American Sabbatical 82: 4/1/97

Tampa Fool's Day

4/1.. Tampa Fool Day.

It was blessedly cool Tuesday morning in St. Pete. Trouser weather even. They’re getting buried in bad jokes in Boston, three feet deep, but we’re just grinning in the 70’s. We'd made our bed just crosstown from the Dali Museum, and that was our first ambition. Seemed right for a Fool’s Day.

First we had to navigate a middle class black neighborhood. There have been lots of them in Florida, usually just outside the city centers, and they’re as house-proud and trim as any other suburb. This one seemed to favor bath-tile exteriors and cement kitsch, along with white Hondas and Nissans. Is ghettoization more noticeable in Florida? You bet. The geezers are all walled off in gated communities, with the golf courses.

Salvador Dali didn’t winter his circus in St. Pete, or anything. The museum was a civic deal with a collector from Cleveland who couldn’t convince Carthage on Cayuhoga that a permanent connection with the mad Spaniard was worth public investment. St. Petersburg leapt into the breach.

The brand spanking museum sits on the brink of a marina filled with megabucks of floating follies, alongside the flight path for ST. P Municipal. As we disembarked the FujiFilm Blimp circled overhead, and a red biplane did touch and goes. All quite bizarre. As you’d expect.

(Memo #74)

April 1 Dali Museum

Who? Spanish painter Salvador Dali

What? museum based on personal collection

Where? St. Petersburg, Florida

When? now

How? St. Petersburg wooed collectors

Topics: surrealism, Dali, art collectors-patrons, symbolism, Freudian psychology

Questions: Why is there a Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida? What themes and symbols does Dali use? What is the role of an art patron and collectors like the Morses?

Young Dali

Dripping clocks is the image most associated with surrealist artist Salvador Dali, fantastic landscapes of sere hills and stark trees that house real objects and dream figures. He is perhaps the most widely known surrealist painter. It turns out that he could be known as an impressionist, sculptor, illustrator, symbolist. He worked in every style, scale, and medium: metal, oil, watercolor, lithograph, photograph, holograph, jewelry, stage set. A superb collection of work is displayed in the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida (95 oils, 100+ watercolors, graphics, 6 of his “masterworks” etc).

Why St. Petersburg? Dali never worked or lived there, he didn’t study there. It WAS Spanish territory centuries ago, but... The answer is interesting. Eleanor and A. Reynolds Morse were passionate collectors of Dali’s art and his lifelong friends. They bought his art, documented his thinking, photographed his homeland, translated his lectures. They came from Cleveland (!) and began a small Dali museum there which they outgrew. They were determined to keep their collection together, housed in its own museum space. No major museum was willing to do this. A St. Petersburg businessman learned of the collection and started the movement to have a Dali museum in St. Petersburg. It was successful. The collection was wooed by the city and state fathers who built the special museum. It is a lovely museum, a simple modern square on the water.

The museum has Dali’s first oil (an impressionist landscape), painted when he was 13, and a range of work from every period of his life. The academics divide his life into Early Works (1914-27), Transitional period (1928), Surrealism (1929-1940), Classical Period (1943-89), and Masterworks (1948-70).

The museum makes a good case for keeping an artist’s work together. Something very distinctive happens when you view work after work by an artist and see the development of technique and symbolism as s/he ages. Your eye begins to spot recurrent themes and figures. You see something in a painting and walk back two galleries to find it in its embryonic stage in another painting. The staff knows the artist in great depth, living with this extensive collection and the knowledge gained from the Morses. Both the guides' commentary and the written text are rich and detailed. There are the icons, of course, but set within a context of his life and imagery.

The surrealists attest to the impact of Sigmund Freud on our century and our thought. Not only did Freud herald childhood as the key period in psychic development, but he stressed the significance of dreams and the unconscious as manifestations of inner drives and desires and needs. The surrealists were committed to mining their own inner worlds for artistic material; they painted their dreams and visions, memories, and reminiscences. The commentary defines Dali’s “paranoic-critical method” as the use of his personal fears and dreams and memories visually.

Dali’s art show the incredible mix of images and themes that lived in his unconscious. There are bits of a very real landscape - the towns of Figueres and Port Llagat in Catalonia where Dali lived almost all his life. The hills and boats, docks and houses in Dali’s work can be identified. The Morses photographed some sites that appear totally realistically, if piecemeal, in specific paintings. His wife Gala (formerly the wife of French poet Paul Eluard) is his muse; her face appears on madonnas and saints and anonymous female figures.

