Today, Tuesday January 11, like almost every other day in Florida, the sun will shine. But inside a 1930s Rolls Royce, with a deep-sea diver at the wheel, a mermaid languishing on the backseat and seaweed trailing from the bumper, it will be raining.
The 1938 Rainy Taxi is just one ingredient in a surreal cocktail served to launch the new Salvador Dalí Museum in St Petersburg. A far cry from Russian tsars and canals, this little-known city - poised between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico - belongs to a state synonymous with Mickey Mouse and the Everglades. But now "St Pete" is due to up the cultural ante with a world-class building containing the largest collection of works by Dalí outside Spain. Little wonder then that Spain"s Princess Cristina will be cutting the ribbon as the new museum opens its doors at precisely 11am on Tuesday, January 11, 2011.
Mesmerizing artwork will enliven a building as fluid as its still-life elements
"Like Dalí's work, the museum combines classical and fantastical elements"
"Some people might ask, "Where are the melting clocks? Where are the ants?" But for me the architecture needed to remain abstract and leave the surrealism to the artworks themselves," explains Yann Weymouth, Design Director of HOK and chief architect of the new $40-million Dalí museum. Surreal or not, a series of optical illusions has produced a building that is radically different. It is alive. A river of glass - The Enigma - pulls away from the internal spiral staircase to erupt from the roof, cascade down the façade and form a vast bulge before finally flowing around the adjacent wall. Meanwhile, a vast chunk of rock imported from Dalí"s native Cadaqués appears to support the corner of the building. In the words of Museum Director Hank Hine, "the new museum combines elements of the classical and the fantastical - much like the work of Dalí."
Dalí and Weymouth may both set out to arrest the eye and bend the mind but the St Pete building has a point of departure you wouldn"t necessarily expect of The Sunshine City. "Unusually, we"ve put the collection on the second floor," explains Yann, who worked with I. M. Pei as chief architect on the Louvre Pyramid in Paris. "We had to design a structure capable of withstanding the worst storm imaginable: a Category 5 hurricane, like Katrina, which hit New Orleans. We"re talking about winds of 165 miles per hour and a storm surge of 28 feet. The museum has to be a fortress."
A less turbulent coastal inspiration was provided by the landscapes of the Alt Empordà area of northern Catalonia where the painter was born. In 2005 Yann visited Cadaqués, Portlligat and Figueres where he saw the Dalí Theatre-Museum, labeled "the largest surrealistic object in the world." On the site of a former municipal theater, destroyed at the end of the Spanish Civil War, the Catalan surrealist designed his own museum crowned with a geodesic dome. The latter - a lightweight structure of straight elements forming interlocking polygons, pioneered by US engineer Buckminster Fuller - has become not only the emblem of the Theatre-Museum but also a symbol for Figueres itself.
Taking cultural influences on board, Yann returned to Florida.
His resulting design embraced a hurricane-resistant, concrete "treasure box" animated by a glass vault drawing on geodesic geometries. "Fortunately for us, computers are smarter than they were in Bucky"s time," he enthuses. "Technology allowed us to vary the size of the triangles [1,026 in all] and push and morph the structure in different directions. The strong opaque concrete contrasts with the liquid, mercurial effect of the glass rather like the hard-soft duality that the artist constantly plays on in his work." Though in true Dalinian spirit The Enigma - likened to a frozen tear - is not some visual extravagance but is underpinned by academic rigor: "It obeys the laws of physics, as if a balloon has been squeezed to its natural limits."
As in the paintings of the Surrealist master, not everything is what it seems. The cornerstone rock - apparently hewn from Dalí"s native Cap Creus, a haunting constant in his work - is in reality a clever trompe l"oeil. "It"s specially treated hollow concrete, full of plumbing and electricity," confesses Yann, "but I"m happy to admit to a little bit of theater." And that"s not his only visual trick. There is the double-helix staircase, a nod to Dalí"s fascination with Crick and Watson"s famous molecular structure. It may finish well below roof height, but appears to push the glass dome toward the impossibly blue Florida sky.
As Yann explains, the spiral is so clearly articulated that there"s no need for signs. Visitors are automatically lured up 63 steps to the second floor. The new museum has already garnered three awards, but for Yann the acid test is how the artworks look in situ. "Will they glow? Will they take your breath away?" he asks as we enter a lofty, cathedral-like exhibition space. Since 1982, the entire collection - 96 oil paintings and over 2,000 drawings, watercolors, books and objets d"art - has been housed a few blocks away. But with 50 percent more gallery space, all the paintings can be shown simultaneously.
The old facility was never meant to be a museum, explains Yann. "It"s a converted warehouse. It doesn"t have the 18-feet-high ceilings and flexible lighting we have now. In their former home, the masterworks [vast canvases including The Ecumenical Council and The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus] looked like a collection of big stamps. As you looked at one, you were distracted by the other so your eyes danced." Now each masterwork can breathe in its own "chapel" and bask in the glow of light canons - a term coined by Le Corbusier for angled skylights. Here the shafts of natural illumination are filtered to remove harmful, color-altering UV rays.
