With a little help from Picasso
How Dali cracked the Morse code
It’s not quite a Mediterranean setting. St Petersburg on Tampa Bay, Florida, has a whiff of the tropics, with balmy Gulf of Mexico tides home to the manatee and the pelican. But the Salvador Dali Museum, built to house the magnificent collection of the American industrialist A Reynolds Morse and his wife Eleanor Reese, is at least as important to the Dali legacy as the renowned Theatre-Museum in his home town of Figueres, Catalonia, where the artist is buried. This, simply, is the most complete Dali representation anywhere, displayed with true American flair for clarity and accessibility.
Though the present museum is just 25 years old, work began last December on a new $35m gallery relocated to St Pete’s cultural waterfront, where a 50% increase in floor space will allow permanent display of the collection’s 96 Dali oils, together with a much wider selection of its many other Dali works and artefacts. More importantly, the collection will become storm proof. In a region ever more prone to hurricanes, architect Yann Weymouth’s (1) concept is centred on a reinforced concrete cube, a so-called “treasure box”, with all the priceless artwork located on the third floor, above the floodplain, reached from the foyer by an open staircase intended to echo Dali’s fascination with the spiral enigma. The façade is wrapped by a geodesic glass bubble (also storm-resistant), enclosing non-gallery spaces.
How St Pete can afford to continue with this project in the current economic climate isn’t hard to explain – it cannot afford not to. Dr Hank Hine, the museum’s director, notes that $25m has already been raised from private and public sources. He’s confident that the final $10m will be reached in time for the proposed opening early in 2011. As things stand, the collection feeds an estimated $50m annually into the local economy via the 100,000 visitors who come to the area specifically to see it.
On money matters, both “Avida Dollars” and his enigmatic wife-muse Gala knew good patrons when they saw them. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse met the couple by appointment in the Old King Cole Bar of New York’s St Regis Hotel in 1943, shortly before they made their first acquisition, Daddy Longlegs of the Evening – Hope! (2). The Morses, an upright Mid West couple, were newlyweds at the time. The story goes that Gala, having made her usual play at a member of the opposite sex and been stuffily rebuffed, never much took to Reynolds Morse. But she was happy to negotiate sales of some 100 major works. The collection grew so strongly that in 1971 a whole wing of Morse’s injection moulding factory at Beachwood, Ohio, was converted into a Dali gallery.
A long friendship
Whatever the ups and downs of their friendship over the years, the Morses were far too serious a couple to lionise the artist. If anything, it was the other way round. Dali persuaded Morse to accompany him on a 1952 lecture tour entitled Selling Nuclear Mysticism. A photograph shows the stolid Morse standing in support as his exotic companion holds forth. Another, much later, shows them lecturing together in front of The Hallucinogenic Toreador, Morse’s final acquisition (3).
The beautifully produced and printed museum catalogue (4) with colour reproductions of all the oils introduces a note of caution, however. Its author, Robert S Lubar, argues that Dali became the victim of his own publicity – and a “flamboyant martyr to the culture industry”. His most original act was to “hold a distorting mirror to the aesthetic and political ideals of his generation”.
Is this a slightly sombre appraisal of one of the 20th century’s great magicians? The answer perhaps lies in Lubar’s need, as an independent front-rank academic and critic, to distance himself from earlier publications by none other than Reynolds Morse. During the 1970s, with his own Dali museum established, Morse issued a series of privately printed pamphlet-catalogues exploring his personal fascination with his client-friend. Eleanor played her part by translating French and Spanish texts. Morse’s interventions are hardly triumphs of objectivity, but then interesting criticism rarely is.
I was fortunate enough to find a copy of Morse’s 1973 work Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, Similarities and Contrasts (5) on the St Pete museum bookshop’s remaindered counter. Morse starts from a questionable viewpoint that the two Spaniards will be remembered as the only artists of substance in a century disembowelled by war. He then attempts to show “the ultimate harmony in the parallels and opposites of Picasso and Dali.” He says: “One can only admire the restraints the two famous Spanish artists have shown in relation to each other. One can only be thankful that they have been so relatively untainted by the equalisation of their times.”
Well, up to a point. The relationship, as his book illustrates, was largely one way. Dali, some 23 years’ Picasso’s junior, was faced with an established Spanish genius to whom he felt he must react. Picasso, on the other hand, played the courteous uncle-figure, showing polite interest in the progress of his talented young compatriot. Of course, it was not quite like that: Picasso secretly loved Dali’s showmanship while Dali despised Picasso’s politics but envied his fame.
Facsimiles of Dali’s lecture “Picasso and I”, given at the Maria Guerrero theatre in Madrid on 11 November 1951, are reproduced by Morse in full beside Eleanor’s translations. The tone is set by the two opening stanzas:
As always, the honour of the maximum in contrasts belongs to Spain; this may be seen in people like the two most antagonistic painters of contemporary painting
PICASSO and I
your humble servant
Picasso is Spanish
So am I
Picasso is a genius
So am I
Picasso is probably about 72 years old
And I am about 48.
Picasso is known in all the countries
of the world
So am I
Picasso is a communist
Neither am I
Dali goes on, with qualified pride, to place the Cubist revolution firmly at the door of Picasso and Juan Gris, his fellow countrymen, then to explain to his learned audience how he himself will lead the way forward:
As my own name of Salvador explains
I want to save modern painting from
sloth and chaos, I wish to integrate
the cubist experience with the divine
proportions of Luca Pacioli
and sublimate the last residual atheist
surrealism of the dialectic materialism
in the great tradition of the mystic
(at which point a slide of Dali’s painting Christ of St John of the Cross was projected).
Picasso, for his part, had less exalted feelings about Dali. Bearded in his Paris studio by Brassai, Morse recounts, Picasso sat through a story of how the celebrated Hungarian photographer absent-mindedly placed two eggs in his trouser pocket only to have them crack and the yolk ooze down his thigh while idly watching a wedding at Saint-Sulpice.
Picasso: You should tell that story to Dali. He has held the world monopoly on eggs ever since Christopher Columbus gave it up. Omelettes, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, hard-boiled eggs, soft-boiled eggs – Dali has used them for everything.
Brassai: At the opening of one of his expositions in New York, the director of the gallery held out his hand to him and Dali was holding an egg in his. The collision was inevitable – it must have been a horrible handshake.
Picasso: People in the United States seem to love that kind of joke. And since Dali revels in them, he has found his promised land. Someone once told me that the host at a very elegant reception had garlic rubbed over every doorknob in his apartment. It wasn’t long before all the gilded and perfumed ladies began to smell garlic everywhere. When they discovered that the source of the odour was their own hands you can imagine what happened.
Does one detect a tang of old-world sourness on the subject of rich Americans, the same curmudgeonly jealousy that allows no mention of current St Pete museum plans – let alone the Reynolds Morse bequest – on the Figueres Theatre-Museum website? At least Dali’s dollar-lust was consistent. That worked out well all round. And the Morses endowed their collection firmly in the name of the artist himself, unlike the Whitneys and Guggenheims of this world.
Eleanor Morse chaired the museum board until recently. As for Reynolds, who died in 2000, art history would be an altogether less interesting subject without his observations: “On 3 November 1971 at 8.35pm Mr Dali remarked about his large canvases. ‘Now is necessary expline one other aspect of les masterworks. Quand myself am paint dees verks, is no one question of choice (choosing) one subject apres les udder. Is no one random apparition. On le contrary les masterworks is represent le ultimate manifestation of le Continuité Dalienne, parce que each is relate avec le udder, et each is involvéd some new discovery que y yam make’.” (6).
So who was the real eccentric?