Dali incorporates images from artists he revered (Vermeer, Velasquez, Millet), from popular culture (the matador, sunning tourists, Alice Cooper), from history (Columbus, Popes, Don Quixote), from Catholicism (crosses and Christ figures), from Catalan life (the distinctive red hat, the “barentina”), and local legends. One recurrent figure is a fly, often painted in serried rows, representing the flies sent by a Catalan saint to rout an enemy army. The details of his own life are painted - the death of a brother (also Salvador) nine months before he was born, his childhood nurse, his furniture. His specific dream figures are here, like his Galuchka, a fictitious Russian girl who appears as “The Girl with Curls”. Each canvas is rich in personal matter.

Dali was a highly disciplined draftsman and his paintings were developed from intricate grids. You become aware as you move through the museum of his ability to draw - the detailed bodies and hills, fruit and broken bridges.There is a quite classic portrait of a girl’s back (Portrait of My Sister). He loved to use montage - so that a face is composed of people’s portraits. He also had a wicked sense of humor and love for the absurd. His small statue “Venus de Milo with Drawers” is hilarious, breasts and belly drawers with graphic drawer pulls. It is bronze painted to look like plaster. Dali is quoted as saying this piece “illustrates a certain complacency in smelling the narcissistic odor of each of our drawers”. There certainly is a narcissistic tone to the museum (was Dali mocking himself or the Morses?).

Dali went to art school and mined art history for images. He incorporated the symbols and news of his century. He played with newly emerging technology like the holograph. He tried his hand at many crafts - from illustration to set design. The culminations of his art are his “Masterworks”, 18 huge and detailed canvases that he painted after 1949. Each canvas took a year or more to complete and has a year’s worth of images.

“The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus” has layer upon layer of shape and symbols - repeated crosses that become swords, ranks of spears that become a grid for a crucifixion, realistic human figures with flags, Popes and Christs, Gala in a supplicating pose as a woman saint. In “Hallucinogenic Toreador” repeated images of Venus de Milo form the visual illusion of the toreador’s face. An abstract bull drips blood that becomes a lovely blue lake with a modern sunbather floating on a plastic raft (he loathed the tourists at a nearby Club Med!). A realistic arena frames the top.

From Discovery

Dali was a showman whose life and persona were as surreal as his paintings. He affected long eloquent moustaches, capes and wild colors, and extreme expressions in photographs. Everyone has seen his wildman image. He showcased his individuality, dressing in exotic clothes even as a child (perhaps to eradicate the shade of his dead brother to whom he was frequently compared). Photographs show that he was a breathtaking young man with magnetic gaze. His life and art were equally colorful. It’s somehow fitting that this museum nearly abuts the memorials of Ringling and Disney.

Lizard Eater
We toured the museum on April Fool’s. I ran into Sally Mackenzie’s stepson from Bowdoinham inside. Outside I admired a sculpted egret for several minutes before it winked and continued on its hunt for lizards. The Fuji film blimp cruised overhead and a bright red biplane buzzed by. It all seemed appropriately Dali-esque.

4/1.. cont.

I’ve got a sore spot about the cult of personality in the arts. I believe it’s what the art does, not who did it, that’s important. But, can 50 million readers of People Magazine be wrong? Isn’t every petty detail of artistic celebrity more valuable than experiencing the work itself? Of course it is.. to the dealers and museum curates.

Dali is the worst case example. One of the century’s great self-promoters and showmen. It’s a wonder these paintings aren’t down in the Ringling Museum alongside the circus Rubenses. You can forgive Dali, of course. One look at photographs of him as a young man show what a strikingly beautiful creature he was. He must have turned heads wherever he went. So dramatic presentation was a genetic gift. And self-promotion is the only alternative to subsistence in the arts, in any century. Just read Cellini’s autobio and you’ll see that the Renaissance artists invented this game of hype. We should applaud the Dalis as great showmen, and salesmen.

The trouble is that the hype blinds us to their art. I have trouble seeing past the banner headlines in museums. The work of GREAT ARTISTS comes with so much baggage that I get run down by the porter. Either the image of a great painting is so familiar that it’s almost impossible to actually SEE it afresh, in the flesh, or the fame of the artist creates such intellectual expectations that I’m thinking references when I should just be looking. The “museum quality” thing isn’t helped by the overbearing scholasticism in the mausoleums, either. There’s so much text on the walls you wonder if anyone can think for themselves.

