunts.

Reynolds Morse, a major collector of Dali and co-founder with his wife Eleanor of the St. Petersburg museum, wrote in his journal in 1980 that the artist was surrounded by "his transvestites, seedy models at his $3,000 Sunday dinners at Trader Vic's . . . with his paid companions and other freeloaders, all vacuous in the extreme but hungry."

Worse, as his creative powers declined and the couple's taste for luxurious living continued, Gala seems to have goaded him into business arrangements that would compromise his reputation, such as signing blank sheets of paper, thousands of them, that would be sold and used to make fake prints.

Dali continued to paint serious works throughout the 1950s and into the early 1970s, though he was increasingly marginalized by critics. He described his mostly large-scale paintings as classical and mystical. They generally sold for high prices, his public popularity intact. But a retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1979 concentrated on his surrealist period and almost ignored four decades of subsequent work.

He realized a long-held dream and opened the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain, in 1974 but the last two decades of Dali's life were mostly fraught with illness, insecurity and long separations from Gala, who retreated to a house some distance from the one they shared in Port Lligat, Spain, to entertain her own, self-serving entourage. She died in 1982, and the artist was distraught.

"If Gala were to disappear," he had said almost 20 years earlier, "no one could take her place. I'd be completely alone."

Which he was, emotionally, if not physically, until his own death seven years later.

"Dali was never given credit for his character," says Stuckey. "He's associated with moral ambiguity. So much of his work is pansexual and fails to conform to the Lutheran or Catholic or whatever dream of conformity. He had aesthetic and moral character, and I think he saw the two as deeply connected. He had the honesty to say he had grotesque, unspeakable fantasies. He took more chances than today's artists. I think the sheer range of his talents tends to create a situation where we don't take them seriously."

"It takes a while to get rid of prejudices," says Rosenblum. "So much of his work is really not known and is waiting to be discovered. His later work is filled with visual innovations. No one has looked at the whole and tried to reconstruct what his real legacy is."

Both men agree that one hindrance to a broad reappraisal is that so much of his work is concentrated in two cities, St. Petersburg and Figueres, both far from major art markets, in museums that don't have the resources for extensive curatorial research. But both believe that sooner or later, Dali will get his critical due.

"I think we have brought enough great works of all periods together to make it possible for critics seriously to review their positions," says Ades, curator of the retrospective, "which has really not been done before, certainly in the U.S."

Robert Hughes, no fan of the artist, recently wrote that Dali's Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, "not Picasso's Guernica, is modern art's strongest testimony on . . . war in general."

Stuckey is concerned that "Dali and Mass Culture" will reinforce the opinion that Dali was seduced by commercial opportunities.

Perhaps, but it's just as possible that it will illuminate Dali's protean output and brilliant multitasking.

"I predict a lot of younger artists will be really impressed," says Rosenblum. "Dali offers endless ideas to artists who weren't born with any prejudices.

"As an art historian, the one thing I've learned is there is a constant revision of the past and of what seems to be fresh and relevant. Salvador Dali couldn't be more right for a complete reassessment."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or

Salvador Dali, set design for the film Spellbound, 1945, oil on masonite.

Salvador Dali, "Dali" perfume and bottle, inspired by his oil painting, Apparition of the Aphrodite of Cnidus, c. 1981.

Salvador Dali, cover of Vogue magazine, April 1, 1944.

David McCabe, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, 1964.

Salvador Dali, cover of TV Guide magazine, June 1968.


"Dali and Mass Culture" opens Friday at the Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, and continues through Jan. 12. Museum hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday with extended hours to 8 p.m. on Thursday, and noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $13 adults ($5 after 5 p.m. Thursday), $11 seniors, military and police, $7 students and $3 children ages 5 to 10. (727) 823-3767 or