Dally With Dali

The endlessly entertaining self-promoter drops in to Coral Springs.

On my most recent visit to the Coral Springs Museum of Art, Executive Director Barbara O'Keefe mentioned that the museum's current exhibitions, "Collecting Dali"and "Dali on Tour," which opened in March, had proved to be consistently popular. She seemed surprised. I wasn't.

Critical opinion of the flamboyant Spaniard fluctuated wildly during his long life and has continued to do so since his death in 1989. Last year brought yet another major reevaluation, with more shows at galleries and museums and more stories in glossy magazines.

The public, however, seems never to have lost its fascination with the defiantly eccentric Salvador Dali. This is due in large part, of course, to his flair for self-promotion. Perhaps no one this side of Andy Warhol has so successfully created and nurtured a public art persona over such an extended period of time. I would even venture that his 1931 oil painting The Persistence of Memory, with its ants and melting watches and dreamy evocations of the landscape of the artist's youth, is one of the most famous images in art history, repeatedly reproduced and pilfered and distorted until it has become a permanent fixture in our cultural consciousness.

Dali's The Hallucinogenic Toreador: Critical opinion fluctuates wildly, but his art is unforgettable.
Dali's The Hallucinogenic Toreador: Critical opinion fluctuates wildly, but his art is unforgettable.

The ever-resourceful O'Keefe has capitalized on this phenomenon, maybe without fully recognizing its potential, by pairing two distinct but related exhibitions. "Collecting Dali" brings together nearly three dozen Dali works from half a dozen South Florida collectors, including curator and appraiser Jerry Bengis.

Eight sculptures, most in bronze, are displayed in the museum's central gallery. Some are fairly standard-issue Dali: Head of Venus Otorhinological, in which a nose and an ear switch positions; the familiar drooping title object in Soft Watch; and the not-quite-successful attempt to merge realism and cubism in Cubist Angel.

But we're compensated with Mother Maternity, a chunky figure that contrasts an ethereal, semitranslucent pale purple torso in glass with its multiple (17 or so) bronze breasts. It's an inspired combination, one that's missing from an identically titled bronze elsewhere in the show. In a far corner, there's also a surprisingly powerful, small, silver sculpture, Twisted Christ, that uses a dramatically distorted portrayal of the Crucifixion — the feet, for instance, seem to be nailed to different sides of the cross — to convey the physical extremes of such a horrific execution. And there's a magnificent bronze Mask of Beethoven that, by imitating crudely molded clay, powerfully suggests the downcast, moody composer. As in Rodin's famous portrayal of Balzac, the subject seems to be struggling to emerge from the sculpture.

The museum's west galleries are devoted to Dali's lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, and prints — a virtually inexhaustible resource, given the artist's astoundingly prolific output. Many of the usual concerns reappear: melting watches, ants, the Venus de Milo, Don Quixote.

Anyone who has ever had a bad dental experience will appreciate the horror-movie ambience of The Dentist, a lithograph portraying a dentist with a miner-style light on his forehead and a bat in the background, all rendered in garish colors. An especially striking 1927 litho called Apparatus With Hand is quintessential Dali, with surreal forms floating on a sea of vivid blue. La Ville Odorante, an engraving on parchment, features a horse and a bust among wispy lines suggesting a landscape — a near-minimalist piece from an artist better-known for his compulsive attention to elaborate detail.

As intriguing as many of these works are, they collectively give only a general sense of Dali's output. You almost need to be fairly well-versed in the artist's work to appreciate their variations on his many themes. That's where the other exhibition comes into play.

"Dali on Tour" is a strange but fascinating show that attempts to provide an overview of the artist's entire career. The catch is that the works on tour are not the originals but rather high-quality photographs of them. These reproductions are of oil paintings in the collection of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, which are presumably too valuable to travel en masse.

Such a traveling exhibition is a compromise, of course, one of sometimes monumental proportions. On the one hand, where would you ever get to see as comprehensive a survey of Dali's work? Even the Dali Museum is unlikely to have all the originals on display at once. On the other hand, you have to settle for copies that (a) invariably fail to capture the brushwork of the actual paintings and (b) also fail, in most cases, to suggest the scale of the originals. For an artist whose range included amazingly intricate works both tiny and gigantic, this is no mean matter.

Even so, the show is an excellent crash course in Dali. Some of the mostly realistic studies of his youth are included, such as a haunting self-portrait from 1921 and a stark Spanish landscape from 1917, when the artist was still in his teens.

Oeufs sur le plat sans le plat (1932), which roughly translates to "Eggs on a platter without the platter," documents Dali's piquant sense of humor. Slave Market With the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940) is an excellent example of the artist's uncanny ability to conjure trompe l'oeil images. In this case, as the title indicates, figures in a slave market also magically form a bust of the French philosopher. The image shifts before your eyes from one plane to the other.

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