By Grace Morales
One thing is certain: I hate, under all its shapes, simplicity.
To put it simply: the collection at the Dalí Museum in Saint Petersburg is incredible. Coined as one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists and a celebrated Surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was one of a kind. Being Catalan, like Dalí was, I thought I knew a fair amount about him having visited another museum dedicated to him in his birthplace, Figueres, in Catalonia. Yet this gem of a museum founded by A. Reynolds Morse and Eleanor Morse in Florida’s capital, Saint Petersburg (comfortingly warm in comparison to its Russian counterpart), has the world’s most extensive private collection of some of Dalí’s most successful paintings.
The museum has a range of Dalí’s earliest works to some of his last, including 96 oil paintings. An early painting of Cadaqués, where he would spend his summers as a boy, painted at the age of twelve, was an early sign that Dalí was going to be one of a kind. As Dalí learnt how to paint he naturally began with Impressionism, but he was fast to forge his own style of painting as only ten years later in another painting of Cadaqués from 1923 the viewer sees a huge difference. At school Dalí was taught techniques from the Baroque and Neoclassical periods, but he quickly realised that Pablo Picasso’s Cubist and Modernist styles were much more relevant to his incredible imagination.
Eventually, Dalí’s difficult character and avant-garde style got him expelled from art school in 1926, as he believed his assessors were incompetent when it came to judging his work. Dalí even broke away from other contemporary Surrealist painters in 1939 as he was not committed to their communist cause and simply wanted to focus on his art. It was clear from the start that Dalí was a challenging and controversial individual, but from all the magnificent works he created, we now have a collection of timeless art.
One of Dalí’s first proper Surrealist works, painted in 1926, was La Muchacha de los Rizos (1926)(The Girl with the Curls) which already displays his typical distorted scale and exaggerated anatomy creating a blend of realism, distortion and eroticism, showing Dalí’s advance towards establishing his own pioneering Surrealist skills. Dalí was fast to begin experimenting with many colours, sizes and shapes of canvas. He also became fascinated by optical phenomena creating some truly breath-taking paintings with the museum proudly exhibiting the huge canvas of Gala desnuda mirando el mar que a 18 metros aparece el Presidente Lincoln(1975) (Gala contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at twenty metres becomes the portrait of Abraham Lincoln). As the convoluted, yet explanatory, title reveals, Dalí creates an optical illusion with the painting displaying his wife, Gala, from close up, but producing an image of Lincoln at a distance.
Despite working in opposition to what was practiced and accepted during Dalí’s artistic era, the great master and traditional painter Diego Velázquez was one of Dalí’s greatest influences. Dalí took inspiration from one of the great masters of the past, and despite his innovative spirit, he believed in a veneration of tradition and had a desire for continuity. Dalí even reinterpreted Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) to create Velazquez pintando a la infanta Margarita con las luces y las sombras de su propia gloria(1958) (Velazquez Painting the Infanta Marguerita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory) and includes Velázquez at work saying that his “ambition still and always [was] to integrate the experiments of modern art with the greater classical tradition”.
It is clear that Dalí was a nonconformist not only among artists, but also in life. However, it is his incredible imagination (that may have been uncomfortable or alarming at times) that made him the timeless master that he is. He embraced the irrational alongside the rational and urged his viewers to search beyond first impressions. Salvador Dalí acknowledged life to be full of contradictions and uncertainties and so any ‘simple’ art was undoubtedly off the cards.
All photographs: Grace Morales Featured photograph: The Hand of Remorse – Dalí