An image of Salvador Dalí's Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach
Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, Salvador Dalí (1938). © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2022 Credit: Photo by Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum

I was a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times in 1980, when St. Pete got the idea of turning itself into Salvador Dalíwood. Not everyone was on board: on the one hand, there were grumbles about Dalí’s apparent tolerance for fascism (including a cozy long-term relationship with Franco), and on the other, sneering art-world objections to his carnival persona and his staunchly figurative work as blatantly commercial, too crass and populist for serious consideration. 

But St. Pete, lagging twin city Tampa in development and desperate for something to add to the country’s best beaches as a tourist lure, took up the offer of industrialist A. Reynolds Morse and his wife, Eleanor Reese Morse, to donate their extensive collection of Dalí works to an institution that would keep it together and show it. In 1982, the Dalí Museum opened there, in a modest, one-story former warehouse, perched precariously close to the water that’s the city’s defining characteristic.

Like most newspapers, the once-mighty St. Petersburg Times has fallen on hard times—it now publishes as the Tampa Bay Times, putting out a slimmed-down shadow of its former print self only twice a week. But Dalí—except, as he might say, for that little incident of his death in 1989, at the age of 84 (and ignoring the fact that he was exhumed in 2017, when his mustache was found to be intact)—is doing pretty well. In 2011, his portrait of surrealist poet and friend Paul Éluard (whose wife, uber-muse and sexual libertine Gala, soon became Mrs. Dalí, the painter’s professed impotence notwithstanding) sold at Sotheby’s for $21.5 million. 

“Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears”
Through 6/12: Mon 11 AM-5 PM, Thu 11 AM-8 PM, Fri-Sun 11 AM-5 PM; Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan,, adults $25 ($35 Fast Pass, $22 Illinois residents, $20 Chicago residents), seniors 65+, students, and teens 14-17 $19 ($29 Fast Pass, $16 Illinois residents, $14 Chicago residents), children under 14 free

That year, a bigger Dalí museum opened in St. Petersburg. Designed by Yann Weymouth, it’s a perfectly ordinary square, white, three-story building that seems to have been taken over by a giant snail, the bulging glass shell erupting through hurricane-proof concrete walls. Now a major expansion of that museum is underway. And here in Chicago, the Art Institute (which may have been looking down its nose in 1980) has mounted its first-ever Dalí solo show, “Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears.”

It’s a comfortably digestible show—50 pieces, including publications and photos, almost all from the 1930s (the decade in which Dalí shot to international prominence, landing on the cover of Time in 1936), housed in three galleries on the second floor of the modern wing. The influence of Sigmund Freud, especially The Interpretation of Dreams and the concept of the unconscious, is a through line, replete with castrating knives and images of people who’ve sprouted cabinet doors and drawers that could be opening on their interior lives.

Salvador Dalí, Mae West’s Face Which May Be Used as a Surrealist Apartment, 1934–35. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. Charles B. Goodspeed, 1949.517. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2022

Loosely chronological, the show moves from the earliest work from this period, when Dalí was part of the Paris surrealist group headed by André Breton (they expelled him for being soft on Franco and Hitler), to the exhibit’s main focus, which Dalí called his paranoiac-critical method—basically, trick art that calls the validity of one’s own vision into question. St. Petersburg has some impressively sized examples of this, including a standing nude seen from the rear as she looks through a window to the sea (Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea . . .); back up, and it turns into a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The scale of works in the Art Institute show is smaller, but there’s an excellent double-image example in a series of two preparatory drawings and a painting, The Image Disappears. Rorschach-like, it can be either the standing figure of a woman bowing her head to read or the face of a man, probably Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.

The final gallery is devoted to a pavilion Dalí created for the New York World’s Fair of 1939, Dream of Venus, which included an “underwater burlesque funhouse” with bare-breasted “living liquid ladies.” Melting clocks and drooping fried eggs? Sure, but Dalí was conventional in this way: like so many venerated artists before him, he was a boob man.  

Visitors to the Art Institute’s “Salvador Dalí: The Image Disappears” Credit: Deanna Isaacs

And he’s not the artist who came to mind after I left the show. In this postpandemic environment, COVID’s economic ravages hang on. The Art Institute is now closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. No food is available there, not even a cup of coffee. The formerly lively Michigan Avenue lobby has been emptied of both furniture and most staff—when I was there last week, the vast Kenneth and Anne Griffin Court was as abandoned as the marriage it’s named for. Although the Dalí show, with a virtual queue, was well attended, there didn’t seem to be a lot of other visitors.  (According to an Art Institute spokesperson, 2022 attendance was just over 1 million—that would be down from about 1.6 million in 2019—and two cafes are set to reopen in the museum March 23.) 

As I exited via the grand steps on Michigan Avenue, walking Adams to State and then north, what met the eye was a depressing cavalcade of empty storefronts. There might be another way of seeing this, but they looked to me like harbingers of the commercial real estate bust ticking down in our probable near future. What that brought to mind wasn’t Dalí, with all his Freudian exuberance, but the urban images of Edward Hopper, the master of glaring, soul-killing, vacant space.