Dalí: against and for religion

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Originally anticlerical, the artist eventually turned to a personal vision of religion and religious freedom.

by Massimo Introvigné

Salvador Dalí, photographed by Allan Warren. Credits.

One of the best places to understand Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. I know, the Dalí Theater and Museum in Figueres, Catalonia, is bigger and that’s where the artist is buried. Yet those interested in Dalí should also visit St. Petersburg, not just for the futuristic building by architect Yann Weymouth that houses the museum.

The 96 paintings in Saint Petersburg, in addition to sculptures, drawings and miscellaneous objects, make up the second largest collection of works by Dalí in the world after that of Figueres. They are part of the collection of the plastic magnate and friend of Dalí, Albert Reynolds Morse (1914-2000). The collection arrived in Florida in 1982, when the billionaire, pursued by taxes, was forced to get rid of it. The new museum house opened in 2011.

The great merit of the Saint Petersburg museum is to present the entire arc of Dalí’s career, and not just his most famous surrealist period. The early works show the great mastery of the different techniques of an artist known today almost solely for his bizarre attitudes and his desire to astonish at all costs. As a child, he astonished parents and teachers not so much by his antics as by his ability to take up the styles of the great artists of the past. His 1926 “Bread Basket”, which he painted at the age of twenty-two while attending the Madrid School of Art, could easily be confused with a work by Jan Vermeer (1632-1675 ).

Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida.
Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. Credits.

The works of his maturity and old age, after the break with the surrealists, can be all the more interesting for our readers as they are characterized by the rediscovery of religion and an awareness of religious themes. Dalí had experienced the cultural conflict between the Catholic Church and anticlericalism in Spain in his family. His father was an atheist hostile to the Church, said to have been a member of the anticlerical Spanish Freemasonry. His mother was a devout Catholic.

Later, Dalí embraced the violent anticlericalism of the surrealists, a position also originally defended by Gala Diakonova (1894-1982), the Russian model and wife of the French poet Paul Éluard (1895-1952) from whom he is fall in love. After her divorce from the poet, Gala married Dalí in 1932.

Between 1949 and 1950, however, Dalí began a tormented, perhaps never fully concluded, journey of rediscovering religion. His old family complexes, which also explain his interest in Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), whom he visited in London in 1938, had created the character of Dalí that we all know. He was perceived by many as a buffoonish man in love with himself, with exhibitionist attitudes that were difficult to bear even for his friends and ultimately harmful to his art.

Dalí, “The Christ of Saint John of the Cross”.
Dalí, “The Christ of Saint John of the Cross”.

It is therefore not surprising that many considered Dalí’s return to religion as yet another stunt by someone who wanted to provoke and amaze those who knew him as anticlerical. As a stunt, it was quite successful. When in 1952 Dalí decided to sell his work of the previous year “The Christ of Saint John of the Cross” to the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, students of the Faculty of Arts and local left-wing intellectuals organized a march against the purchase of a scandal Catholic and retrograde work from a progressive museum.

Critics were and remain perplexed by this painting, kitsch for some and a masterpiece for others. Dalí maintained that it stemmed from a “cosmic dream” where he saw the nucleus of the atom studied by modern scientists as the center of the universe, and realized that it was one with Christ. The non-frontal view also offers a new perspective on Jesus’ suffering on the cross.

The pictorial itinerary proposed by the museum of Saint Petersburg shows, however, that the turn towards religion was not born solely from a desire to scandalize and astonish, even if this element was never absent in Dalí. In 1949, Dalí was received in audience in Rome by Pope Pius XII (1876-1958), who was interested in contemporary art and praised the “Madonna of Port Lligat”, the first “Catholic” painting. by the Catalan artist. , although still marked by surrealist influences.

Dalí always maintained that his return to religion was through science, and his later Catholicism was marked by the influence of the Jesuit theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Contemporary science, with discoveries such as DNA, according to Dalí, has made it impossible to escape the conclusion that there must be a God as the creator of such a complex and well-ordered universe.

But in a famous lecture, the artist said, “I believe in God, but I have no faith. Science and math tell me that God must exist, but I don’t believe it. Beyond the characteristic flavor of paradox, Dalí meant that he was rationally convinced of the existence of God, but that he could not “feel” faith. He will however impose on a reluctant Gala a Catholic religious marriage in 1958, and will die in 1989 comforted by the sacraments of the Catholic Church.

The St. Petersburg collection includes two large canvases from Dalí’s “Catholic” period. The first is “The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus”, from 1958, a celebration of Catholic Spain and the epic of Christopher Columbus as a triumph of faith, a theme that would not be politically correct today. today but was taken for granted in Catholic circles at the time. 1950s. The second is “The Ecumenical Council”, and was painted in 1960 after Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) announced that the Second Vatican Council would be held in Rome.

Dalí, “The Ecumenical Council”.
Dalí, “The Ecumenical Council”.

This huge painting has a strong symbolic value. Bottom left, the artist depicts himself as the painter Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), with an entirely blank canvas symbolizing a new phase in Dalí’s life. He also wrote that it could not be a coincidence that the artists he most admired, including Velázquez, Vermeer and the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), were all Christian believers.

Above, his wife Gala appears as Saint Helena (248-329), the mother of Emperor Constantine (274-337) and a highly revered saint in Catalonia. At the top from the left are the Son, that is, the Logos, whose body is transformed into atomic particles, an allusion to Dalí’s reflections on the relationship between faith and modern science, the Father , painted with obvious homage to Michelangelo (1475-1564), and the Holy Spirit in the traditional form of a dove. In the center, the coronation of John XXIII as pope fades into a dreamlike vision of the future Council.

Everything is strange and contradictory in Dalí, and “The Ecumenical Council” is no exception. His Christianity and Catholicism are also special. As a surrealist, the artist had applauded anticlerical attacks on Christian churches. In his post-surrealist incarnation, he came to embrace the ideas of the Second Vatican Council on freedom of religion, although his large religious canvases were painted with references to a classic Spanish tradition that honored Constantinian Christianity and the conquest of the Americas, without worrying too much about it. much about the religious freedom of non-Christians in these times.

Yet, beyond his contradictions, Dalí manifests an interest in religious themes that seems quite genuine. This is yet another chapter in the history of the relationship between contemporary art and religion, always more complicated than it seems at first sight.

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