I was a reporter on St. Petersburg Times in 1980, when St. Pete got the idea to turn himself into Salvador Dalíwood. Not everyone was on board: on the one hand, there was lamentation about Dalí’s apparent tolerance of fascism (including a cozy long-term relationship with Franco), and on the other, mocking objections from the art world to his carnivalesque persona and his faithful figurativeness. functions as overtly commercial, too crude and populist for serious consideration.
But St. Pete, lagging behind twin city Tampa in development and desperate for something to add to the nation’s best beaches as a tourist attraction, took up the offer of industrialist A. Reynolds Morse and his wife, Eleanor Reese Morse, to donate their extensive collection of Dalí works for an institution that would hold it together and show it. In 1982, the Dalí Museum opened there, in a modest, one-story former warehouse, perched precariously close to the water that is the city’s hallmark.
Like most newspapers, the once mighty St. Petersburg Times has fallen on hard times — it is now being published as Tampa Bay Times, posting a slimmed-down shadow of his former print self just twice a week. But Dalí—except, as he might say, for the small incident of his death in 1989, aged 84 (ignoring the fact that he was exhumed in 2017, when his mustache was found to be intact)—has the nice we want. In 2011, his portrait of the surrealist poet and friend Paul Éluard (whose wife, uber-muse and sexual libertine Gala, soon became Mrs. Dalí, despite the painter’s alleged impotence) was sold at Sotheby’s for $21.5 million.
“Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears”
Until 6/12: Mon at 11:00–17:00, Thurs. at 11.00–20.00, Friday–Sun. 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.; Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, artic.edu, adults $25 ($35 Fast Pass, $22 Illinois residents, $20 Chicago residents), seniors 65+, students and teens 14-17 $19 ($29 Fast Pass, $16 Illinois -residents) , $14 Chicago residents), children under 14 free
That year, a larger Dalí museum opened in St. Petersburg. Designed by Yann Weymouth, it’s a plain square, white, three-story building that appears to have been taken over by a giant snail, its bulging glass shell erupting through hurricane-proof concrete walls. Now a major expansion of that museum is underway. And here in Chicago, the Art Institute (which might have been looking down its nose in 1980) has its first ever Dalí solo show, “Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears.”
It’s a comfortably digestible show – 50 pieces, including publications and photographs, almost all from the 1930s (the decade when Dalí shot to international prominence, landing on the cover of Time in 1936), housed in three galleries on the second floor of the modern wing. The influence of Sigmund Freud, in particular The dream interpretation and the concept of the unconscious is a through line, filled with castrating knives and images of people who have sprouted cupboard doors and drawers that can open onto their inner lives.
Loosely chronologically, the show moves from the earliest work from this period, when Dalí was part of the Paris surrealist group led by André Breton (they expelled him for being soft on Franco and Hitler), to the main focus of the exhibition, which Dalí called his paranoid-critical method – basically trickery that calls into question the validity of one’s own vision. St Petersburg has some impressively large examples of this, including a standing nude seen from behind as she looks through a window towards the sea (Gala with a view to the Mediterranean. . .); back up, and it becomes a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The range of works in the art institute exhibition is smaller, but there is an excellent double image example in a series of two preparatory drawings and a painting, The image disappears. Rorschach-esque, it could either be the standing figure of a woman bowing her head to read or the face of a man, probably the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.
The final gallery is devoted to a pavilion Dalí created for the New York World’s Fair in 1939, Dream of Venus, which included an “underwater burlesque funhouse” with bare-breasted “living floating ladies.” Melting clocks and hanging fried eggs? Sure, but Dalí was conventional in this way: like so many revered artists before him, he was a chest man.
And he’s not the artist that came to mind after I left the show. In this post-pandemic environment, the economic ravages of COVID continue. The art institute is now closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. No food is available there, not even a cup of coffee. The once-lively lobby on Michigan Avenue has been emptied of both furniture and most staff—when I was there last week, the vast Kenneth and Anne Griffin Court was as deserted as the marriage it’s named after. Although the Dalí show, with a virtual queue, was well attended, there didn’t seem to be many other visitors. (According to an Art Institute spokesperson, attendance in 2022 was just over 1 million — that would be down from about 1.6 million in 2019 — and two cafes are set to reopen in the museum on March 23.)
As I exited via the grand staircase on Michigan Avenue, Adams to Interstate and then north, what met my eye was a depressing cavalcade of empty storefronts. There may be another way of looking at this, but they looked to me like harbingers of the commercial real estate bust ticking down our likely near future. What came to mind was not Dalí, in all his Freudian opulence, but the urban images of Edward Hopper, master of stark, soul-killing, vacant space.