In one of Salvador Dali's most widely reproduced pictures, "The Hallucinogenic Toreador," an almost incidental detail shows a woman in a bikini lazing on a rubber raft.
"A tourist," a docent at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., explained, gesturing to the image tucked between a parade of flies receding into infinity and the snout of a dead bull. "Dali hated the way tourists invaded his native Catalonia every summer. He felt he could never escape them. He made sure to include a tourist enjoying herself in one of his greatest works."
So maybe it's only fitting that the largest collection of work by the late Spanish artist--probably the best-known (okay, only) surrealist in America, widely recognized for his landscapes beetling with menacing insects, trees bearing droopy watches and bodies truncated, flattened and full of holes--is in St. Petersburg, where the tourists who flock to the Gulf of Mexico resort town can continue to inflame Dali's lingering spirit. And that Figueres, Spain, the Catalonian town where he was born in southeast Spain, is fast becoming a destination for the same type of visitors, lured there by a museum he created himself.
Though the surrealist painters with whom Dali was most closely associated played mostly to the Western art capitals, Dali's work nonetheless lies today in those two unlikely provinces. In Florida, the museum occupies a former marine research equipment storage facility about seven blocks from St. Pete's tourist promenade. In Spain, the museum is in a grandly renovated theater, several blocks above the urgent local marketplace that remains the center of tiny Figueres, a farm crossroads about a two-hour train ride from Barcelona.
Like one of Dali's multiple-image portraits, each museum presents a different face to the world. The Florida collection, assembled by Dali's most supportive patrons, is determined to validate Dali's rank among the 20th century's most important artists. The Spanish museum, created by Dali himself, functions more as a showcase for his legendary vanity, personal obsessions and lunatic visions. Visit both St. Pete and Figueres--as I recently have been lucky enough to do--and you come away with a far more complete appreciation than either can offer alone: not just a genius but a raving mad genius, not just a flamboyant showman but a brilliant and visionary one.
The St. Petersburg Dali Museum's location represents a significant upgrade from that collection's former home. From 1971 until 1980, the collection of Reynolds and Eleanor Morse was kept in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood, Ohio. If Dali really wanted to keep his art away from tourists, he could hardly have found a better place.
But the location was not Dali's doing. Morse, a plastics engineer with some family money, had begun collecting Dali's work with his wife in 1943 and housed the growing collection in a vacant wing of the industrial park building his company occupied. By 1980, Morse began seeking a permanent home for his collection, consisting of 200 drawings and paintings, and more than 1,500 photos, prints, sculptures, holographs, installations and other objets, plus a huge scholarly library.
Bidding against Austin and Denver, St. Pete won the museum under the Morses' strict condition that the entire trove be kept intact and accessible to the public. Two million dollars in state and local money was raised to convert the waterfront warehouse and establish foundations to retain and display the collection, valued at more than $350 million. St. Petersburg, long the retirement-home stepchild of Tampa, suddenly had itself a world-class attraction.
The Morse collection is essentially an argument for its own existence. After discovering the work of the mad Catalonian in the '40s, the Morses decided to collect his works exclusively. As Dali became more theatrical, commercial and extravagantly nutty as the years went by--painting himself into all his pictures, his waxed mustaches jumping like exclamation points; indulging in such elaborate tricks as constructing an entire room to function as a portrait of Mae West; and participating in such anti-high-art enterprises as bottling a Dali fragrance and appearing "in concert" with proto-shock-rocker Alice Cooper--the Morses found themselves the sole backers of not a dark horse, but of a creature running in a strange race others had decided simply to watch.
Even today the Morse collection in St. Pete has a didactic feel, as a project that seeks mainly to prove, as the promotional materials read, "the Morses' strongly held view that Dali is one of the 20th Century's greatest artists."
This is not all bad, and it may not be wrong (who can know?), but it's not as much fun as the raw material of Dali's work permits. The St. Petersburg museum--a handsome white facility with a stylish entrance and a huge Dali signature slashed across its outside wall--is a great place for the many tourists who know Dali only as "the melted watch guy" to learn more about his work, but they don't get much taste of the rampaging lunatic Dali himself spent so much time cultivating.
The permanent collection begins with Dali's juvenilia, which reveals him as a superbly talented draftsman who embraced, and quickly rejected, the popular styles of the day: impressionism, futurism, cubism, Flemish realism. One of the most arresting pictures in St. Pete is a self-portrait done when the artist was 14; Dali peers through an impressionist smog with one fishy eye fixed on the viewer and a look foretelling the dark flamboyance to come. Another is "The Basket of Bread," in which the young Dali applies the hyper-realism of the Dutch masters to somehow infuse the bread with an unmistakably sinister force; the unbalanced composition makes the bread seem poised to drop out of its frame. This is the first Dali canvas the Morses saw.
The Morses bought a lot of the surrealist canvases that earned Dali his reputation in the 1920s and '30s, and the museum doesn't disappoint those who come to seek menacing spiders, intriguing double imagery and, of course, the flaccid watches. "Daddy Longlegs of the Evening . . . Hope!," the Morses' first purchase, is maybe the greatest of the bunch, featuring an elongated, desiccated torso draped over a limb, the head flattened into a fish-eye silhouette, the "figure" trying to coax a screech from a melting cello.
There's the eponymous spider and a small army of ants, boneless morphics, skinless skulls and rampant imagery suggesting war, God, sex and death--pretty much the entire Dali cosmology in one simple panel painted in 1940. It's clear from this picture, and many others, that Dali at some point decided to employ his almost photo-real draftsmanship to convey not what people see, but to convey some complicated, obsessive, perhaps medically untreated view of the world. The St. Pete crowd seems to sense this picture's strange power, persistently forming a respectful clot around it.
