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Dallying at Florida's new Dali Museum

The average visitor to The Dali Museum on the St. Petersburg, Fla., waterfront will walk away thinking there was a method to the artist’s madness.

With twice as much space as the old building, the new Dali displays all 96 oil paintings from the collection of Eleanor and A. Reynolds Morse of Cleveland. That makes it easier to see Salvador Dali’s evolution from master of artistic technique – with fishing boats so three-dimensional that one wants to pick them up – to Surrealist master.

Born in 1904 in rural Catalonia, Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dali I Domenech symbolized innovative and wild themes like flaming giraffes, melting clocks and marching ants. He attended the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid and had his first show in 1925 in Barcelona.

He met his muse, Gala, in 1929 when she and her then-husband poet Paul Eluard visited Dali in Cadarques. Dali later married Gala, a native of Tatarstan, Russia. She appears in several of his works, including “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln – Homage to Rothko,” painted in 1976 and housed at the new Dali Museum.

Evolving from traditional to Surrealism

From his first paintings done as a youngster growing up in Figueres, Spain, near the French Pyrenees, to eight enormous canvases, Dali’s progression as an artist becomes clear. An introductory room shows initial detailed works that typify beginning artists who copy the masters. As a teenager, he captured the sleepy fishing village his family visited in the summers. Those landscapes continue to dominate his surrealistic paintings, in different forms.

“The Persistence of Memory,” with its melting watch faces, remains one of his more memorable surrealistic works, but in 1934, the Surrealists expelled Dali from movement because he was apolitical. The war approached, but he refused to take a stand.

He began indulging scientific, historical and religious themes, producing “The Hallucinogenic Toreador” and “The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.” Both are taller than 5 feet and displayed here under skylights to bask in natural light.

Decades-long friendship

For years, the industrialist Morse family collected Dali’s paintings and hung them on the walls of their Cleveland home. They met Dali and Gala in New York in 1943 and became lifelong friends. Eleanor, who had studied French and Spanish at Case Western Reserve University, translated some of Dali’s essays.

The Morses tried opening a museum in a wing of their Injection Supply Molders Business but launched a nationwide search for a better and bigger location. Meanwhile, Dali opened his own museum in 1974, The Teatro Museo, in Figueres, where it still exists.

They donated their collection to the city of St. Petersburg in 1980. The old museum, opened in 1982, was farther from downtown and more vulnerable to hurricanes. Museum Director Hank Hine pushed for a new hurricane and flood-proof building to protect “the most valuable collection of art in the American South.”

The current museum’s collection spans 2,140 prints, sculptures and drawings, more than twice as many as could be previously displayed.

The $36 million project took two years to construct, and opened on 1/11/11 at 11:11 a.m. Architect Yann Weymouth designed the concrete trapezoid with glass geodesic domes. With 66,400 square feet of building, the new Dali allows room for Sunday yoga classes, a library, a theater and a gift shop. Café Gala offers soups, salads, tapas, wraps, desserts and wine and beer.

Inside, a spectacular concrete staircase spirals in the shape of a helix, a nod to Dali’s fascination with mathematics and science.

Outside, take a walk in the “Avant-garden,” a patio and labyrinth that can be rented for weddings and other private events.

The Dali Museum, 1 Dali Blvd., St. Petersburg, makes a good stopping point if you’re in Florida on a rainy day. In fact, it is designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. Tickets are $21.

For more information, call (727) 823-3767 or visit www.thedali.org.

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