The Dali Drama

When he died a decade ago at the age of 85, Salvador Dali left behind an output vast enough to make him one of the most prolific artists of the 20th Century. The flamboyant Spaniard's legacy also includes a reputation as one of the shrewdest -- some would say most shameless -- self-promoters of his time, a tireless huckster who proudly wore his neuroses on his sleeve as he set out to secure his place in the history of art. (Even Madonna could learn a thing or two from him.)

Dali's success at leaving his indelible imprint on the world is a decidedly mixed blessing. There's a widespread tendency to lump the wildly uneven works of his later years with the extraordinary paintings he produced early on, as if the brand name Dali is itself a guarantee of first-rate work.

"Salvador Dali: Exhibition and Sale" at the New River Gallery (formerly Apropos) on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale features 60-odd Dali works. Some come from the Albaretto Family Collection, which the gallery touts as the largest private collection of Dali originals in the world; others are drawn from the collection of Pierre Argillet, a Dali friend who for a time was also the publisher of the artist's etchings; and the curator is the Baron Phillippe du Noyer de Lescheraine. Despite the show's impressive-sounding pedigree, however, most of the works assembled here are reminders that Dali was as capable as anyone of cranking out works of variable quality.

The exhibition comprises etchings and lithographs mainly, along with a few watercolors and original drawings. There's only a single oil, a 1954 painting of four elephants with long, stiltlike legs and towering obelisks on their backs, priced at $600,000, and even it is inferior to a similar color engraving elsewhere in the gallery of a trio of elephants. The oil is also a rehashing of material Dali used to much greater effect in the '40s, most notably in the 1946 oil on canvas The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Many of the elements familiar from Dali's most famous paintings crop up throughout the show: the swarming ants and notorious melting timepieces from Persistence of Memory, the 1931 painting that's easily Dali's best-known work; the stark landscapes and spacious skies of the artist's native Spain, which provide the atmospheric backdrops for countless paintings; the misshapen beings with elongated limbs, propped up by crutches, that suggest some awful scientific experiment gone awry.

And yet the exhibition feels oddly incomplete. It's as if someone had assembled a side gallery of these pieces as an introduction to a larger, more comprehensive Dali retrospective, then forgot to follow through with the main show. (The Peggy Lee standard "Is That All There Is?" would be the perfect theme song.)

A selection of 14 pieces from a 1960 exhibition of 100 watercolors Dali did to illustrate Dante's Divine Comedy is grouped on one wall, and a few others from the series are scattered throughout the show. In Departure on the Grand Voyage, we get one of those eerily empty Dali landscapes, with a ridge of craggy terrain pulling us toward the distant horizon, and the distorted human anatomy of Legs echoes that of The Spectre of Sex Appeal and Soft Construction With Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War, two paintings from the '30s, the latter one of Dali's most disturbing works.

The set is prefaced by a placard that includes a quotation from a typically immodest 1965 Dali book called Diary of a Genius that sheds light on the artist's untraditional take on his source material: "When they ask me why I have depicted Hell in bright colors, I answer that romanticism committed the ignominy of making us believe that Hell was black as the coal mines of Gustave Dore, where you cannot see a thing. All that is wrong. Dante's Hell is illuminated by the sun and the honey of the Mediterranean...."

It's an intriguing approach, but the concept sounds better than the results look. By flooding Hell with light and color, Dali also drains it of any serious menace. What's so horrific about postcards from a Mediterranean vacation?

More effective by far is the etching Le Christ, in which Dali interprets the Crucifixion. He reduces his subject to a handful of thick, bold strokes with only the most basic details, then augments the already emotionally charged image with what look like dramatic spatters of black ink (or blood) radiating from Christ's head. The simplicity and potency of the picture recall Dali's similarly to-the-point rendering of Don Quixote, as well as the spiritual gravity of some of his surprisingly moving religious canvases of the '50s.

The best pieces in the show are two original drawings that also owe their power to simplicity. The dryly witty Téte Surrealiste uses a few elements to maximum advantage: a parched, cracked landscape, a head that seems to be breaking open or decomposing, and some ants. The image is a sort of calling card for the early Dali style.

The other drawing, Angelus, is one of Dali's homages to the well-known work by the 19th-century French painter Jean-Francois Millet in which a peasant couple stands in a field, heads bowed in benediction. This seemingly tranquil image proved to be an exceptionally fertile source of inspiration for Dali, who returned to it again and again over the course of several decades, describing it in one of his books as "the pictorial work which was the most troubling, the most enigmatic, the most dense and the richest in unconscious thoughts that I had ever seen."

Sometimes Dali worked a small but reasonably faithful reproduction of the Millet into a larger surrealist canvas, as in Gala and the Angelus of Millet Immediately Preceding the Arrival of the Conic Anamorphosis, in which it appears as a sort of inset. In other works he transformed the peasants into architecture, as in Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus.

In still others the image fueled inexplicably feverish sexual fantasies. Dali confessed that he imagined the man to be concealing a state of sexual arousal with the hat held in front of him and the woman to be a voracious predator of the praying mantis variety, waiting to devour her mate. He even went so far as to portray the couple engaged in doggy-style intercourse (or perhaps sodomy, with which Dali was obsessed) over their wheelbarrow in a 1965 canvas that bears this astonishing title: Gala Contemplating Dali in a State of Levitation Above His "Pop, Op, Yes, Yes, Pompier" Work of Art in Which We Can See the Two Anxious Characters From Millet's Angelus in Atavistic Hibernation in Front of a Sky Which Can Suddenly Transform Itself Into a Gigantic Maltese Cross in the Very Center of Perpignan Station, on Which the Whole Universe Is Converging.

The simple Angelus drawing here doesn't go to such drastic extremes. But its characters are clearly in flux, with the wheelbarrow that will become a vehicle of sexuality spiraling out of the man's head and a trademark Dali crutch supporting the woman's stumpy appendage. Even in this restrained version, the richness that drew Dali to the image is evident. We can see how it could become such a versatile catalyst for his creativity.

Which brings us to the problem with this particular Dali exhibition: Most of the images are of interest primarily because they allude to other, better works by Dali, usually the oil paintings. They make sense only in the much larger context of a long, productive, highly varied career that's only hinted at here. The show is like an appetizer for an entree that never arrives.

"Salvador Dali: Exhibition and Sale" is on display through April 18 at the New River Gallery, 1016 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-524-2100.

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Michael Mills