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Salvador Dalí’s “Gardens of the Mind”

Curator-at Large, Dr. Carol Ockman
ROBERT STERLING CLARK PROFESSOR OF ART
HISTORY EMERITA, WILLIAMS COLLEGE

Behind the intriguing, and equally disturbing, soft watches, abstracted heads with noses balanced on the ground, clusters of ants, grimacing lions’ heads, crutches, and jars with faces lies the expansive landscape of Salvador Dalí’s beloved Catalonia. This luminescent, if spectral, vista of flat sand and sea, often punctuated by fantastical rock formations, inhabits Dalí’s paintings from the time of his youth. Like Sigmund Freud and others, Dalí came to think of the mind as a geological landscape which psychology and Surrealism could excavate. Indeed, in speaking of the Catalonian coast, he claims: “I am the very Cape de Creus and I personify the living core of this landscape.”

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Marguerite (Chrysanthemum frutescens), Floridali (FlorDalinae), Salvador Dali, 1968, Photo Lithography with drypoint etching. Collection of The Dalí Museum, St Petersburg, FL (USA) 2019; © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, (ARS), 2019

Born in Figueres in the Costa Brava region of Spain just 20 miles from the French border, Dalí spent summers as a child in the coastal town of Cadaqués. In 1930 he bought a house in the neighboring seaside village of Port Lligat, where he lived with his muse and wife, Gala, until her death in 1982, except for an extended stay in the United States during World War II. Dalí’s fascination with his childhood landscape incorporated the fish, birds, and insects he found there, especially the ants, flies, and grasshoppers, which traumatized and excited him as a boy. Butterflies, whose capacity for metamorphosis enthralled him, also make frequent appearances in his work, including the ads for women’s hosiery he designed in the 1940s and ’50s.

Selby Gardens presents Salvador Dalí: Gardens of the Mind (February 9-June 28, 2020), whose centerpiece is Flordalí, a rarely seen and little known, series of fanciful color lithographs of flowers (1968) on loan from The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, FL. Mixing flora with the artist’s signature motifs, these works underscore Dalí’s ongoing infatuation with his native landscape and the double images of his Surrealist works. In other words, the plants in Flordalí are also something else. The artist invents a surprising array of new species—Dahlia unicornis, whose central bloom bears a long, twisted horn; Lilium musicum, whose stems sprout vinyl records and sheet music in dissonant keys, along with lilies; Pisum sensuale, a sensory compendium whose blossoms include cobaea, fingertips with painted nails, and, smack in the center, a pair of lips; Panseé (Viola cogitans), a self-portrait of the artist with pansy eyes and mouth, which sports….you guessed it, a petite mustache. Each flower faces front and towers over an immense landscape, where we see the distinctive rocks of the Catalonian coast in the distance or scattered across the deep space, along with miniature figures—an equestrian on a unicorn, a piano player at a keyboard, a figure in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker, brain exposed, and an eyeball embedded in a triangular rock resembling an actual rock, “Es Cucurucú.” At his whimsical best, the artist overturns what we know about reality while making us think deeply about the one he proposes in its stead. Several strikingly different nature prints by the artist from the collection of Sarasota resident, Keith Monda also further enrich our experience of Dalí’s dialogue with nature.

Dalí allied himself with the Surrealist Movement while living in Paris in 1929, and although he definitively parted ways with the group in 1939, his name remains synonymous with Surrealism. The indelible Persistence of Memory and Lobster Telephone have achieved such mythic status that they have come to stand for the tenets of the movement itself. True to Surrealist principles, these pieces, like Flordalí, unsettle what we think we know about reality by juxtaposing two seemingly incongruent elements—a hard metal pocket watch that is paradoxically soft, a standard dial-up telephone paired with a lobster receiver. Dislocating our sense of the rational, Surrealism liberated the power of the dream and desire. In fact, Dalí described his two-dimensional works as “hand-painted dream photographs.” Through his “paranoiac-critical method,” Dalí aimed to capture an internal truth—the creation of a reality that reflected the unconscious rather than what we see and know.

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Clyde Butcher, Cap de Creus 5 ©2017, Cadaqués, Spain

Flordalí is part of Dalí’s “late” work, which had its origins between 1939 and 1941, when he was expelled from the Surrealist group, moved to New York to escape the war, and adopted a celebrity lifestyle. Always outrageous, Dalí’s showmanship, politics, and condemnation of modern art made him a controversial figure. He cultivated his public image, and his mustache, whose distinctive handlebars made him instantly recognizable. His attention-grabbing and money-making schemes are the stuff of legend. André Breton, the Surrealist Movement’s founder, dubbed him Avida Dollars, an anagram of Salvador Dalí. In addition to Flordalí, Selby Gardens’ exhibition showcases stunning large-format black and white photographs of Dalí’s beloved landscapes by renowned Florida photographer Clyde Butcher. Loaned by Butcher’s gallery, these images of Cap de Creus, Es Cucurucú, and Dalí’s Port Lligat house enable us to see and feel Dalí’s provocative vistas of the mind. Additional photographs, courtesy of The Dalí Museum, of the artist, his wife, and friends personalize Dalí’s life and landscapes.

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