Monday, July 2, 2018

the difference between a madman and me

The deciding factor for me when offered a trip to Tampa was the proximity of Tampa's downtown to The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.  Would I drive 9 hours to visit a beach?  Maybe, but I'm pretty particular about my beaches and I have some great ones about 3 hours away.  But The Dali Museum has been on my "to do list" for a long time.

I could always draw and I took lots of art classes in school but it wasn't until high school that I was introduced to Salvador Dali, the crazy artist with the handlebar mustache.  Dali's work was right up my alley with it's absurdity and sense of humor.  Even the artist himself didn't seem to take anything very seriously.  In 12th grade, I got a copy of "The Secret Life Of Salvador Dali", an autobiography and I'd bet the strangeness of that book helped form some of my current strangeness as an artist and as a human.  

I've been lucky enough to see some of Dali's paintings and a few of his sculptures in museums here in America but I figured I was going to have to jump an ocean to see his museum.  Then, not too many years ago, I read about a Dali museum in Florida and I decided that the next time I was even remotely close, I would make a trip.

 The museum opened at 10am but since I was up early, already had my 5K in and was properly caffeinated, I arrived a couple of minutes early.  This gave me time to walk around the exterior of the building and see the garden area.  

 I'm a fan of the visually interesting museum architecture.  I can appreciate a classy church-like museum exterior with columns and a good pediment, but I think it's good for the exterior of the building to give some information about what you'll find inside.  The Guggenheim in NY, for example, prepares you for the modern art you'll find inside.  The Dali, with it's geometric concrete and organic bulging glass forms, helps to prepare you for Dali's work inside.

The glass reflects the sky, water and trees of the St. Pete waterfront just outside the museum.  This all at once presents you with something alien to the environment while also making that alien thing unify with it's surroundings.  It's also beautifully landscaped.

 The artwork in the small garden area was created by other artists who were inspired by Dali.  The melting clock/melting bench provided a single seat.

And the bronze cast bird with the Dali mustache offered a playful atmosphere.  Several large rocks had been brought in from Dali's home turf in Spain for the garden and for the entrance to the museum.

 This large Ficus tree had been turned into "The Wishing Tree".  Strings dangled from the branches and the strings were covered with wrist bands from visitors to the museum.  Visitors were invited to take off their wrist band after leaving the museum and tying it on to the tree while offering a wish or prayer for someone.

 The tree itself was in need of some prayer as it had recently weathered some high winds and was being braced back together.

 This large steel abstract sculpture was inspired by Dali's iconic mustache.

 By 10am, people were starting to gather near the doors, so I took my place in line and started observing the other visitors.  All were tourists from out of town but a couple were clearly art teachers.  A few were obviously just there because they were told this was something you had to do while in town.  A couple more were pretty intense fans.

I'm not sure what I was.  With my dad shorts, running shoes, Keith Haring shirt and Charleston hat, I probably just looked like an art teacher.

 I had heard a bad review of the museum.  A friend visited and was disappointed by the amount of work by Dali.  This had me a little worried that I would leave disappointed as well.  I walked into the first gallery with a wall mounted explanation of how this private collection came about and how the Morse family met Dali and became his collectors early in his career.  This small painting was the first painting they purchased and it hung on the adjacent wall.  "Daddy Long Legs of the Evening - Hope!"  This is exactly what I think of when I think of Dali and at that moment, any thought of disappointment vanished.  

 The galleries were arranged in historical order, showing Dali's work as a child and student first and then tracing his development through each new stage.  This was a very early self portrait.

 Dali was not afraid to paint a butt.  I'm pretty sure we are long lost relatives.

 These early works move into Surrealism.

 And some of the forms he painted originated from rock formations he observed in Spain.  He thought the rocks looked like things and when he painted them, he began to transform them into those other things.

 That idea of transformation or metamorphosis became a constant in his work.

 When you walk up to a painting you immediately see certain things.  Then, as you stand there, it seems as if the images change right in front of you into something totally different.  

 This is what makes a Dali painting so much more enjoyable for me.  It keeps me standing there, looking, trying to figure it out.  Even more so than an Italian Master or any other "famous" artist.

 Several of the paintings were on cardboard, like this poster he painted to promote himself.  The idea of "shameless self promotion" may have had it's roots in Dali.  He seemed to understand early on the power of promotion and marketing in order to sell your work.  

 Many of the works were very small but this was not surprising to me.  You always hear people talk about seeing the Mona Lisa in person and being disappointed that she's so small.  But with these paintings, instead of being let down by the size, I found myself even more impressed with the amount of realistic detail Dali was able to put into such a small scale.  
 He referred to these as realistic photographs of non-realistic things and the size and the realism of each work in this time period lived up to that description.

Just check out how much detail is in this one part of that small painting.  Skulls for the win!

