An inside look at the portrait of an artist

Kimberly McMurray

I am the first person to admit that I know very little about art. I am not at all adverse to the subject; I find Picasso intriguing and am amazed by Degas’ ballerinas. I even understand Cher’s slang reference to Monet’s style of pointillism in “Clueless.” (“She’s a full -on Monet. It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”) But around the fifth grade, when the public school system realized that my talent for art ended somewhere between stick-figures and bubble letters, I have not studied the subject much.

From Feb. 16 through May 15, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is hosting the only American venue for the first comprehensive retrospective of Salvador Dali’s work since his death in 1989. Though I stand firm to the thought that art is best viewed in smaller quantities, about six paintings at a time, when I was given the chance to preview to the exhibit, I jumped at the opportunity.

After the exhibit closes, it will move to Venice, Italy for the European venue. The display is celebrating the centennial of the 1904 birth of this influential artist and contains 150 paintings, which is the largest amount of his paintings ever to be displayed together. The pieces include pencil sketches in preparation for the paintings, films by and about the artist, and sculptures.

“Our Museum is honored to participate in the Dali Centennial by co-organizing this landmark exhibition with the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation, which was created by the artist himself to manage his estate and legacy, and has played a pivotal role in this Centennial event,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “With our friends and colleagues at the Palazzo Grassi, we are delighted to introduce Dali to audiences from around the world.”

Curators for the exhibit started collecting paintings over five years ago, from around the world. Many of the paintings were borrowed from American homes.

Though Dali is most famous for his surrealist pieces, such as the painting, “The Enigma of Desire: My Mother” (Dali was a huge fan of Sigmund Freud’s research and incorporated some of Freud’s theories into his paintings), the exhibit is organized chronologically, from the earliest to his latest works. Some of the paintings in the first room are from his days studying at an art school in Madrid, which he later left, because, according to the curator who made a speech before we toured the exhibit, he believed that he already knew more about art than his teachers. Looking at his early images, I think he had a point.

In “Portrait of the Cellist Ricardo Richot,” it seems as if you can look directly in to the soul of the subject, as if you can feel what he is feeling; you can almost hear his music; you know exactly how it would sound. When looking at “The Lane to Port Lligat with a view of Cap Creus,” you can somehow tell that there is no other street in the world that feels like this, that you would rather wander down.

Later in the exhibit it becomes clear that there is no subject matter that Dali is afraid to touch. In one painting, a black outline of the Virgin Mary with a dove and a cross in the middle, Dali painted the words in French “Sometimes for pleasure I spit on the portrait of my mother.” This painting got Dali kicked out of his father’s house, since his father thought that Dali was literally talking about his mother, who died tragically when Dali was young.

There are also many paintings of Gala Eluard, whom Dali met in 1929. According to the press release, she became his “lifelong companion, artistic muse, and alter ego.” There are two paintings called “The Crucification of Gala” (which ironically, he gave to her as a present) which when viewed next to each other through strange glasses, there appears to be three paintings.

General admission for the exhibit is $20, though students can buy discount tickets through April 1 for $12.