Salvador Dali used to say that the only difference between him and a madman was that he was not crazy. Considered one of the top artists of the 20th century, and revered as the inspiration for the most fantastic surrealism, for a long time, his art was subject to harsh and hostile criticism, “frivolous”, like the artist himself. Despite his many critics, doubters and detractors, Dali, who proclaimed himself ”the savior of modernism,” reached the apex of surrealistic painting, although his legacy is much broader. Most of his surviving artworks are in his native Catalonia, in Spain. However, few people are aware of the existence of the Salvador Dali Museum, a little pictorial jewel located in sunny St. Petersburg, FL. The museum has the most complete collection of works by Dali outside of Spain: 96 oils, 100 watercolors and drawings, countless posters, photos, sculptures, decorative objects and a vast archive of books and references about Dali and surrealism.
The Dali Museum is a tribute to the genius of the Catalan painter and his close relationship with A. Reynolds Morse and Eleanor Reese. Morse, a magnate of the plastic industry from Cleveland, Ohio, and his wife, discovered Dali´s work during an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Dali and Gala, his great love and muse, had moved to New York to escape World War II (the couple lived eight years in the United States). In the spring of 1943, as a gift for their first wedding anniversary, the Morses bought their first Dali: Daddy Longlegs of the Evening Hope (Dali used to title his paintings indistinctly in English, French, Catalan or Spanish). By then, the Morses and Dali had begun a solid friendship. As their friendship grew, so did Morse‘s collection, which included works bought directly from the artist, as well as pieces acquired from private dealers and collectors. “The expansion of our collection over 45 years is actually a series of ´Dalian´ adventures”, wrote Reynolds Morse in his monograph Dalí, created expressly for the museum. He authored a total of 15 books about the artist, while his wife Eleanor translated most of Dali’s writings from Spanish to French and English. Little by little, new works by Dali replaced paintings by Chirico, Tanguy, Magritte and Miro in their collection, which grew to the point that the couple was forced to look for a bigger space to display it. There was one caveat: “it was vital to keep the collection intact, because that is the only way to understand the development of the artist, from a teenager in Catalonia to his transformation into a figure of international renown,” explains Morse in his book.
Finding a “home” for the entire collection was no easy task. It was the late 1970s, and Dali was still considered a “crazy Catalan” by the people that dictated the strict standards of international art. Not a single museum was interested in purchasing the collection, and other institutions would have accepted only a portion. In January 1980, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “U.S. Art World Dillydallies Over Dalis” about the unusual case of an American couple donating their extremely valuable collection of artworks by Dali, and so far no institution was inclined to accept such a gift. The article caught the attention of James W. Martin, a lawyer from St. Petersburg, who saw the glitter of a treasure in Morse‘s offer. He immediately enlisted the help of a group of powerful community leaders, who contacted Morse in Ohio and started a capital campaign to raise the required funds. A few months after, they successfully opened the Dali Museum.
What began as a dream driven by the need to find a bigger space to host the largest private collection of works by Salvador Dali, has resulted in one the most important attractions of the city of St. Petersburg. The museum was so popular and successful, that when faced with the urgent need to protect it from hurricanes and floods, and to add more space to display new works, its board of directors, the city, and art patrons engaged in the task of building a new home in 2008. The new structure, a masterpiece of surrealism, is a mix of classicism and ‘Dalian’ fantasy that stands above Tampa Bay since 2011, very close to the original building.
Designed by architect Yann Weymouth from HOK, the new building combines rationality and fantasy. It consists of a simple rectangle, constructed with 18-inch thick walls that are able to withstand a category 5 hurricane. A huge geodesic bubble called “ the enigma” – 75 feet tall and composed of 1062 crystal triangles – emerges from the main frame. Inside the museum, another element symbolic of Dali’s work: a helix shaped staircase that reminds us of his obsession with spirals and the structure of the DNA molecule.
The three-floor building contains a store, café, theatre, classrooms, conference rooms and workshops or every kind, in addition to an extensive library. The third floor offers wonderful views of the bay through the “enigma”, and houses the galleries, where we find the 96 paintings in the collection, an extensive selection of artworks, posters, drawings and photographs of the artist, as well as objects inspired by the work of the Catalan painter.
The lanscape along the bay is perfect for relaxation and meditation. The garden design allows visitors to theorize about the relationship between mathematics and nature, another cornerstone of the painter´s work. To complete the outdoor space, the architects included a labyrinth that invites exploration and serenity.
At last, Dali’s oeuvre has found a deserving home in the US, where fans of surrealism can take a comprehensive look at the man and the artist who “saved modernism”. ■