Originally anticlerical, the artist eventually turned to a personal view of religion and religious freedom.
by Massimo Introvigne
One of the best places to understand Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) is the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. I know, the Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres, Catalonia, is larger, and it is where the artist is buried. Yet, those interested in Dalí should go to St. Petersburg as well, not only for the futuristic building by architect Yann Weymouth that hosts the museum.
The 96 paintings of St. Petersburg, in addition to sculptures, drawings and various objects, constitute the second largest worldwide collection of Dalí works after 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, chased by taxes, was forced to dispose of it. The museum’s new home opened in 2011.
The great merit of the St. Petersburg museum is that it presents the entire arc of Dalí’s career, not only his most famous surrealist period. The youthful works show the great mastery of different techniques of an artist known today almost only for his bizarre attitudes and his desire to amaze at any cost. As a boy, he did amaze relatives and professors not so much for his antics but for his ability to take up the styles of great artists of the past. His 1926 “Basket of Bread,” which he painted at the age of twenty-two when he attended the School of Art in Madrid, could easily be mistaken for a work by Jan Vermeer (1632–1675).
The works of his maturity and old age, after the break with the Surrealists, may be even 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, reportedly a member of the anticlerical Spanish Freemasonry. His mother was a fervent Catholic.
Later, Dalí embraced the violent anticlericalism of the Surrealists, a position also originally advocated by Gala Diakonova (1894–1982), the Russian model and the wife of the French poet Paul Éluard (1895–1952) with whom he fell in love. After her divorce with the poet, Gala married Dalí in 1932.
Between 1949 and 1950, however, Dalí began a tormented, perhaps never fully concluded, journey of rediscovery of 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 Dalí persona we all know. He was perceived by many as a histrionic man in love only with himself, with exhibitionist attitudes difficult to bear even for friends and ultimately harmful to his art.
It is not surprising, therefore, that many considered Dalí’s return to religion only as yet another stunt of someone who wanted to provoke and amaze those who knew him as an anticlerical. As a stunt, it was successful enough. When in 1952 Dalí decided to sell his work of the previous year “The Christ of St. John of the Cross” to the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, students of the Faculty of Art and local leftist intellectuals organized a march against the purchase of a scandalously Catholic and retrograde work by a progressive museum.
Critics were, and remain, perplexed about this painting, kitsch for some and a masterpiece for others. Dalí maintained that it derived from a “cosmic dream” where he saw the nucleus of the atom studied by modern scientists as the center of the universe, and realized it was one and the same with Christ. The non-frontal view also offers a new perspective of Jesus’ suffering on the cross.
The pictorial itinerary proposed by the museum of Saint Petersburg, however, shows that the turn towards religion was not born only from a desire to scandalize and amaze, 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 had words of praise for the “Madonna of Port Lligat,” the first “Catholic” painting by the Catalan artist, although still marked by Surrealist influences.
Dalí always affirmed that his return to religion was through science, and his Catholicism of the last years 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 made it impossible to escape the conclusion that there must be a God as creator of such a complex and well-ordered universe.
But in a famous lecture the artist stated, “I believe in God, but I have no faith. Science and mathematics tell me that God must exist, but I don’t believe it.” Beyond the trademark taste for paradox, Dalí meant that he was rationally convinced of the existence of God, but could not “feel” the faith. Yet he would impose on a reluctant Gala a Catholic religious marriage in 1958, and would 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 Columbus’ epic as a triumph of faith, a theme that would not be politically correct today but was taken for granted in Catholic circles in the 1950s. The second is “The Ecumenical Council,” and was painted in 1960 after Pope John XXIII (1881–1963) had announced that the Second Vatical Council will be held in Rome.
This huge painting has a strong symbolic value. At the bottom left, the artist represents himself as the painter Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), with a completely 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 in the guise of St. Helena (248–329), the mother of Emperor Constantine (274–337) and a much-revered saint in Catalonia. Above from left are the Son, i.e., 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 an obvious homage to Michelangelo (1475–1564), and the Holy Spirit in the traditional form as a dove. In the center, the coronation of John XXIII as Pope fades into a dream-like vision of the future Council.
Everything is strange and contradictory about Dalí, and “The Ecumenical Council” is no exception. His Christianity and Catholicism are also peculiar. As a Surrealist, the artist had applauded the anticlerical attacks against Christian churches. In his post-Surrealist incarnation, he ended up embracing the Second Vatican Council’s ideas about freedom of religion, although his great religious canvases had been painted with references to a classic Spanish tradition that honored Constantinian Christianity and the conquest of the Americas, without caring too much about the religious liberty of non-Christians in these times.
Yet, beyond his contradictions, Dalí manifested an interest for religious themes that seems genuine enough. It is yet another chapter in the history of the relationship between contemporary art and religion, which is always more complicated than it may appear at first sight.