Dalí and Film | The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL | May 2008

I found myself in St. Petersburg recently, so I went to the Salvador Dalí Museum and took in the exhibition, Da and Film.

From the website: Dalí and Film (February – June, 2008) is "the first exhibition examining the profound relationship between the paintings and films of Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). The exhibition reveals how Dalí combined his skills in painting with the new and exciting possibilities of the moving image to define a new art."

Please note: details about the exhibition, and acknowledgements to those who created it can be found on the websites for the Dalí Museum and the Tate Modern, London, where the exhibition premiered. It has future engagements in Los Angeles and New York.

First, a little context: It was free museum day in Tampa/St. Pete, and the locals were out in droves. The queue line of museum-goers extended 50+ persons beyond the threshold of the front door. This was at first a little discouraging, but the Museum was more than prepared. I waited no longer than a few minutes before I entered the exhibition. Dalí and Film was integrated across the Museum, and seamlessly interwoven with the permanent exhibitions of paintings and objects. While it was pitched as a temporary installation, it was not confined to a distinct gallery space.

Readers, please accept my apologies for the lack of photo-evidence to support this review. Picture taking is not allowed in the Museum. After I informed a staff-person that I intended to write a positive review of the exhibition, I was granted permission to take a single, albeit bootleg, picture with my mobile phone.

Upon entering the Museum proper, I relished the simple design of the installation immediately:
  • Billboard-sized blank walls, the recipients of black and white, filmic projections, contrasted many of the intimately small and brilliantly colored paintings;
  • The "brushes with greatness" (the famous works) were spaced across the exhibition like crumbs through the woods. They lured me and nourished me. I felt a moment of reverence as I approached the so-familiar painting of melting clocks, that until that moment, I had only seen in books about great art;
  • The modest size of the Museum and the exhibition did not intimidate me or generate fatigue;
  • The quality of the architectural spaces immersed me in the work: modulated lighting and colors signaled new experiences, and at one point, the floor plane of the gallery rose with a ramp and then fell away in a series of stepped tiers not unlike the lively horizons of the surrealist landscapes that graced their walls.
Thanks to the interpretation (both personal and non), I think Dalí and Film might represent the best interpretive experience I've had in an art museum.

The crowded galleries, which at first registered with me as a distraction, quite quickly became the most interesting aspect of the visit:
  1. I was struck by the level of conversation in the galleries. The usual hush associated with art museums was replaced with a buzz more akin to that of a casual café. Patrons were discussing what they saw, laughing and gasping out loud. I saw a few cases where parents or care-givers covered their children's eyes (the exhibit  includes some "racey" imagery), and conversing to a degree that was entertaining and comforting.
  2. Probably in anticipation of the great numbers of visitors attracted by free day, the Museum positioned many staff and docents on the exhibit floor. At any given moment there was an impromptu tour taking shape and anyone could eavesdrop or participate wholeheartedly. I joined a tour in which a gentleman used the beam of a penlight to point out recurring motifs in one of Dalí's masterworks. He revealed an embedded, cryptic image... showed me something I did not notice at first... shared what Dalí scholars thought about it... and then spun it into a story of Dalí's personal life. In doing this, this man gave me a new eye to view the subsequent works, and a new vocabulary to use in my further encounters and discussions of Dalí's paintings and films. I was, in a moment, equipped with an appreciation for Dalí's use of repeating themes and I (and others) used this tool throughout the remainder of my visit. Suddenly, I was seeing more in the art. Still life paintings became interactive... with no technology.
  3. Dalí's work has a reputation for being "out there," and the museum's interpretation acknowledges this openly and freely. "Let's face it," one tour guide said, "this guy was a bit wooo wooo wooo!" (He made the sound of an ambulance while twirling his right index finger at his right temple). His audience breathed a collective and palpable sigh of relief as if to say: "Whew, I thought it was just me..."
So kudos to the Salvador Dalí Museum and the creators of Dalí and Film for the exhibition and for the way it accommodated such a large volume of visitors both physically and intellectually. 

And while I'm not a art historian or curator, I also must acknowledge Dalí himself. His work is a striking juxtaposition of highly describable things (like clocks, houseflies and body parts), and fantastically indescribable somethings (like egg-shaped drippy blobs). The collective works of art give their viewers the ability to use a familiar vocabulary and spin it wildly and creatively. I think this is what the designers and interpreters of the exhibition recognized and emulated in the installation, to the delight of the audience.

I went to this exhibition knowing little more than Dalí was a surrealist dude with a ridiculous mustache who painted some melting clocks. I left knowing more about the man, his prolific body of work (including film), and what characterizes a dynamic and engaging art museum experience.