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March 25, 2009

Spellbound by Salvador Dali

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Last month I enjoyed a bit of respite from Maryland’s winter by visiting Florida. Finding myself within reasonable driving distance of St. Petersburg, I jumped at the chance to visit the Salvador Dali Museum.


Located on the waterfront in Barboro Harbor, it is the “largest collection of Dali’s work outside of Spain,” according to Peggy McKendry, the assistant to the director of the museum.


The museum, which opened in a renovated marine warehouse March 7, 1982, is the home of 2,140 pieces of Salvador Dali’s art, including 96 oil paintings and eight huge master works.


This collection began in Cleveland, OH, in 1942. Collecting Dali’s art was the lifelong passion of industrialist A. Reynolds Morse, and his wife Eleanor Reese Morse.


The Morses purchased their first Dali work of art, “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening – Hope!” in 1943, a year after they married.


It was the beginning of a 45-year friendship with Salvador Dali and his wife, Gala.


The Morses went on to assemble the largest collection of Dali art in the world. A collection that became so large that in their later years, they realized that they needed to seek out a permanent home for their collection.


So, you might ask, how in the world did the collection end up in St. Petersburg, FL? After seeing an article “U.S. Art World Dillydallies Over Dali’s,” in the Wall Street Journal, civic leaders had the foresight to contact the Morses and convince them to choose St. Petersburg.


Understanding the economic development value of art and culture to a community has paid off well, as it is estimated the museum contributes $60 million annually to the local economy.


One-half of the 200,000 visitors to museum annually, “come to the West Coast of Florida expressly to see the Dali Museum,” according to Ms. McKendry.


In recent years, I have visited art museums – from San Diego, Salt Lake City, Anchorage, Boston, Washington, and Baltimore – and I found the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg to be one of the friendliest exhibitions I have ever seen.


Everyone from Ms. McKendry, to the extremely knowledgeable docents, and even the museum guards went out of their way to make sure you knew that the museum was there to serve, entertain, and educate.


Such accessibility is critical if you are to have a meaningful experience exploring 20th century contemporary art – especially the work of Salvador Dali.


Of the great 20th century artists, his work remains some of the most complicated. Dali is one of the most well known artists of the past century – and one of the least understood.


Everything about Dali is complicated, yet the docents at the museum were able to bring his work to life and explain it in minute detail.


Even his full name is complex: Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech.


He was born May 11, 1904, in Catalonia, Spain, where he died on January 23, 1989, although he did live in the United States for eight years after the outbreak of World War II.


He married Gala, a Russian 11 years his senior, in 1934, after living with her since shortly after they met in August 1929, when she was married to a Surrealist writer and poet, Paul Eluard.


In “pop culture,” Dali is primarily known as a surrealist; however his work, over the span of his lifetime, included drawings, paintings, film, writing, sculpture, and photography of many genres.


His first one-man show was in Barcelona in 1925. He was introduced to the American audience in an exhibition in New York in 1934. It was at that show that one of his most well known paintings, “Persistence of Memory,” with the melting watch, was exhibited, and the American art scene was forever enthralled.


Much of the dismissive derision of his work emanates from the fact that he was relentlessly self-promoting, which often involved shocking, obnoxious, attention-grabbing personal behavior, and antics.


While I was doing some additional research on Dali, after I visited the museum, I had the great fortune to talk with Dan Twyman, the senior art consultant for the “Salvador Dali Society,” in Redondo Beach, CA, the owner of the website, and a volunteer expert for the website in the fine art category.


He and I talked on the phone at great length as to why, of all the great 20th century artists, Dali has remained so popular and well known.


Mr. Twyman regaled me with one of my favorite Dali stories. In 1936, Dali participated in the “London International Surrealist Exhibition.”


There, he delivered a lecture, “Fantomes paranoiaques authentiques,” wearing a deep-sea diving suit and helmet, after making a grand entrance with a pool-billiard cue stick with a pair of Russian wolfhounds.


I first became fascinated with the Dali’s work at a very young age. I was especially piqued by his combinations of seemingly disparate and incongruous images that came together to present a coherent whole.


It was not until after considerable research that I came to understand how each and every image incorporated into his work has a meaning and was the object of a great deal of insight into the art of the old Renaissance masters, math, psychology, science and religion.


Later, when I became fascinated with early movies, especially silent films, and later foreign movies, I discovered his collaborations with film director Luis Buñuel in the surrealist movies, “Un Chien Andalou” in 1929 and L'Age d'or in 1930.


Alfred Hitchcock fans may be interested to know that he collaborated on the dream sequence in the 1945 classic movie, “Spellbound.”


Seventy-five years after Dali first burst upon the American art scene and 20 years after his death, the legend of Salvador Dali and the admiration and appreciation of his art is stronger than ever.


If you ever have a chance to visit the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, you will find it spellbinding.


Wearing a deep-sea diving suit with a helmet is optional.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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