Both sides now: Picasso/Dalí, Dalí/Picasso

The pairing of two artistic giants sheds new light on both.

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click to enlarge Both sides now: Picasso/Dalí, Dalí/Picasso - © Salvador Dalí. Fundación Gala-Salvador Dalí, (Artist Rights Society), 2014  © 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso Collection of the Museu Picasso, Spain, 2014.
© Salvador Dalí. Fundación Gala-Salvador Dalí, (Artist Rights Society), 2014 © 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso Collection of the Museu Picasso, Spain, 2014.
Both sides now: Picasso/Dalí, Dalí/Picasso

Picasso/Dalí, Dalí/Picasso The Dalí Museum, One Dalí Blvd, St. Petersburg, through February 22. 727-823-3767,

Time is slipping away to see Picasso/Dalí, Dalí/Picasso, but this week offers a grand opportunity. Starting on Thursday, the Dalí Museum presents a three-day conference of scholarly investigation devoted to both artists. Inexplicably but wonderfully, French contemporary artist Orlan, who is widely known within cultural circles for using plastic surgery to alter her appearance as a medium for conceptual art, is scheduled to speak on Thursday evening, with the general public invited to join her for a (ticketed) dinner afterwards at the Dalí.

The exhibition Picasso/Dalí continues the museum’s recent tradition of mounting shows that place its namesake, the Catalan surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), side by side with other iconic artistic personas. Warhol: Art. Fame. Mortality. opened last January and generated record-setting attendance, as has Picasso/Dalí. That exhibition mostly placed the two artists in perspective through solo presentations, inviting consideration of how fame and death resonate in the works of each.

The Dalí Museum ups the ante with Picasso/Dalí, Dalí/Picasso, which leverages a partnership with the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, Spain, to compare Dalí and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). The stakes are higher, not only because of Picasso’s heft as an artist, but because Dalí regarded him, in complicated fashion, as both a role model and a rival. Their first meeting took place in 1926 when Dalí was 22 years old and Picasso, by then in his 40s, was already renowned for developing Cubism. Dalí’s close friend, the poet Federico García Lorca, had arranged for him to visit Picasso’s studio on his first trip to Paris. The story goes that when Dalí professed that he had come to the studio before visiting the Louvre, Picasso replied that he had chosen wisely.

After the visit, Dalí’s own experimentation in painting pressed ahead with a catalytic boost, explains Dalí Museum director Hank Hine in the exhibition’s catalogue. From then on, the younger painter would perceive his artistic identity as intertwined with Picasso’s.

The exhibition mines approximately 150 objects, from paintings to postcards (written by Dalí to Picasso, who saved them but never answered). The artworks are loaned from around the world but emphasize the collection of Museu Picasso, where the show will travel later this year. In many instances, the exhibition’s overarching idea that strands of influence, antagonism and lopsided admiration, mostly extending from Dalí, united the two artists is illustrated by striking visual juxtapositions. For example, a 1917 portrait of a woman by Picasso hangs next to a 1923 portrait of Dalí’s sister, which Dalí may have reworked into its innovative composition after seeing the Picasso reproduced in an art magazine.

Of course, Dalí was more than a wannabe, and he had reason to see himself as following in Picasso’s footsteps. Just four years after his visit to Picasso’s studio, Dalí had come into his own as a member of the Surrealism group led by writers Andre Breton and Louis Aragon. In a catalogue for a group show in 1930, on display in the exhibition, Aragon praises Dalí as the heir to Picasso’s avant-garde Cubism. Other parallels followed. In 1933, Dalí was invited by a Parisian publisher to illustrate Songs of Maldoror, Lautréamont’s quintessential surrealist novel, just three years after Picasso had illustrated Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the same imprint. As a result, we discover the artists’ only “collaborative” artwork, a print that Dalí seems to have created by further developing an unfinished etching plate left behind at the printer by Picasso, scratching his own fantastical additions in with Picasso’s figures. During these years, Dalí’s career was taking off abroad, making him Spain’s second-most famous artist.

During the Spanish Civil War and WWII, the two artists diverged sharply. While Dalí resided abroad in the U.S. and adopted a conciliatory stance toward the Franco regime in Spain, Picasso exiled himself in France and joined the French Resistance as well as, eventually, the Communist Party. (Dalí’s turn to the political right infuriated colleagues, including the Surrealist Breton, who denounced him.) In the decades that followed, Dalí continued to try to engage Picasso, delivering a public lecture on his return to Spain that compared their oeuvres and, in the late 1950s, taking up the quintessentially Spanish painter Velázquez as a subject.

As he embarked on the latter endeavor, curator William Jeffett suggests in the catalogue, Dalí was likely aware that Picasso was also producing works such as “Las Meninas” (1957), a brilliantly colored cubist homage to Velázquez’s legendary painting of the Spanish royal family circa 1656. In the exhibition, Picasso’s “Las Meninas” and two other variations on the theme hang next to Dalí’s “Velázquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of her own Glory” (1958), a treasure of the Dalí Museum’s collection. The dreamy canvas depicts Velázquez as a shadow-like figure toiling in a corridor of massive paintings, between which stark rays of light stream, overlaid with the image of Infanta Margarita, a Spanish princess quoted from Velázquez’s canvas. Coyly, Dalí had himself photographed putting finishing touches on his painting inside the Prado, where Velázquez’s masterpieces hang — and where Picasso, in exile, could not tread — in 1959.

Some visitors might miss the implied connections with landmark Picasso works that are, of course, not included. The artist’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” (1907), for instance, lives at the Museum of Modern Art, but is powerfully invoked by an exquisite figure drawing. To get the most out of your visit, refresh your memory of Picasso’s greatest achievements before arrival.

In all other respects Picasso/Dalí offers an engaging look at both artists by placing them in proximity. Consider the bar placed high for the museum’s next pairing, set to debut in March — Dalí and Leonardo da Vinci. 

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