Dali was one of my first art loves and remains one of my favorite painters. Only Picasso and jazz musician Miles Davis rival Dali in terms of the protean nature of his development. I remember going to the Dali exhibit at the PMA in 2005 and marveling at the first room of the exhibition showing his early work. Almost every painting style imaginable was there, classicism, realism, impressionism, cubism, proto-surrealism, as if Dali could do it all and only had to choose which path to take. It was at that moment that I realized that Dali may have been the greatest draughtsman since the Renaissance.
My main in-person experience of Dali before that exhibit came from the PMA’s own Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (above). Painted in 1936, the surreal monster looming over the desolate landscape depicts perfectly the madness that Europe was poised to descend into. Only madness can speak of madness, and Dali’s surrealist approach now seems the only possible way of depicting that time (or any time of impending war, for that matter).
Despite Dali’s less appealing traits (his apparent anti-Semitism) and actions (his betrayal of filmmaker Luis Bunuel), the sense of fun and playfulness that Dali interjected into art and art history still makes me want to embrace him. Dali’s Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used as a Table from 1934 (below) personifies this playful approach to the gods of art history, making even the venerated Vermeer seem silly and, thus, actually more human by transforming him into a piece of furniture. Through his relentless self-promotion and incredible talent to back it up, Dali brought serious modern art to mainstream culture in a way that few others did before and fewer have done since.
(BTW, the Virtual Dali site is a very cool place to delve into Dali further.)
(Also, BTW, the Dali exhibit at the PMA in 2005 sold my all-time favorite piece of museum gift shop kitsch—a dinner plate with Dali’s signature ants “running” across the surface! Perfect for picnics!)