The Dali Museum: Masterpiece of Art, Architecture and Location
By Kevin McGeever
Here is a cultural experience of international renown: the mind-bending works of one of the most pioneering and discussed artists of the 20th century.
The building that houses this collection is a masterpiece in its own right, inspired by Dalí’s form-altering vision and itself an expansion of the legacies of architectural giants.
The bayfront where the museum stands is a must-be-walked tour of sailboat masts, sun-dappled park benches, a grand hotel’s welcoming veranda, and the city’s new Pier.
And, more broadly: St. Petersburg is a Florida vacation destination long synonymous with sunshine and beaches that is now thriving in its 21st-century renaissance as a “proud city of the arts.”
But this story begins with the surreal.
The Salvador Dalí collection
“Hand-painted dream photographs” is how Dalí described his work, says Peter Tush, the museum’s curator of education. The artist was obsessed with geometry, DNA, and spirituality, and experimented heavily with visual illusions.
The melting watches of “The Persistence of Memory” in 1931 -- a metaphor that since has become an icon of surrealism -- represented that all things, even time, are destructible.
In the follow-up painting “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory,” the watch is no longer fluid but more like brittle glass. The world is changing in 1954, Tush explains, because of the threat of the atom bomb.
Stand in front of the 13-foot-tall “Hallucinogenic Toreador” and your perception has everything to do with your distance from the art.
From 10 feet, your eye-level focus may be on the horns and face of the bull and the multiple versions of the Venus de Milo. Step back another 10 feet and the bull transforms into the toreador’s bedazzled jacket, the traje de luces or suit of lights. The shadowy face of the bullfighter is revealed in Venus’s abdomen and breast.
There are eight of these supersized works in the gallery, often including the face and form of Gala, Dalí’s wife and muse. Roughly 80-90 pieces, primarily the oil paintings, are on display.
But the overall collection numbers 2,400 works “from every moment and in every medium of his artistic activity, including oil paintings, many original drawings, book illustrations, artists’ books, prints, sculpture, photos, manuscripts, and an extensive archive of documents,” says the museum website.
In plain words, Tush says, the St. Petersburg museum can claim the “most comprehensive collection of Salvador Dalí anywhere in the world.”
Dr. Kanika Tomalin is St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor and city administrator. Her family has lived here for five generations and she first encountered Dalí as a young student.
“The way one experiences The Dalí … it’s impossible to remember the exact name of the piece. I remember the way the art makes me feel,” Tomalin says. “The iconography. The ‘Persistence of Memory’ and the melting clock. But I also love a piece he did when he was a student, a still life of a bowl of fruit. Together, they illustrate possibility and journey. I must have walked through the museum a couple dozen times. Every time is a new interaction.”
Perhaps it’s the meticulous details and imagery that command expansive titles. One of Dalí’s latest works, from 1976, is a double illusion called “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln.”
The museum website says the painting “demonstrates a fascination with perception and the mystery of identity.” To the casual observer, who at one moment might see an asymmetrical quilt of squares and the back of a naked woman and then blink and see the face of the 16th president, the mystery is more like: How did Dalí do that?
The late James Soby, who was a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, once said that Dalí portrayed ''the unreal world with such extreme realism that its truth and validity could no longer be questioned.''
Hank Hine, executive director of the Dalí since 2002, says “you have to look twice at everything in this world. Appearances have one reality. There’s always something else beyond the surface just as real, just as enriching.
“The double image (of Gala and Lincoln) and art in general tells us it’s not just one way. Lincoln is the guiding light of American democracy. Gala is the guiding light of Dalí’s life.”
Maria Emilia Faedo is no casual observer but an artist, educator, and curator whose work has been exhibited in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Tampa, and is part of public collections such as the National Museum of American Art. “Lincoln” is her favorite Dalí painting.
“If I knew nothing about it, I would believe that it was painted by a talented contemporary artist,” Faedo says. “There is a quality of interpretation that transcends style and time. I think they call it genius.”
The Museum: Melding Art and Architecture
The riddle facing Harvard Jolly architect Yann Weymouth in the early 2000s was how to design a storm-proof structure in a subtropical climate that also evoked the world’s greatest surrealist painter.
Weymouth’s credentials are stunning: the glass Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, a 10-minute walk from the Dalí in St. Petersburg.
Dalí alone would provide plenty of ideas for Weymouth’s work: “I was inspired by the ambiguity in (Dalí’s) work and how he enjoyed, how he loved, to take a familiar object like a block or a rectangle and then subtract something from it.
“That interested me and helped with the building’s form. It had to be a kind of block, a fortress, resistant to hurricanes and protecting the art, but another aspect that interested me a lot wasn’t from Dalí.”
“I wanted to have a contrast of the solid concrete to a glassy form, a yin-and-yang composition.”
Fuller had shown that by using cables for tension and rods for compression, he could create glass forms that were non-linear in shape but structurally sound. The Fuller-inspired design of the Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres, Spain, which opened in 1974, includes a geodesic dome on the roof.
Pei and Weymouth had applied those principles in 1989 to design the Louvre’s Pyramid -- a visually stunning architecture that now is ubiquitous in popular culture and all things Paris.
“If we had used normal bridge and building technology with the Pyramid, it would have felt like a cave,” Weymouth said. “This way, it’s more like a spider web.”
