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Salvador Dali: the grand master of surrealism.

SALVADOR DALI (1904-89), among the most influential artists of the 20th century, is the subject of the first comprehensive retrospective exhibition to be organized since the artist's death and the first to be seen in the U.S. in more than 60 years. It embraces every aspect of his creative life as painter, writer, object-maker, designer of ballets and exhibitions, filmmaker, theorist, and publicist. It includes more than 200 works, placing Dali's famous surrealist canvases of the 1920s and 1930s in context with his early and later efforts and reassessing his position in modern art. The exhibition is composed of 150 paintings, the largest number of Dali's pictures ever to be assembled together, accompanied by sculpture, works on paper, photographs of the artist, and a documentary section.

"Dali is one of the best-known artists of all time and yet, 16 years after his death and despite such remarkable public recognition, his achievement has yet to be fully understood," says Anne d'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "This exhibition will provide a splendid opportunity for scholars, artists, and visitors to encounter a complete and complex picture of the artist's oeuvre."

Dali's lasting importance has been much debated and discussed in recent years as exhibitions and scholarly studies have begun to reexamine seriously the breadth and intelligence of his work over seven decades, as well as exploring his impact on subsequent generations of artists. Surrealism has been the preeminent context for the understanding of Dali's work, and his relationship with this movement is a significant focus within the exhibition.

"Dali" is organized chronologically, beginning with the Catalan-born master's earliest efforts from his art school days in Madrid, where he quickly absorbed the techniques of such Spanish masters as Francisco de Zurbaran, Diego Velazquez, and Francisco de Goya, before assimilating more recent developments in painting such as Impressionism and Cubism. Included among the early paintings in the exhibition are the astonishingly realistic "Basket of Bread" (1926), and portraits of family members, such as "Figure at a Window" (1925), as well as his first contributions to the European avant-garde in the 1920s, when he rapidly reacted to the work of his contemporaries Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso. Other early works reflect his friendships with the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the filmmaker Luis Bunuel with whom he developed the wholly individual mode of "anti-art"--seen in canvases such as "Unsatisfied Desires" (1928) and the "Little Cinders (Cenictas)" (1927-28).

Dali perhaps is best known for the Surrealist paintings he made between 1929-39, in which he transformed personal desires and obsessions into some of the most arresting images of the 20th century. Paintings like "The First Days of Spring" (1929) and "The Enigma of Desire: My Mother ..." (1929), executed with the minute realism that he called "handmade color photography," led poet and essayist Andre Breton--one of the founders of the Surrealist movement--to welcome the artist into its ranks. That same year, Dali met Gala Eluard, then the wife of Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. She became his lifelong companion, artistic muse, and alter ego, and the exhibition will include numerous portraits of her, among them "Gala and the Angelus of Millet Preceding the Imminent Arrival of the Conical Anamorphoses" (1933).

Dali invented what he called the "Paranoiac-Critical method" to investigate the mysteries of the subconscious. Influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, the artist invested myths and legends with disturbing psychological meanings, often related to his own estranged relationship with his father, a formidable notary, and his beloved mother, who died when he was 16. Paintings such as "William Tell" (1930) and "Spectre of Sex Appeal" (1934) show how Dali transformed existing myths to create his own unique visual language. The Paranoiac-Critical method also was the source of the double images that are such a striking aspect of his work of the late 1930s, as seen in "The Metamorphosis of Narcissus" (1937) and "Apparition of a Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach" (1938).

The exhibition also examines Dali's response to the convulsive politics of Europe in the 1930s, seen in such landmark paintings as "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War" and "Autumnal Cannibalism." These 1936 works are poignant allegories of the Spanish Civil War, which Dali viewed as a "delirium of auto-strangulation." It was partly Dali's ambivalent reaction to the conflict in his homeland that led to his expulsion from the Surrealist group in 1939.

Another aspect of the retrospective is a thorough examination of Dali's less-known post-World War II period, which is marked by technical virtuosity and an interest in optical illusions, science, and religion. His apparently contradictory allegiances include a revival of epic scale history painting and technological inventions such as holograms, as well as a complex relationship with the Catholic Church. In paintings such as "The Madonna of Port-Lligat (first version)" (1949) and "Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubicus)" (1954), Dali attempted to reconcile Christian iconography with images of dematerialization inspired by the discoveries of particle physics and atomic energy. He described this new phase of his art as "Nuclear Mysticism," which led him to create such monumental works as "The Railway Station at Perpignan" (1965). The exhibition fittingly concludes with Dali's final painting, "The Swallow's Tail--Series on Catastrophes" (1983).

Although often dismissed during his life-time, Dali's late work had a strong impact on emerging artists in the 1960s and 1970s, reflected in the contemporary imagery of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke, and Jeff Koons. "Dali's enormous impact on contemporary art has yet to be fully assessed," notes Michael Taylor, curator of Modern Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "His late work, which embraced psychoanalysis, modern science, and religious mysticism, redefined the boundaries of art, fashion, and popular culture in ways that we are only now beginning to understand."

"Dali" is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art--the only U.S. venue for the exhibition--through May 15.
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Title Annotation:Museums Today; retrospective exhibition on the artist at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:May 1, 2005
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