I try NOT to read the labels in museums. I said TRY. Our compulsion to caption experience is basic to the beast, however. Or it was drummed into us by scholastic pedants. At least I won’t look at the words first. In the Dali Museum the texts were actually clear and to the point, but the work tells the tale. And to see a massed retrospective of any artist is fascinating. In our age of self-absorption, an artist who perfects the representation of his dreams, who turns the material details of his world into a grand symbolism, has to be honored as a prophet. Or reviled.

The surrealism of the 30s and 40s looks so dated now. Like the nightmare of those times. And it’s the late works, those huge canvases with floating Christs and draped Marys, and the child Columbus setting foot on America, which are most compelling. Dali’s latter day tricks with holographic paintings are less effective, now there are billboards along the highway using the same surprise effect.

It's Dali’s need to shock us, disorient us, which is his ultimate trademark, and familiarity grounds the jolt. You are left admiring the technique, which will always be powerful, but you wonder if there was any substance to the message once stripped of its visceral punch. Monumentalism is a cheap trick, without content.. and are the private nightmares of famous artists worth $8 per to contemplate, if they don’t mirror some larger truth? The big Jesus paintings come closest to jumping over the years, for me, but seeing them in Smithsonian, or the like, had discharged too much of the juice.

The small carvings that so moved me in Sarasota were all of unknown attribution. Which is much to be preferred. The artists are invisible. All that remains is the power of the work. Hope they ate ok.

As usual I was out in the air breathing deep long before Peggy. Along the marina side of the museum an egret was stalking lizards in the hedge, and oblivious to people two yards away. I followed him along for 20 minutes, enraptured by his movements, sketching madly. He would lift his pencil-thin legs, flexing his toes before setting them down, stepping gracefully trough the tall grass. All 18 inches of his serpentine neck would wiggle eagerly as he focused on the 10 inch lizards. Then strike. He’d squeeze the lizard amidships for a moment, then swallow him whole. And go stalking again. A four foot tall lizard-killer on the prowl. Very surreal.

Surreal Encounter
Peggy was encountering one of our neighbors from Bowdoinham inside. Peter MacKenzie, stepson to her ex-partner. Son of the marriage Peggy played matchmaker to. Peter is making a Florida tour with his college a capella group, singing the National Anthem at a hockey playoff tonight. More surrealism.

Time for Tampa. Our navigator is still hot for museum art, in particular the Tampa M of A's antiquities, items which unfailingly stir her to draw. Dali has given me a dose of museumitis, so I go off to capture the colorful office towers of downtown Tampa.


Pretty sterile town, folks. The kind of place where the streets are almost empty, the homeless keep moving, and the meter cops are unforgiving. I was parked across from the Tampa Electric walkup windows, where people were doling out greenbacks to keep their lights on. One poor woman stood at the window reciting the litany of her impecuniarity loud enough for me to hear. When she turned around a cop was ticketing her car, and all her tears and protestations didn’t move him one wit. I kept feeding quarters into the meter. The technicolor buildings are eyecandy, though. Maybe everyone is indoors in an airconditioned daydream.

By mid-afternoon even Peggy has had enough culture, and we eagerly return to the joys of the long mall. The consuming frenzy is heightened by road construction north of Tampa, and we endure an hour of asphalt fumes and shoppers’ aggro before we get spit out of the maw. I’ve neglected to observe a special feature of Florida’s miracle miles: geriatric outlets. The Knee Place. Pedopedics. Ambulatory Devices. New Teeth: $100. Private MRI scanning. And the highway hospitals are the biggest institutions in sight. The public schools that look like minimalls can’t begin to compete. There’s a pharmacy at every junction. Almost gives you a tremor.

Peggy's Poseidon

Suddenly it’s over. There’s just a hint of rise and fall to the road, like the bedclothes on a sleeping child. Liveoak-shaded pasturelands full of cattle and egrets. The longleaf pines rise up again, and we’re in Central Florida. Signs advertising tack and cowboy gear. Hype for a county fair. And the familiar signs of rural civilization: lawn ornaments. A custom mailbox outlet, with a row of wickedgood concoctions out front. A monumental cypress butt carvatoria, with hideous manatees and pelicans. And cut-signboard yardart clustered in front of shaded bungalows.

We’re back in the latitudes of DeLeon Springs, where crystal waters gush out of limestone depths and run in sparkling rivers to the sea. It hasn’t been totally trampled yet, and the breeze today makes it like a July evening at home. Wildflowers are running rampant on the margins of Rt. 19, and blooming trees sweeten the air. The Owl glides into Homosassa Springs, and comes to rest alongside a state wildlife refuge. Manatees in the morning.

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