St. Petersburg, Fla. — It makes no sense that the world’s best collection of paintings by Salvador Dalí resides on the shores of Tampa Bay, in a hurricane-proof structure that looks like a geodesic bubble merged into a concrete bunker. Although the Spanish artist spent a lot of time in America, he seems never to have set foot in Florida — and so the presence of the Dalí Museum in the city of St. Petersburg is not merely odd or unexpected but possibly a bit of dream logic that would have delighted the 20th century’s great master of surrealism.
We can’t really know what Dalí would have thought of the museum that bears his name, of course: The building opened only six years ago and Dalí died in 1989. Even if he could offer an opinion, however, we wouldn’t necessarily want to believe it: “Salvador Dalí is not a trustworthy source of information about himself,” wrote Ian Gibson in the first sentence of what is widely considered the best biography of the painter, whose gift for epigrams makes many of his utterances hard to resist.
Everything about Dalí beguiles. He is perhaps most famous for those melting clocks, which show up in The Persistence of Memory, a 1931 painting that hangs in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Nobody quite knows what to make of them — do they allude to the relativity of time? — and yet they’ve mesmerized for decades. Although Dalí reprised the melting clocks 20 years later in The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, which is on display in Florida, he always burst with new ideas: Other paintings in St. Petersburg show a horse exploding from a cannon, cyclists who balance rocks on their heads, and a reimagining of the peasant couple from The Angelus by Jean-François Millet as a kind of archaeological ruin. Much is fascinating. Parts are beautiful. What it all means is anyone’s guess.
Mystery is the essence of surrealism, an aesthetic movement that emerged in the 1920s and sought to tap into the Freudian unconscious, honor the irrational, and expose enigmatic truths (or maybe truthful enigmas). Its influence was international and enduring, touching everything from magic-realist authors to psychedelic-rock musicians. Surrealism’s most impressive medium, however, was visual, and Dalí became its great master.
Born in 1904 in Catalonia, the Spanish region with an independent streak, Dalí arrived in the world about nine months after his brother had died as a toddler. The family surname is rare and possibly Moorish, and the parents chose to call both boys Salvador, like their father — a circumstance that creates psychoanalytic scenarios right from the start, and that appeared to haunt the artist throughout his life. As late as 1963, Dalí painted Portrait of My Dead Brother, which renders its subject as the teenager he never became.
People spotted Dalí’s artistic abilities early. They also may have noticed his powerful will: “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing ever since,” he once claimed. His early work shows him grappling with traditional and contemporary forms, such as realistic still lifes, impressionistic landscapes, and Picasso-inspired cubism. He experimented constantly and finally leaped into full-on surrealistic weirdness in the 1930s. Most critics regard this period as his best.
Popular audiences always have enjoyed the flashiest aspect of Dalí’s surrealism: the optical illusions. Looked at one way, Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940) shows a group of people as they mingle before a hole in a wall. Looked at another way, the painting reveals Voltaire. It’s a double image — at once a neat trick and a possible comment on the emptiness of Enlightenment thinking. Another painting in Florida, the 13-foot-tall Hallucinogenic Toreador (1970), includes a discreet reference to the Voltaire picture from three decades earlier, but its dominant subject turns the Venus de Milo, a swarm of flies, and a field of dots into a bullfighter. As the museum’s guidebook says, “discovering this face is one of the great Dalí experiences.”
There’s nothing scandalous about either of these works, though the same can’t be said for other parts of Dalí’s oeuvre, which are full of phalluses, excrement, and grotesquerie. George Orwell may have put it best: “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.” This is an interesting line, written about a painter who deployed double images shortly before Orwell invented the concept of “doublethink,” which he defined in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four as the ability “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.”
Orwell points to Dalí’s suggestive titles, such as “The Great Masturbator” and “Sodomy of a Skull with a Grand Piano,” and the paintings’ subject matter: “The two things that stand out are sexual perversity and necrophilia.” At the same time, he acknowledges Dalí’s “very exceptional gifts” and allows that the artist “has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings.”
