If you haven't revisited the Dalí Museum in a while, the next few months are a good time to do so. Through September, a heroically sized and conceived painting is on loan from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Canada.
Santiago El Grande is indeed grand, measuring about 10 by 13 feet. In it Saint James, the patron saint of Spain, emerges from the sea riding a white horse and brandishing a large crucifix instead of a sword. Behind him, a Gothic architectural construction bursts with flashes of light and misty figures. In the foreground is the artist's wife and muse Gala as witness, staring pensively from a dense, shroud-like garment.
That background resonates at the Dalí Museum. It resembles the Glass Enigma, architect Yann Weymouth's cascading glass construction that pays homage to the geodesic dome Dalí built onto the roof of his museum in Figueras, Spain.
But it's only a resemblance. Dalí modeled it on a logarithmic version of the jasmine flower, his favorite fragrance, and he also positions a jasmine blossom in the center of the atomic maelstrom created by the horse's hooves. (Dalí was intensely interested in atomic theory.) The animal's harness is clasped with a scallop shell, Saint James' emblem.
The proportions and scale add to the painting's grandeur. Compared to the figure of Gala and the boulders, Santiago and his steed appear larger than life, poised on what looks like the edge of the world. The struts of the architectural element, which is also immense, converge at the spot behind Santiago's head, and he's illuminated by light emanating from the crucifix. Though the sea is calm, the sky roils with activity. The painting's near-monochromatic blue palette adds to the drama that seems to prefigure Saint James' ascent to heaven led by Christ.
It was painted in 1957, one of the early works in a group known as masterworks because of their size. Except for the double image of angels on the horse's neck — the optical illusion was a visual trick at which Dalí was a master — it's a painting in the grand tradition of 15th and 16th century High Renaissance art with its luminous colors and classically rendered subjects.
Dalí sold the painting to Lady Dunn, widow of Sir James Dunn; the couple had been among his patrons for more than a decade before Lord Dunn died in 1956. The story might be apocryphal, but the two men were said to have met in the 1940s while dining at the same restaurant. Dalí reportedly stared for a long time at Lord Dunn and finally approached him, declaring him to be the incarnation of a Roman Caesar. And that's how Dalí eventually painted him in a portrait that's also on loan at the museum. Its pendant (or companion painting) is a portrait of Lady Dunn.
Few of Dalí's commissioned portraits rise to the same aesthetic level as his other work, and these are not among them. Dalí never seemed able to translate his surrealist vision into that genre. Those of Gala were always the exceptions. Good portraiture requires the artist to be aesthetically passive-aggressive: Go for a mind-meld empathy with the subject while holding fast to the egotism necessary to staying true to one's own vision. Dalí was probably far too self-absorbed for such psychological probes and sympathetic depth on another's behalf. With Gala, emotional bridges were unnecessary; they were already of one mind.
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Dalí subtitled Lord Dunn's painting La Turbie, referencing the city in southwest France where Emperor Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire, built a famous monument to his conquests. Though possessed of technical virtuosity, it borders on caricature. Dunn, wearing a noble expression, also wears what is surely intended to be a majestic garment. Instead, it resembles a gold lamé bathrobe more suited to Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas than the Roman Forum. He lounges, with soigné nonchalance, impervious to the occasional conceptual giggle. He loved it.
Lady Dunn's portrait is not quite the mashup of solemnity and kitsch. She sits side-saddle, holding a falcon, in a forest clearing from which woodland animals — a rabbit, deer, frog and squirrel — peek. But look at the horse! Is there not a merry, even ironic, twinkle in its eye? I hear steed whispering: "Ain't she grand?"
Perhaps telling is that Dalí Museum founders Reynolds and Eleanor Morse never commissioned portraits from him. They preferred to collect paintings that came from his imagination. And so we have some of his best work in the St. Petersburg museum. Number Santiago El Grande, though here only temporarily, in that category, too.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.