PHILADELPHIA -- Remember the eccentric artist with the upturned handlebar mustache who walked his two pet ocelots through the posh Hotel Meurice in Paris? The one who made far-out films and funky television commercials and who loved landing on magazine covers? Now meet the Salvador Dali regarded by many art critics as one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. In the centennial year of his birth, that wild and crazy guy whose works are in many of the world's most prestigious museums is getting his due.
Philadelphia is rolling out a "surreal" red carpet to welcome "Salvador Dali," the most comprehensive retrospective since the artist's death in 1989. It arrives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, its only US venue, on Feb. 16, and promises to be a blockbuster. Bright red Dali banners will decorate the city, special lighting will illuminate the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, shops will showcase lavish Daliesque window displays. Visitors will be able to sip Dalinean Dream cocktails and dine off Dali-inspired menus that may include marzipan clocks. What's more, aficionados may follow the city's exuberant happenings in an occasional broadsheet, the Philadelphia "Dali News."
"Salvador Dali," a landmark show of over 200 works, including the artist's iconic Surrealist masterpieces, culminates a busy Dali exhibition year. It complements "Dalii & Mass Culture," a multimedia showcase of the artist's fascination with high and low culture that opened in Spain and is now at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., through Jan. 30.
While a serious exploration of the artist's work, the Philadelphia show also has a playful side. Dali, after all, is the artist who said, "The one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous."
Among various oddball curiosities, he provides not one but two telephones with lobster handsets and a china bust of a woman with corn cobs around her neck, a cartoon strip collar band, and two small figures and a wheelbarrow on her head. Then there's the 7-foot-long, pink satin sofa in the shape of Mae West's lips. (A plastic version of this sofa sits by Dali's phallic-shaped pool at his Catalonian home.)
The exhibit covers every aspect of Dali's work, from his art student days in Madrid to his last work, in 1983, darkly titled "The Swallow's Tail -- Series on Catastrophes." The show's power, however, is in the great Surrealist paintings of the 1920s and '30s, meticulously executed with realistic details and precise draftsmanship. The imaginative sweep of the images and the clarity of their technique take your breath away.
Those years also produced mesmerizing optical illusions and multiple image paintings. Stand before "Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach" in which the seaside boulders and beaches of Catalonia morph into a large dog. Or contemplate "The Endless Enigma" and try to find the hidden greyhound, boat, still life with pear, face of his intimate friend and poet Federico Garca Lorca, the back of a woman, a reclining philosopher, a mandolin, and a horse.
Surrealism, the art and literary movement launched in 1924 by poet Andre Breton in "Manifesto of Surrealism," called on Freudian symbolism and dreams.
Its free-wheeling association of images was practically made for Dali's obsessions and tormented relationships. His paintings, even their titles, are full of sexual references.
Ironically, this master of Freudian symbolism found his most famous image, the melting watch, when he saw a soft camembert cheese running over a stone and playfully painted numbers on it.
Dali was Surrealism's most famous face, but oddly, he wasn't in at the creation or as it faded after World War II. He officially joined the movement in 1929, five years after it began, but that didn't stop him from proclaiming, Louis XIV-like, "Surrealism, c'est moi." Dali was never known for modesty.
That same year, Dali met his future wife, his adored Gala, who was married to Surrealist poet Paul Eluard, and they began a sometimes troubled and reputedly unconsummated 50-year relationship. They lived together in Port Lligat, a tiny fishing village on the northeast coast of Spain, and often apart, after he gave her a medieval castle nearby, where he needed her written invitation to visit. She was his muse, the lifetime companion he painted many times.
One of the best-known Gala pictures is "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate, One Second Before Awakening." Dali paints Gala sunbathing naked on the rocks at Port Lligat surrounded by an array of Freudian images.
Fiercely loyal to his Catalan heritage, Dali tried to return to his native Catalonia every year from his frequent American and European travels.
There, in his Port Lligat studio, he did much of his serious painting in sight of the craggy headlands of the Mediterranean, whose rock formations and beaches often appear in his Surreal fantasies.
In 1939 the Surrealists expelled Dali for his indecisive stance on the Spanish Civil War. The irony is that just months before it began, Dali painted his horrific vision of Spain's coming self-destruction in "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans -- Premonition of Civil War." The landmark picture is a centerpiece of the Philadelphia show.
After Surrealism and Freud, Dali investigated modern science and religious mysticism. Constantly reinventing his style, he later delved into Classicism and Cubism. His creativity was prodigious. His images, ideas, and explorations were so profuse and dense that they stretch your mind with allusions, connections, and new perspectives.
No wonder Michael Taylor, one of the show's contributing curators, said, "Our role as curators of the centennial retrospective is to give Dali, the painter, writer, filmmaker, sculptor, mythmaker, and performance artist, the proper recognition he deserves." He might well have added writer, book illustrator, designer of jewelry, ties, fabrics, posters, theatrical sets, and costumes.
As the Philadelphia exhibition makes clear, there wasn't much this great artist couldn't do -- or didn't.
Joan Scobey is a freelance writer in New York.