Salvador Dali was an aspiring artist when he fell, hard, for the French Impressionists. In 1920 (approximately), the teenage painter – who hadn’t yet been to art school – wrote in his journal:
With Impressionism everything tends toward the transient, the circumstantial, the apparent, painting what seems to be, exalting that which is paradoxical to appearance, making love with the eyes, with an almost musical harmony of light, cool colors and with a desire for sensual painting.
The manner in which Impressionist technique informed Dali’s own work – even as he became the world’s best-known Surrealist – is examined in the extraordinary exhibit opening Saturday at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg.
“This early phase in Dali’s career is essential to understanding his work more broadly,” pointed out director of curatorial affairs Jennifer Cohen. “Most significantly, Dali’s investment in Impressionism is at the origin of his career-long dedication to the landscape genre, which he retained even as he began to look inward for his subject matter. He also looked to the Impressionists as possible future ‘classics,’ a status that Dali very much desired for himself.”
Cohen introduced a Tuesday preview of Dalí & the Impressionists: Monet, Renoir, Degas & More. Curated by Dr. William Jeffett, the exhibit includes 22 paintings by 18 artists, along with 18 of Dali’s earliest paintings from the St. Pete facility’s permanent collection.
Those are the stats, the nuts and the bolts. Being in the same room with original works by many of the Impressionist masters is something else altogether.
On loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are canvases from Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and more. Many are on view for the first time in the state of Florida.
Catching fire in the 1870s, the Impressionists rejected conventional, academic painting “rules,” working with quick brushstrokes to capture light, color and movement – “the immediacy of the visual experience,” according to Cohen.
The brushstrokes should be up and down, and sideways for the sky; it’s also important to paint the sun glancing on the sand and, above all, not to use black, because black isn’t a color.
Salvador Dali, 1922
According to director of education Peter Tush, who led Tuesday’s preview, there exists a through line between Dali’s early, Impressionist works and his later, quite idiosyncratic, masterpieces.
“He saw these amazing paintings, and he thought ‘This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen – I want to do that,” Tush said. “And he commits himself to that. I think he learns, as he’s looking and studying, how revolutionary that experience is.
“And I think that kind of audacity, that ability to do something that’s so different from what others are doing, in his mind, is what he keeps with him throughout the rest of his career. He moves through the sense of thwarting people’s expectation, wanting to surprise but also to shock them … when he meets Picasso, he wants to do the most sophisticated, and when he meets the Surrealists he wants to do the most appalling … I think he’s just really going out of his way to be radical. The Impressionists, for him, were that spark to make himself so different from others around him.”
Dali, over course, moved away from Impressionism over time. “But,” said Tush, “I think that spirit of riling people up, making them angry, those are the things that I think he adored. That he carried with him the rest of his career.”
Included with Dalí & the Impressionists: Monet, Renoir, Degas & More is a new edition of Your Portrait, the Dalí Museum’s AI experience in which patrons are invited to have their photo taken – then watch as the technology transforms it into an Impressionist “painting,” which can be emailed.
Dalí & the Impressionists: Monet, Renoir, Degas & More opens Saturday, Nov. 18 and runs through April 28, 2024. Museum website.