In the Mind of Dalí: Surrealism in Florida

January 19, 2014

I fell in love with Salvador Dalí the way one would fall in love with the basket case from high school. Anytime you see them, or any reference to them, you can’t help but think “What a weirdo” and dismiss it. But with every exposure, and a pinch more of maturity each day, you see something you didn’t see before, and curiosity sparks. You find the method to what seemed pure madness, and after time you realize, “I get it. I totally get it.”

I began accepting my crush for Dalí when I visited his museum in Montmatre in Paris. Surrounded by the various sculptures of his melting clock, a series of drawings illustrating stories of the Bible and his immortal muse, Gala, something finally clicked. 

So when I was told one of the biggest Dalí collections was in St. Petersburg, only a few hours away from Miami, two words were immediately uttered. Road trip.

The journey began with the sunrise and coffee to go. It was long and straight –oh so straight- shot across the peninsula, a dull road momentarily livened by the sight of gators in the canals skirting the Everglades. But later, rather than sooner, we were cruising down Boulevard Dalí by the bay, and to the left we were greeted by this enormous metal square building with a glass dome emanating from the top of it, spilling over the front.

The Dalí Museum, the home of more than 96 of his pieces, couldn’t have represented him better with such an exterior. The unconventional glass bubble called the “enigma” erupts out of the confinements of the conventional rectangular building is the combination of the ration with the fantastical. I was already beyond intrigued.

The entrance forces you to pass straight through the gift shop, as opposed to leaving it as a small treat to the very end, and towards Café Gala that serves the best Spanish treats along with piping hot coffee. To the right, next to a helical staircase, a man leads you to the elevator which takes you to the third floor, where gallery begins.

“What happened with the second floor?” I joked. But he just smiled and wished us a lovely visit.

The third floor, the lovely view from inside the "enigma" and the end of  the staircase.

Passing the mysterious second floor, I arrived at the third floor, the glass bubble revealing a blue sky and the top of the spiral staircase which now looked like a double helix, possibly symbolizing the DNA molecule and Dali’s obsession with it. 

Aside from my interest in this man, I was eager to visit this museum because many years ago, it wasn’t one of the biggest collection of a surrealist artist but the devoted interest of a couple. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse began collecting paintings of Dalí, who later became their friend. As the years passed, the collection grew and could no longer keep it in their house. Many museums were interested, like MOMA , but they wanted to dismantle the collection and take a few pieces. No one wanted such a large collection of one artist. The Morses thought that wasn’t good enough. And so, St. Petersburg became the home of Surrealism.

The tours gather to the right every 30 minutes, in front of a painting called Daddy Longlegs of the Evening- Hope! The first one the Morses bought. 
Daddy Longlegs of the Evening- Hope! by Salvador Dali

The painting is striking and melting objects predominate- a war plane and a soft cello being played by the gelatinous looking self portrait of Dalí, seen various times in his other pieces. There is also a child with wings covering his eyes from the horrors unfolding, like the rotting horse shooting out of a cannon and the plane oozing to the ground. 

The guide explained this is the first piece Dalí painted in the United States in 1943, after the artist and his wife moved seeking refuge from World War II.

And this piece, so full of war elements and history, is only the introduction.

The visitors were tickled by the slow exposure to his smaller paintings and drawings but the awe becomes tangible when they stop completely, for minutes on end, to stare at his grand masterpieces that go all the way up to the ceilings. 

The first one to be seen is Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln. 

Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

The self-explanatory title immediately captured the interest of the group because the first and only thing you see in the painting is a naked woman, Gala, facing away towards a sunset. She is surrounded by cubes of different colors that don’t form a particular figure. But if you stand back twenty meters, as the title suggests, turn around and see the painting through a mirror a mirror, you see a large portrait of Abraham Lincoln. 

The trick is so clever, I didn’t mind standing there smiling, facing away from the painting you are admiring, looking quite ridiculous to all the newcomers who have no idea what is going on. Like I knew a secret they didn’t. At least for a few minutes.

But after you have admired it from afar, you get close again and see all kinds of things you hadn’t notice before. Like the Mediterranean sunset Gala is admiring, which is really an image of Christ ascending, as if seen from above. And at the bottom left corner, there is Gala again facing away, next to a tiny portrait of Lincoln.  It is only when prying, little by little understanding all he has hidden in one painting, all the themes running through it, that you begin to grasp the brilliance behind what appeared to be random madness.

By now, I was submerged in the symbolism and the feelings each painting pulled out of me. I was always feel loneliness when I see any surrealist work. The lack of human interaction, the vast empty sceneries, makes me feel incredibly alone. But with Dalí, I always sense of acceptance for this solitude, like the sceneries are not a plane of sadness but the ample rooms of his mind that carry all the trinkets of his imagination. His scared, abstract place that only he can visit and whomever he invites in. He invites me to have such a place for myself.

If I had to pick which painting I stared at the longest, for pure fascination or deepening confusion, it would have to be The Hallucinogenic Toreador. 

The Hallucinogenic Toreador

The central figure is Venus de Milo, the image constantly repeated larger and larger across the canvas. The green in her skirt becomes the Toreador’s tie and around her stomach and bosom, the bullfighter’s chin and lips are formed. The shadows of the next Venus contour his face and her red skirt is really his cape hung over his shoulder. Other elements swarm the canvas, like an army of flies, Gala’s presence and even the bull. Initially, the grand piece seems scattered and senseless, but the way  his mind covers what you may see from afar and just a few feet away from it, the question left as to what the relation between Venus and the bullfighter is a love story or a tragedy, has stayed with me.

When people refuse to understand Dalí, I find it near impossible to come up with an argument that will end their confusion. I don’t think anybody ended up loving him because of a well thought out list of reasons to endure viewing his creations. At some point, without really looking for it or even being aware of it, that small intrigue for his melting clocks or his long legged elephants, will simply click into an understanding that can’t be shared, only felt. And you will be hooked with knowing more of how his mind worked and how you could have so easily dismissed as weird something so rich and complex.

My relationship with Dalí was never love at first sight. But it will be a love that will last a lifetime.

I couldn't resist the gift shop [or the coffee].

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