 Many of these were inside glass shadow boxes so obviously my head and phone were not part of the composition.  I've always loved this one, even with my reflection messing it up.

As the timeline moved into the 1960s and 70s, the canvases jumped up in size.  This one in particular was exhibited perfectly in the museum.  It was the first large scale canvas after moving through a small scale gallery.  This one took up an entire wall on one end of a corridor-like gallery, providing room for you to view it all the way across the space.  When you enter the viewing space the information is posted and you are just a couple of feet from the painting looking up.  The title, "Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln - Homage to Rothko (Second Version)" gives you the clear instructions to start moving back in space.  As you move back, with each step the nude Gala recedes and the pixelated Lincoln comes into focus.  For me, this demonstrates the genius of Dali as a painter and a creative thinker.  When this was completed in 1976, pixelated art didn't really even exist.  You didn't have a computer then and you had never even seen a blocky looking Mario.  Not only was this a good 10-15 years ahead of it's time in idea, the transformation between the close image and the distance image is magnificently done.  

I was able to eavesdrop on a guided tour led by one of the docents.  When the group came to this painting she asked that they not take photos until after they listened to her talk.  This is because as soon as you raise your phone to photo this painting, the image of Lincoln is obvious.  But standing close to the painting, all you can see is the wife of Dali standing at a stone block window in the shape of a cross, looking out at the ocean.  I watched as people listened to the title and stepped back.  They would gasp and "oooooooooooh" out loud as an expression of surprise and joy came over their faces.  It was fun to watch and it was a reminder of the power of art to affect a viewer.

 Another large canvas that seems to be a straightforward glorification of Columbus "discovering" America, but with all sorts of hidden transformations inside.

 "The Hallucinogenic Toreador" from 1970.  Another one you can look at for hours and keep finding new things.

 This is just a corner of a very large painting.  The painting was on loan to another museum and this reproduction was exhibited on a canvas.  It includes a self portrait of Dali.

 The signatures changed almost with each canvas but this one is a classic.

 This was another large one that just kept changing as you viewed it.  Each time I came back to it, I saw something new.  I observed a few people "ooooh" and "ahhhh" over this one too.

 The interior of the museum was just as interesting as the exterior.  Dali loved geometry and spirals and these were included in the interior as well.  

 The organic glass forms created windows looking out over the waterfront.

 And there was still something church-like about the architecture.  The gaze was still directed up to the sky and the space created was sacred.

There was another interesting exhibit on the other side of the museum of photographs taken in the hometown of Dali in Spain.  The photographer was an American artist famous for photographing the Florida landscape and he was sent to Spain by the museum to capture the landscape of Dali.  Many of the photos contained imagery directly used in Dali's paintings with references reproduced showing the site in a painting and in a modern photograph.  It was definitely worth seeing but sort of beside the point in this post.

 "The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory", 1952-54

This one kept my attention for a while.  Dali reinterpreted his more famous 1931 painting "The Persistence of Memory" as an image of the same surreal landscape in the process of breaking down.  I marveled over the original in the Museum of Modern Art several years ago but this one kept my attention even longer.  

A few years ago I read "Art and Physics" by Leonard Shlain.  This book goes into great detail in comparing the world of the visual and performing arts to the world of scientific discovery.  Throughout history, each area has developed and moved forward in parallel paths.  Sometimes it is the artist who discovers or visualized something first and sometimes it is the scientist.  But instead of seeing these as separate worlds, this book compares the two paths in time and shows the correlation between the two.  The idea is that while not always even aware of what is happening in the other path, these two paths move forward together, often "discovering" things at the same time.  

In the case of Dali, his imagination allowed him to move in lockstep with giants such as Einstein as he developed his Theory of Relativity and investigated quantum mechanics.  "The Persistence of Memory" seemed to visualize the relative nature of time better than it could have been explained in a text.  A later "Crucifixion" painting precisely visualizes a 4-dimensional "hypercube".  In a 1932 painting "Agnostic Symbol" Dali paints an accurate portrayal of a beam of light bending as it passes through the warped spacetime of a massive object.  

This may not seem like much to us in a world of computer simulation, but having the imagination to even contemplate the fourth dimension or spacetime warp is astounding to consider in 1932.  Then to have the ability to paint it is something else altogether.  It is as if Dali and artists of great imagination like him were sent to help the scientist give visual form to their thoughts.  And like the image of Lincoln above, once you see it, you can't unsee it.  Once it's there in your mind, you are able to move on to newer, more difficult things.  

Dali was a crazy person but he wasn't crazy.  He was probably even the genius he claimed to be.  

The thing that's most impressive to me about Dali is the combination of his technical skill and his imagination.  In contemporary art, I feel like we often lose this combination.  Many artists who are good at a technique don't know what to do with it.  Many more who have great ideas simply don't have the skill to render it appropriately.  Dali handled both as well as anyone.  

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