But the big payoff of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg is the collection of what, with characteristic immodesty, the artist called the "masterworks." The big panels--all at least five feet across--are displayed in a long, tall gallery in the rear of the museum, placed there as a kind of Dalinian culmination. During my visit, the docent was a bald, middle-aged man with a ponytail and a closely pruned rim of mustacheless beard (for my money, just the sort of look you want in your Dali docents) who offered fascinating insights into the masterworks. He illuminated the precise mathematical grids underlying the pictures, he helped viewers "see" both sides of the panels' many double images, and he was able to annotate just about any visual detail--like the tourist on the raft--in terms of Dali's biography and his ideas about history, science, politics and religion. He also explained how Dali managed to paint the gigantic things: by having a part of his studio floor removed so the painting could be slid up and down by ropes, keeping the part he was working on at eye level. "The Hallucinogenic Toreador" took him four years.
The setup of the museum, with those Rosetta stone masterworks at the end, makes one want to return to the beginning and see the whole collection again. But as I walked out into the St. Pete sun, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd received a very serious, even sanitized dose of an artist who, frankly, was also a major crackpot, a nut case blessed with artistic genius. A coffee cup in the museum's gift shop made the point.
"The difference between me and a madman," the cup reads, "is that I am not mad!"
One has the sense that Dali--one of the great self-created eccentrics of the 20th century, a man who insisted on putting a fish head on top of Venus de Milo in the 1939 World's Fair, a full-grown man who remained terrified of ants to his dying day--made that statement at least partly with ironic intent. He knew he was a nut.
But the Morses, perhaps afraid to laugh along with the artist they'd devoted their lives and sacred fortunes to, somehow failed to get the joke.
Which is why anyone who leaves St. Pete intrigued should eventually make his way to Barcelona, and from there take a train to Figueres, the Catalonian agricultural town where Dali was born. If the collection in St. Petersburg represents a dedicated patron's view of Dali's art, the Teatre Museu Dali in Figueres, created by Dali and his wife, Gala, and opened in 1974, is a kind of architectural and curatorial self-portrait of a mad genius.
Just approaching the museum from the center of town and seeing the pinkish castle with gigantic white eggs looming above the parapets lets you know you're in for a strange treat. Dali designed the Teatre (on the site of a former neighborhood theater burned during the Spanish Civil War) as an artistic experience itself, not just a place to view his work. ("The largest surrealistic object in the world," as the museum literature puts it.) It's possible to take in the museum's 24 rooms via one of several organized tours from Barcelona or Southern France, but I'd recommend against it. The works are displayed not by theme or chronology, but by Dali's own associations, so it's no place to be paraded around. It's a place to blunder through, following your nose and ducking away from the crowds whenever possible.
Dali made the Teatre "interactive" long before that term was in vogue. For instance, several mechanical creations are activated by the deposit of a 25 peseta coin. Dali casts the visitor as the dupe: Pay the master and watch the crucifix dance! These works also create a tiny, too-human drama that one suspects Dali would have found delightful, as members of a small crowd wait uncomfortably for someone else to insert a coin to repeat the performance.
In the daffy Mae West room, visitors "interact" by lining up and waiting their turn to climb a small staircase. At the top they peer through a lens hanging from a wooden camel's belly, past a giant frame draped with (real!) human hair, at the contents of a room whose furniture, wall art and crazily angled floor conspire to create, I swear it's true, an image of Mae West.
Several rooms display Dali's stereoscopic panels, revealing the artist's fascination with how a viewer "sees" art. The visitor sits on a low chair facing a glass case holding two oil paintings that initially look identical. On closer examination, one sees they are really mirrors reflecting the oil paintings, which are mounted almost perpendicular to the viewer's line of sight; sit between them and the two images blend into a single panorama, ingeniously crafted by the artist, but which exists only in the viewer's mind. This is freaky, heady stuff.
The Teatre is full of strange, and strangely presented, art, much of it minor Dali works, sketches and constructions. The artist placed a rather natty self-portrait (crutches supporting and penetrating a benign but boneless face) directly across from one of his portraits of Picasso (his brain a swirl of ram's horn, his eyes a pair of voids, a spoon lunging from the back of his head and out his shrieking mouth). In the courtyard, there's a sculpture set titled "Rainy Cadillac," featuring the car the Dalis used to drive across the United States fitted with a headless mannequin driver and coins scattered on the floor; Gala's boat rides a giant stack of
truck tires, surrounded by goblike raindrops. There are rooms of scary furniture, paintings by others the artist had collected during his life and some of the depressing canvases from the 1980s, when the sick and dying Dali produced lethargic, incoherent self-quotations whose most distinctive--and valuable--feature is his signature. Dali is buried in a crypt in the museum, marked by a modest headstone.
Who can say what one is supposed to make of all this? I know I came away provoked and amused and in an advanced state of wonder, and from the looks on their faces plenty of other visitors did, too. They also seemed to be enjoying themselves far more than the folks in St. Petersburg were.
There is, of course, a gift shop, this one far tonier than its Florida counterpart. In addition to prints and books, you can buy a lot of jewelry designed by Dali, or adapted from his works. You can buy sculptures, textiles and Dalinian soft timepieces that, yes, appear to keep "real" time.
But where is the coffee cup, in which Dali declares he is "not mad"?
In this autobiographical temple to Dalinian excess, it's nowhere to be found.
Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S., St. Petersburg, Fla., 727-823-3767, www.daliweb.com. Open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, Thursdays until 8, Sundays noon to 5:30. Adults $9, seniors $7, students $5, 10 and under free.
Teatre Museu Dali, Paca Gala-Salvador Dali, 5, E-17600, Figueres, Spain, www.cbrava.es/ ing/di_index.htm. Open 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. October-June (closed Mondays); 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. July-September. Adults about $7.85, 9 and under free.