Hello Dali

Globe and Mail

Fans of surrealism will be twirling their pointy moustaches in delight today after the opening in Philadelphia of the biggest celebration of Salvador Dali's work ever to hit North America. The blockbuster exhibition features a mind-boggling 200 paintings and multimedia creations by the legendary Spanish artist, who was both revered and reviled as the leading exponent of perhaps the 20th century's most controversial art movement.

But, as this exhibition shows, there's much more to Dali than surrealism. Running until May 15 at the vast, column-fronted Philadelphia Museum of Art, Salvador Dali invites visitors to reconsider an artist often dismissed as an over-commercialized showman. First staged at Venice's Palazzo Grassi during the 2004 centenary of his birth, this six-decade retrospective presents a surprisingly serious side to Dali's work, examining his exploration of other artistic styles and the depth and diversity of his ideas.

The only North American venue for the show, Dali is divided into a chronological series of small rooms. The exhibit traces his development from a self-assured teenager who produced a precocious self-portrait of the artist as a very young man to a series of revealing religious-themed canvases he created in his final decades. Most visitors, though, will initially want to immerse themselves in the psychologically-charged wastelands of disembodied sexual anatomy and melting clocks for which he is best remembered.

The most iconic of these disturbing works -- mainly produced between 1929 and 1939 -- form the centrepiece of the exhibition. These include canvases executed in his meticulous, almost photographic style, such as Morning Ossification of the Cypress, where a petrified horse takes flight against a storm-filled sky and William Tell, featuring an insanely-grinning father threatening his son with a pair of scissors.

With sex a pervasive influence on the artist during this period -- The Great Masturbator is one of the self-portraits on display -- Dali increasingly transferred his sexual fears and obsessions into his work. Many of these feature his lifelong partner and muse Gala Eluard, with whom he began an adulterous relationship in 1929. He eventually began portraying her in a simple, idealized form in paintings such as the exquisite My Wife, Nude, Contemplating Her Own Flesh Becoming Stairs.

But Dali wasn't only interested in the sexual side of his subconscious. The exhibition shows how he developed what he called the "paranoiac-critical method," producing a series of remarkable optical-illusion paintings with hidden double images. These include Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, which encourages visitors to stop and stare in search of cleverly obscured faces, dog collars and landscape features.

There was a similar duality in Dali's response to the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. While most artists opposed fascist leaders including Franco and Hitler, Dali remained detached, claiming to be studying them from afar like a scientist. But while this incensed contemporaries like Picasso, critics have retrospectively hailed one of Dali's works as perhaps the 20th century's strongest anti-war painting. Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), painted in 1936, is an eye-catching arrangement of sexualized, disembodied limbs, cannibalistic imagery and a grimacing decayed head set amidst Dali's signature blasted landscape.

Alongside these surrealist masterworks, the Philadelphia exhibition displays a number of revealing, lesser-known creations. Private collections from the U.S., Europe, Brazil, Mexico and Japan have been dredged for some of Dali's sculptures, photos, holograms, movies and furniture. These include the pink satin Mae West Lips Sofa, a Bakelite lobster telephone and a whimsical Venus de Milo cabinet, complete with strategically-placed drawers with ermine tuft handles.

Playing on a five-minute loop, there's also room for the dream sequence Dali orchestrated for the 1945 Hitchcock movie Spellbound, in which Gregory Peck relates to Ingrid Bergman and a ludicrously-accented psychologist his imagined realm of eyeball-covered interiors, stark landscapes and faceless men chasing him.

For those who think they know Dali, the exhibition's final few rooms may be the biggest eye-opener. While his post-war works were largely ignored, critics are beginning to re-examine giant canvases such as Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubicus), which combined influences from atomic science and Catholicism into what Dali, who died in 1989, called "nuclear mysticism." These shockingly fresh canvases take a sci-fi approach to religious themes and include some of the most powerful spiritual images of the modern era.

Dali famously said that the only difference between himself and a madman was that he was not crazy. But this new Philadelphia exhibition shows that there was more method to his "surreal madness" than his legacy seems to permit. If nothing else, this spectacular show should spark a careful re-examination of the work of an artist whose stated aim was to "systematize confusion. . . and discredit completely the world of reality."

If you go:

Salvador Dali runs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until May 15. The museum is located at Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street. Admission is by dated, timed ticket and prices are about $25 for adults and $12 for children under 13.

For more information, visit or call 215-763-8100.

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