"We"re going to move away from the term "masterwork"," says Chief Curator Dr William Jeffett. "It"s too loaded with connotations." And certainly, despite their epic proportions, a broad-brush sweep of one of the world"s greatest private collections - assembled by the wealthy American industrialists A. Reynolds and Eleanor Reese Morse - removes any claim the masterworks might have to superiority. They are, however, among the most religious and mystic works in the artist"s oeuvre. Many depict some form of apotheosis, controversially casting his wife, Gala, as the Virgin or a saint. Produced at a time when Dalí was making public declarations of his Catholic faith, they represent a radical turnaround from his aggressive anticlericalism in earlier years.
"I"m a little skeptical of his assertions," confesses Jeffett. "Dalí was becoming a huge public figure and liked to play games with his audience. I"m averse to reading his Catholic imagery in a straightforward or presumptuous way."
Jeffett does, however, offer a fascinating, multi-layered reading of the monumental Hallucinogenic Toreador. He explains how the artist was inspired to produce the double image of the Venus figure, whose breast and torso form the nose and mouth of the "invisible" bullfighter, when he saw a reproduction of the Venus de Milo on a packet of pencils. Concentrate, scrunch your eyes and the white fabric draped around her lower half, and the green shadow to the left, morph into the toreador"s shirt and tie.
"The toreador is either based on photos of Manolete [the legendary bullfighter who died in the ring in 1947] or Sánchez Mejías [who in 1934 met a similar fate, immortalized in a poem by Lorca]," explains Jeffett. "Either way, the figure suggests the conscious desire of the artist - depicted as a small boy in the right-hand corner - to return to his Iberian roots and confront his own mortality. By setting up a play between the masculine (toreador) and the feminine (Venus), he could weave a complex matrix around the themes of love and desire."
This matrix includes a grid of colored dots that represent the banderillas in the dead bull"s neck, an image that reinforces one of Dalí"s favorite themes: putrefaction. Meanwhile, closer inspection of dark spots reveals a swarm of flies, albeit slightly abstracted ones with helicopter blades. The curator explains that these are a nod to the artist"s long-held dream of staging an avant-garde corrida in which a helicopter airlifts the bull. Finally, Gala"s ghostly apparition hovers above the whole scene. From their meeting in 1929, Gala would always be the artist"s muse, business manager, and chief inspiration.
The latter masterwork may have spawned Luis Romero"s book Todo Dalí en un rostro (or, All of Dalí in one face), but the St Petersburg collection could also claim the same all-embracing retrospective vision of the Catalan"s life and art. The 96 oils span a period from 1917 to 1970, including the Impressionist and Cubist styles of his early period, his transition to Surrealism, the famous surrealist canvases, and his fascination with religion and science during his classical period.
We are first plunged into "Dalí land" with a view of Cadaqués daubed in hues of hot orange and pink on heavy burlap sacking when the painter was only 13. The use of color, understanding of composition and fluid brushwork attest to a burgeoning talent. The young boy"s awareness of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism was no doubt heightened by access to his uncle"s bookstore in the Catalan capital.
But it was in the Spanish capital - while studying at San Fernando Arts Academy and living at the Residencia de Estudiantes with the likes of Luis Buñuel, Federico García Lorca and Igor Stravinksy - that the artist was first introduced to the book which would provide the main vehicle for his work: The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. The mustachioed master was soon producing works that incorporated Freudian narratives such as Apparatus and Hand. The latter presents a bizarre mix of phallic flying fish, female torsos, floating breasts, a rotting donkey and shadows which, rather like those of De Chirico, are both realistic but disconcertingly illogical. "This work sets the tone for the works that follow," explains Jeffett. "It"s surreal in that we are presented with a real scenario that disrupts our presumptions on what constitutes reality."
By the 1930s, Dalí was producing objets d"art such as his Lobster Telephone, and both his surrealist style and persona were in full swing. Ten of these plaster of Paris lobster receivers set on Bakelite phone bases were designed for the house of a rich London patron, Edward James. The artist would later remark "I don"t understand why, when asked for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone." The idiosyncratic wit continues in titles such as The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used as a Table and Skull with its Lyric Appendage Leaning on a Night Table which Should Have the Exact Temperature of a Cardinal Bird"s Nest.
After the exuberance of his surrealist period, the postwar years saw Dalí take an interest in modern physics. The artist described his magnificent Nature Morte Vivante (Still Life - Fast Moving) as an "explanatory painting where one can observe the dynamic and irrational dividing of a fruit dish following the coefficient of uncertainty of Heisenberg." He was referring to the German scientist"s assertion that both a particle"s position and momentum can never be pinpointed with precision; each object in the composition appears to move in a spiral like electrons around an atomic nucleus, or planets around the sun. Now this mesmerizing artwork - once hung above the bed of the Morse"s son, Brad - will enliven an extraordinary building as fluid as its still-life elements.
"St Pete is now an art destination worth jumping on a plane for," says Joan Manuel Sevillano, managing director of the Fundació Gala- Salvador Dalí in Figueres. "And if anything can put the city on the map it"s the Dalí name and brand."