His geodesic creation in St. Petersburg completed a Dalí-worthy double illusion, a building that combines “the rational with the fantastical,” according to the museum website. From a concrete rectangle with 18-inch-thick hurricane-proof walls erupts a geodesic glass bubble -- the Enigma, 1,062 triangular pieces of glass, 75 feet at its tallest point, a 21st-century homage to the dome that adorns Dalí’s museum in Spain.
“It seemed appropriate to take a new form of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesics, a free-form geodesic, and use that to create the Enigma,” Weymouth said. The glass form acts as a skylight for the three-story atrium and then bends down and becomes a bay window and enclosure for the museum store.
Dalí informs other distinctive features inside and outside the museum:
- a helical staircase recalls Dalí’s obsession with spirals and the double helical shape of the DNA molecule. On the top floor, looking out through the Enigma’s glass panes toward the marina is a favorite backdrop for photos.
- Outside, the Avant-garden and the meditation Grotto both feature large stones, which appear in much of Dalí’s artwork.
“When I won the competition to do the (new Dalí Museum), I immersed myself in his work,” Weymouth says, “and spent a week in Spain in Costa Brava with museum director Hank Hine. We visited Dalí’s museum, met people who had known him as young men when he was living there, and visited places that were important to him -- like the Cap de Creus (Natural Park), where he would go to picnic and paint. It’s a famous geological park. It gets visited by university students and professors from all over the world because it’s such an unusual geological formation. You see those rocks in his paintings.”
The museum website says that one of the rocks at the Dalí is a boulder of metamorphic pegmatite, gifted by the mayor and the people of Cadaqués, Spain, and placed in the East Garden.
But the remaining stones come from Florida, from quarries near Ocala, Weymouth says. “Limestone, which is porous and weathers beautifully, takes different shapes. So we hunted in quarries for the biggest rocks that we could find. Dalí loved the stones he had in Spain. If he had been here, he would have worked with the stones of Florida.”
The result of Weymouth’s labors is an unforgettable landmark, so distinctive that Architectural Digest named the Dalí one of the 10 most interesting museum buildings in the world.
“City of the arts”
A car is an unnecessary burden in downtown St. Petersburg. Start at the 1920s Vinoy hotel and walk south on Beach Drive, a tony, residential-retail stretch of five blocks that includes pastel condo towers and, at street level, al fresco dining, the Museum of Fine Arts, and lots of people watching.
So many choices:
- Turn left (east) at Second Avenue N and head for the water. The new Pier, completed in 2020, is walkable art. Broad promenades, disrupted by a net sculpture called “Bending Arc,” outdoor eating, and a playground, diverge and rejoin at the pier head, 1,000 yards out on Tampa Bay. Sunrises and sunsets are times of communion here. Photos are recommended; meditation is a must.
- Turn right (west) on Central Avenue and feel the city’s young pulse: the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, the hip 600 block, the Chihuly collection at the Morean Arts Center, the craft beer core, the brilliantly distracting murals.
The arts and an appreciation for neighborhood identity revived St. Petersburg in the early 21st century. The Deuces, or 22nd Street S, is the spine of the city’s historical African-American neighborhood. The annual Collard Greens Festival celebrates community each year.
The Dalí is a foundational piece of the cultural revival here.
From the museum website: Eleanor and A. Reynolds Morse “first displayed their Dalí paintings in their home, and by the mid-1970s decided to donate their entire collection. A Wall Street Journal article titled, ‘U.S. Art World Dillydallies Over Dalí,’ caught the attention of the St. Petersburg, FL community, who rallied to bring the collection to the area.”
The first Dalí museum opened in 1982.
“The Morses planted the seed into St. Pete’s psyche,” says Deputy Mayor Tomalin. “When gathering the things to do on a visit to St. Petersburg, the Dalí is at the top of the list. The Pier. The murals. The arts are the catalytic enzyme that set St. Pete on fire.”
Weymouth’s 50-plus years of work as an architect have taken him around the world. He and wife Susana “have lived and worked in China, France, England, spent years in London, spent years in Paris, Susana had worked in Beijing, we’ve lived in New York. We loved every one of those cities, but you couldn’t pay us to move from where we are now.”
What’s next for the Dalí? Expansion
The Dalí has been a pioneer in the use of digital immersive technology to display art, most recently with the Van Gogh Alive exhibit that is scheduled to run until June 13.
From the Dalí website: “The exhibition features more than 3,000 Van Gogh images at enormous scale, viewed through high-definition projectors and synchronized to a powerful classical score.”
The display of floor-to-ceiling paintings is staggered for spans of 30 to 60 seconds -- enough time to absorb and to be awestruck.
“It is our belief that technology can enhance an art experience,” says Beth Bell, marketing director at The Dalí. “Our Masterworks in Augmented Reality experience available on The Dalí Museum app helps visitors uncover the meaning behind Dalí’s largest canvases; and our Dalí Lives experiences allow visitors to hear from a reimagined Dalí, who shares his inspirations using authentic historic quotes.
“Our current special exhibit Van Gogh Alive is a fully immersive experience that explores underlying changes in Van Gogh’s state of mind and shifting emotional states through sound and movement, something that perhaps may not be as easily understood through a painting alone. In all cases, through blending art and technology, we want to provide a new appreciation for art and an open mind to experience art in a new way, while further educating our audience about art and artists.”
To house these experiences, the museum has announced plans for a new wing. The Dali and the city of St. Petersburg are negotiating the land use.
Hine, Weymouth, and a task force are working closely together to envision a new building to house the new interactive experiential exhibitions. “This digital immersive technology is happening around the world, in Asia, in Europe,” Weymouth says. “The Dalí is a pioneer in America.”