Dalí might have giggled at this. “My motto is: ‘Dalí must always be talked about, even if nothing good is said of him,’” he once wrote. His provocations paid off. In 1936, he landed on the cover of Time. The accompanying article announced the arrival of surrealism as a mainstream phenomenon and lauded the “handsome 32-year-old Catalan with a soft voice and a clipped cinemactor’s mustache.” (A “cinemactor” was the magazine’s neologism for “cinema actor.”) It also praised Dalí’s showmanship, or what it called “a faculty for publicity that should turn any circus press agent green with envy.” If Dalí was not then the most famous painter in the world, he was close. He was also about to become one of the richest, selling his works for small fortunes and often to wealthy Americans — most notably Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, who built the collection that in time became the Dalí Museum.
Back in Europe, the surrealists resented Dalí’s commercial success. Their school’s founding father, André Breton, turned Dalí’s name into a condemnatory anagram: Avida Dollars. What really rankled Breton and his comrades, however, was the Spaniard’s refusal to embrace their leftist politics. Several of Dalí’s paintings from the 1930s carry political meanings. Both Lenin and Hitler make appearances. As with so much of his work, however, interpretations are speculative.
During the Spanish Civil War, which pitted left-wing republicans against right-wing nationalists in a proxy war between Communism and Fascism, Dalí sided with the victorious nationalists, led by Francisco Franco. Later, he praised Franco and lived happily under the general’s regime. He went on to flabbergast leftists in other ways, too. In celebration of Israel’s 20th anniversary, he accepted a commission to produce a series of Zionist paintings.
Dalí spent much of the 1940s and 1950s in the United States. He also abandoned the atheism of his youth and began to take up religious themes, dropping his strange Freudian symbols for familiar Christian ones, though he always aimed for fresh approaches. In 1951, he painted Christ of St. John of the Cross, which shows the crucifixion from above. Viewers see the top of Christ’s head but no face. It now resides in Glasgow’s major art museum and might be the most popular painting in Scotland. Bishop Fulton Sheen liked the image well enough to put it on the cover of his 1954 book Life of Christ. That same year, Dalí delivered Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), in which another faceless Jesus hangs from a three-dimensional cross made of eight cubes, or what a geometry teacher would call the net of a tesseract; it’s in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then, in 1955, Dalí finished The Sacrament of the Last Supper, a reinterpretation of Leonardo’s mural in Milan.
The art world has struggled with Dalí’s devotion, both scorning its religious sentiment and recognizing its popularity. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for instance, once banished The Sacrament of the Last Supper to a stairwell landing, though in recent years it has moved the painting to an underground passageway, remote from its hallowed galleries but also in an area that receives a lot of foot traffic.
Two large paintings in St. Petersburg blend Dalí’s faith with his love for the country, which helped make his career. The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1958) is a grandiose late-period mash-up on a canvas that’s more than 13 feet tall. It includes hat tips to Michelangelo and Velázquez; an image of Gala, Dalí’s wife, as the Virgin Mary; a youthful Columbus stepping ashore; a puzzling sea urchin that’s straight from the playbook of surrealism; and a double image at its center, showing both the masts of the Santa María and the Eucharist. At the bottom, a hooded figure kneels, as if to offer thanks for a safe arrival in the New World. This is Dalí himself, clutching a pastoral staff in the shape from Christ of St. John of the Cross.
A few dozen feet away hangs a painting from 1976, America’s bicentennial. It’s another double image. Up close, it shows a naked Gala from behind, gazing at blue waters through a cruciform window and framed by multicolored blocks, as if from a giant game of Tetris. From afar, however, the picture becomes something else entirely: a likeness of Abraham Lincoln. The painting has a long name: Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko). It’s one of the Dalí Museum’s showstoppers, a place where docents pause to explain how the painting works, eliciting oohs and aahs from visitors. The longer they look, the more they perceive. At the top of the painting there’s a bright orange sun — a double image within a double image, revealing, once again, the main figure from Christ of St. John of the Cross. Jesus emerges from the forehead of Lincoln, just as Athena, the goddess of wisdom, sprang from the brow of Zeus.
It’s a lot to take in, as with so much of the Dalí Museum’s collection. Perhaps the actor Gregory Peck offers the most fitting description of what it’s like to study Dalí’s paintings. In 1945, Peck starred in Spellbound, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who had hired Dalí to design a dream sequence: two minutes of motion-picture surrealism, complete with unblinking eyes, blank playing cards, and a man who falls off a building. As Peck reclines on a shrink’s couch, he tries to sum up what moviegoers are about to watch: “I can’t make out just what sort of a place it was.” And yet we all want to see.