“Follow me, please. It’s time to move on,” the docent whispered as she tapped me the shoulder.
It was at that moment that I realized I hadn’t heard a word she said while I starred wide-eyed at the painting depicting melting clocks on the wall in front of me. I was only a freshman in high school and didn’t quite know what to make of Dali’s work back when I visited the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, but I found myself mesmerized by his bright colors and dream-like images.
I was far from truly appreciating art at 14 years old, but from that day forward, I never forgot Salvador Dali’s name. Fast forward to the present day: I knew that visiting The Dali Museum was a must-see while in St. Petersburg, Florida. I visited the museum’s website before my trip and read about their current exhibit, “Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dali’s Spain.” I was intrigued.
“Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dali’s Spain” at The Dali Museum
Widely recognized as the “Ansel Adams of Florida,” Clyde Butcher is known for his sweeping black and white landscape photographs of the Florida Everglades. Studying Butcher’s work makes one feel like the first human that walked the Earth: there’s an untouched, almost primordial sense of purity and isolation. I could see why the museum commissioned him to travel to Salvador Dali’s native Spain to capture the landscapes, towns, and ocean scenes that inspired Dali’s work for decades.
In my mind, however, the austere Butcher is the exact opposite of the whimsical, surrealist Dali; I couldn’t imagine two artists with more contrasting styles. I was looking forward to seeing the juxtaposition of Butcher’s photographs alongside the museum’s extensive collection of Dali’s works.
The creation of the Butcher exhibit, which is open to the public until Nov. 25, 2018, was a bit of a journey in and of itself. Just over a year ago, The Dali Museum retained Butcher to travel to the Catalonian coast to photograph the places where Dali spent his childhood and young adult years. Butcher spent a week focusing on Cadaques, where Dali spent his childhood summers; his villa at Port Lligat; and the craggy area of Cap de Creus. The exhibit comprises just over 40 photographs, ranging in size from an intimate two feet to an expansive eight feet.
Cadaques was a remote fishing village when Dali was a child exploring its sunny shores, although now it is a popular vacation destination. One easily forgets the tourists when looking at Butcher’s work. I could almost feel myself transported back to the beginning of the last century, before Cadaques was featured in travel magazines. Part of Butcher’s talent lies in representing not just the literal places that Dali lived, but in evoking the feelings Dali must have experienced as he took in his surroundings, unadulterated by modern distractions. Joy, sorrow, isolation, playfulness; all of these emotions, and more, are present in Butcher’s photographs.
As I walked through the exhibit, I was struck by the realization that both Butcher and Dali often worked from a place of pain. Butcher was famously inspired to use black and white photography following the tragic death of his son, and many of Dali’s works reflect the loss of his mother as a teenager. Staring at Butcher’s photographs, I was able to sense the grief Dali felt following the death of his mother. I could feel the sorrow in the craggy seaside cliffs and vast sweeping skies. Ironically, the majority of the photos depict strong sunlight, white billowing clouds, and the sparkling waters one associates with the Catalonian coast. Butcher’s talent lies in taking the viewer past these outwardly cheerful images and letting him see the landscape through Dali’s (sometimes) mournful mind.
Dali is known for his playful surrealism, a theme that surfaces throughout Butcher’s photographs. Like Dali, Butcher has a talent for disrupting proportions, stretching light and other natural elements to create an otherworldly sense of time and place. This artistic dexterity is particularly prominent in his Plaja S’Alqueria Petita scenes. The composition is stark, but the photos are also distinctly Dali-esque. The clouds and the sand are seemingly pulled in opposite, unexpected directions. One can see how Dali, looking at the same scenes, was inspired to create Daddy Longlegs of the Evening – Hope!
My favorite series in the exhibit are Butcher’s photographs of Playa S’Aranella, a small beach in Cadaques, and Es Cucurucuc, a unique rock outcropping in the bay. The rock was a prominent subject for Dali, and its name – a palindrome that likely appealed to Dali’s playful sense of wordsmithing – is the subject of his well-known work, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.
The exhibit includes several images of Dali’s beloved eggs, which to him represented hope and rebirth. In contrast to many of Butcher’s seascapes, the egg photos present a blithe, carefree side of Dali and his love of the symbols found in nature. They are literally “light,” mostly composed of shades of stark white to light grey. I’m no art expert, but I felt an instant sense of playfulness, lightheartedness, and optimism as I studied these works.
I mentioned above that I was initially struck by the differences in Butcher and Dali’s artistic style. Once I entered the show room it became clear that this contrast between the two is part of the genius of this exhibit. The walls of the exhibit hall itself are part of the experience: some are painted a deep shade of burnt red, others are charcoal grey. Even the exhibit’s flooring adds to the theme of contrast and provide the perfect backdrop for Butcher’s work, which is largely comprised of…you may have guessed it…lighting and shadows! I loved this playful twist, which seemed like a perfect way to tie Butcher’s work to Dali and his sense of whimsy.
In case it isn’t abundantly clear by now, let me lay it out there: my experience at The Dali Museum was one of the highlights of my trip to St. Petersburg. The insightful curators at the museum have created a sophisticated yet accessible exhibit that resonates with visitors long after they leave the museum. On my flight home, I was still contemplating the impact of my Wisconsin upbringing on my desire to travel and my career choices (lawyer by day, travel blogger by night). Hasn’t everyone, in some way, been inspired by their childhood surroundings? I love how “Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dali’s Spain,” not only invites you to observe the works of these two great artists, but also to explore the influences on your own life. The big take away lesson for me? Love what you do; share your work with the world; and use it to connect to others, even if they seem very different than you. You might have more in common than you think.
One more thing…
This would be a great place to end this post, but I simply can’t without mentioning what an incredible morning I experienced at The Dali Museum. The museum is nearly as charming as its namesake artist, with its signature spiral staircase and bulging three-story walls of windows overlooking the harbor. It looks like the brainchild of Willy Wonka and Walt Disney.
Following my tour of the Butcher exhibit, I explored the rest of the museum. I was delighted by the “Wishing Tree,” where patrons are encouraged to tie their museum wrist bands to the branches and make a wish upon them. The Avant-garden has a beautiful view of the harbor where you can enjoy a coffee, desert, or light meal from the museum café.
In my mind, aside from the Dali works themselves, the most fascinating thing about The Dali Museum is the story of its founding. In March of 1942, A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse were married. The following year, while on an anniversary trip to New York, they purchased a Dali painting and were introduced to the artist and his wife. This chance encounter sparked a passion for Dali and his works, and the couple continued collecting throughout their lives. They remained lifelong friends of Dali and his wife, Gala. The Morses traveled to Spain several times to study Dali’s homeland and the things that influenced his art. If that isn’t a story of love and human connection, I don’t know what is! The Dali Museum was founded in 1982 with the works collected by Reynolds and Eleanor Morse.
A visit to The Dali Museum is a must-see while in St. Pete. Even if you’re not able to make it to the museum before the end of their current exhibit, their next will undoubtedly be equally impressive and thought provoking.
Would you like to visit The Dali Museum in St. Pete?
This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of The Dali Museum; however, as always, all opinions are my own.