Lowbrow meets lowbrow: Rocky emulators sprint up the visage of Salvador Dali.

Recently I came across a live webcam of a construction site in St. Petersburg, Florida.  I was surprised to find not only active workers but fairly interesting activities going on, and I zoomed in to watch a pair of laborers installing triangular glass panes into a large, metallic lattice that bulged from a concrete edifice.  The structure looked somewhat odd for a conventional building but rather conservative for its intended purpose:  the next home of the Salvador Dali Museum.  Given the famous surrealist’s iconic imagery of melting watches and drooping appendages propped up by crutches, one might have expected a design that abandoned recognizable geometric forms altogether.

The new facility, slated to open in 2011, is only a few blocks from the current museum, but it will offer fifty percent more gallery space and more than twice the overall area.  More importantly, it will provide robust shelter from violent storms for its collection in a way that the present building does not;  so vulnerable is the existing museum to damage that its exhibits must be removed and stored during severe weather warnings.  Constructing a more secure home for these treasures sounds sensible to me, because I would hate for the world to lose the original work of such an incredibly talented and imaginative artist.  I have been captivated by Dali’s art all of my life, and obviously many people feel the same way.  Why, then, do I have the nagging sense that serious critics would dismiss his oeuvre as pandering to the lowest common denominator?

Perhaps because it does. The great paradox of Dali’s work is that it can be, at once, indecipherably bizarre and totally accessible.  Within the same painting one can find elements that have a cartoonish stylization alongside realistic details.  The arresting effect is illogical imagery with a hyper-realistic feel, the sort of perception that only makes sense to us within a dream but is incomprehensible to the waking mind.  That’s no accident, because Dali was trying to bring his subconscious to the surface, no matter how offensive or blasphemous.  His images have a primal appeal, and one does not need an understanding of technique or composition to find them intriguing.

At the same time, Dali’s technical brilliance is obvious.  Though the appeal may be primal, the art is not primitive.  His artistic skill would have allowed him to master any genre;  he might have prospered as a quiet painter of landscapes or commissioned portraits.  As my father remarked after viewing some of Dali’s less surreal work, “I had no idea that he could paint so well.”  But Dali certainly could paint well, and unlike many of the world’s self-proclaimed geniuses, he had the talent and discipline to back up his apparent bragadoccio.

Therein is one of the reasons why his legacy is scorned by some:  Dali was a relentless and shameless self-promoter, sometimes referring majestically to himself as “The Dali.”  Long before metamorphosizing pop stars began to regard their own bodies as artistic creations, Dali was a walking, talking, one-man surrealistic exhibitionist.  He accented his flamboyant mustache with maniacally wide-open eyes when photographed, ambled about in shoes that curled up at the toes, and made provocative statements like, “The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.”

When I was a senior in high school, I somehow found myself president of our chapter of the National Honor Society.  It was a position I didn’t take very seriously, having been put off by a whiff of smug elitism that I had perceived from some club members the previous year.  Still, as president I was expected to do something, and organizing an intellectually stimulating field trip was suggested by our advisor.  Thus I was quite excited to learn about the existence of a Dali museum in a suburb of Cleveland, a possible day trip from our school.  Alas, my information was dated, and I made my inquiry four years too late.  The Salvador Dali Museum had moved to St. Petersburg.

Seventeen years would pass before I finally made my way there, albeit accompanied by my wife and our two daughters instead of the National Honor Society.  We were spending some time on Anna Maria Island in the Gulf of Mexico, and it seemed a shame to be across Tampa Bay from the Dali Museum and not visit it.  I will always be grateful that we took the time to spend an afternoon there.  There is nothing that compares with personally viewing original art, not only because reproductions rarely do justice to their subjects, but also due to the value of seeing an artist’s work in context.  The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, a further meditation on the famous limp watches, is a mere 10 x 13 inches, just a tad bigger than its well-known predecessor.  It is an odd feeling to realize that an image that looms so large in popular culture is actually quite small.  In contrast, enormous canvasses like The Dream of Christopher Columbus and The Hallucinogenic Toreador (each about 13 feet tall and 10 feet wide) are breathtaking masterworks that cannot be faithfully duplicated in an art book.  When closing time came around, I left the museum reluctantly, wishing that I could always have it available to peruse at my leisure.

As it happened, I had another opportunity to see Dali’s art just two years later.  The Philadelphia Museum of Art was the exclusive American venue for a Dali centennial retrospective, a huge collection featuring pieces that had never before been exhibited in the United States.  My wife and I used it as an excuse for a whirlwind spring break tour of Philadelphia, rashly driving across the Pennsylvania Turnpike with no hotel reservations only to luck out with a discounted room at a nice hotel in the heart of the historic district.  We slept within the same block as the buried bones of Ben Franklin, gawked at Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, marvelled at the interred residents in the aisles of Christ Church, and indulged in authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwiches.  But we were there for the Dali.

The Philadelphia exhibition was extensive and crowded.  Although we had timed tickets, we still had to stand in line to be admitted, heightening our anticipation.  The wait was well worth it.  With portable audio guides offering insightful and revelatory commentary, the experience was a crash course in all things Dali.  I don’t think it would have been possible for anyone to travel through the galleries and not be impressed by the collection.  Even if none of the varied subject matter suited your taste, you would have had to admire the artist’s cleverness and ingenuity.  Many paintings featuring deftly interwoven multiple images were on view, and one room included a large stereo pair entitled The Christ of Gala.  As a fan of both Dali and stereo images, it doubled my pleasure to cross my eyes and see the work shift into three dimensions.

We wandered through the exhibit for more than two hours before we started to feel a bit overwhelmed.  So much Dali in such concentration can be a bit of a sensory challenge, and we both noted a feeling of exhaustion.  Whether it was physical or mental, we were not sure, but our surreal appetites had definitely been sated.  Lumbering somewhat dazed through the last gallery of later works, we paused at a display case near the exit.  Within it was a holographic cylinder containing a three-dimensional image.  Titled First Cylindric Chronohologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain (I guess that distinguishes it from all of the subsequent cylindric chronohologram portraits of Alice Cooper’s brain), it shows the shock rocker sitting cross-legged and shirtless, holding a Venus de Milo statuette and wearing a tiara.  As a fan of both Dali and Alice Cooper, I was once again doubly pleased.

“See,” I pointed out to my patient wife, “this is why some people will never take Dali seriously.”


Sitting surreally in St. Petersburg.