MAXWELL:  Redeemed by Dali in half a day

12/3/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Ferris Bueller had his day off. On Monday, I had mine. Actually, I had a half day off.

En route to work, I drove, unaccountably, to the Salvador Dali Museum to see what time it opens: 9:30 a.m. During my nearly four years in St. Petersburg, I had not been inside the place. Because it is within walking distance of my house and because I pass it nearly every day, I had taken it for granted.

After our editorial board meeting, I left the St. Petersburg Times building. The day was perfect _ the morning sun glistening in the bay, the boats in Bayboro Harbor gently rocking in the breeze, the sky an uninterrupted mellow blue.

Entering the museum, I immediately knew why I had come. Like Ferris Bueller, I needed a day off. I had to get away from the office, away from writing, away from my too serious self.

I declined the guided tour, put away my reporter’s notebook and entered a world of, among other things, disturbing visions, eccentricity, “critical paranoia,” irrational hallucinatory imagery.

The early works and those of the transitional period were interesting, but the surrealist works awakened all of my senses.

I was particularly struck by Eggs on a Plate without the Plate. Dali claimed that it was inspired by an inter-uterine memory. In other words, the vision came to him while he was in his mother’s womb.

Lost in the richness of the colors _ blue, orange, red, yellow _ I ignored the periods of the works and began to appreciate them for their own sake.

Daddy Longlegs of the Evening _ Hope! pulled me into Dali’s psyche, and I identified with the artist’s rejection of man’s inhumanity to man, especially the human horrors of World War II. I could hear the unearthly sounds of war and the cries of pain and feel the anguish of the young artist, who had an aversion to organized mayhem, trying to understand himself.

Something in the room _ perhaps a shadow or a voice or an odor _ made me realize that I had traveled outside of myself and that I was no longer depressed, that Dali’s very abhorrence of human cruelty had made me hopeful.

The sight of Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man enhanced this feeling, and the haunting eyes of The Sick Child made me think of the innocence and beauty of childhood, even though these paintings contain what I interpret as hints of nihilism left over from the long-gone dada movement.

Perhaps the desolation of the landscape and the forlorn characters in the background influenced my thinking.

I marveled at Broken Bridge and the Dream. I did not try to understand this work. The imagery alone was satisfying: A damaged bridge is a stairway for angelic, fantastic creatures who float into the heavens. I wondered what awaits them beyond that dreamy horizon.

Partly because of their sheer size, Dali’s “Masterworks” are mesmerizing. I learned later that, between 1948 and 1970, he produced 18 significant oil paintings that the museum’s founder, A. Reynolds Morse, called Masterworks, meaning that each painting measures at least 5 feet in one direction and intellectually preoccupied Dali for a year or longer.

For more than an hour, I lost myself in the disturbing beauty of the Masterworks _ among them Still Life-Fast Moving; Velazquez the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His own Glory; The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus; Ecumenical Council; and Hallucinogenic Toreador.

How, I wondered, did Dali manage to juxtapose the seemingly conflicting forces of destruction and healing, birth/death/rebirth, pain and suffering and love and redemption and despair and hope to form an organic whole?

In Galacidalacidesoxiribunucleicacid, for example, the DNA molecule, the tragic flash flood in West Barcelona, Spain, in 1962 that killed 450 people, Arabs pointing guns at their neighbors, the Resurrection and other surreal images are woven into a vision of hope for the human race.

Pulling myself away from this giant oil, I felt buoyant for the first time in weeks. I thought of Ferris Bueller, of how he and his two friends raised hell in downtown Chicago, of how one of the film’s best moments occurred as the characters contemplated works at the Art Institute.

Although Ferris Bueller, Sara and Ruck were escaping a world where adults took themselves and their affairs too seriously, the art scenes defined the truants as being worthy of respect. Leaving Dali’s Masterworks, I was drawn into the Man Ray exhibit.

But that’s a story for another day off.