By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 8, 2010
A painter. A sculptor. A photographer. A jeweler. Embraced by the public, but once dismissed by art critics.
The interpretation of the work of the late Spanish Catholic artist continues to evolve, much as his paintings challenged people to look at the world anew.
The High Museum of Art hosts a major exhibit, “Salvador Dali: The Late Work,” opening Aug. 7. It will feature more than 100 pieces of work done by the man after he split with the surrealist movement.
The exhibit offers pieces rarely seen in the United States, including “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” which has not been on view here in 50 years.
Dali came from a mixed faith family, with a Catholic mother and atheist father. In 1939, his interest veered from the surrealist school of painting where he had been a leader and he returned to explore his Catholic roots in what was called “nuclear mysticism.”
Julia Forbes, the museum’s head of interpretation, said Dali’s goal was an attempt to “make sense of Catholicism for himself in the modern world.” It married the new discovery of the atom and subatomic particles with his faith, she said.
One of his most famous paintings illustrates it. His painting “Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina” is Dali’s interpretation of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother. (The woman portraying Mary in the painting is Dali’s wife, who served as a model for him in several pieces.)
Exhibit viewers at the High Museum will hear eight commentators on Dali’s work on the audio tour. Among them is Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who said he tends to favor French impressionists, but was pleased to be asked to give a Catholic perspective. Other voices on the audio tour include Dali’s muse, Amanda Lear; museum experts; and rock musician Alice Cooper, who was a subject of one of Dali’s works.
Archbishop Gregory said he was pleased to help out with the exhibit, which is expected to draw large crowds.
“Catholicism is rich in symbolism and our religious traditions have been a source of inspiration for countless artists throughout the centuries. If those works inspire a desire to know more about our faith and our church, then that would be a special blessing,” the archbishop wrote by e-mail.
Forbes said exhibit organizers wanted the archbishop to be among the commentators in order to shed light on Dali’s work from the perspective of the Catholic faith.
“He said some terrific things,” said Forbes.
Audio engineers taped the archbishop talking in a phone interview about five of Dali’s paintings, including the Assumption work and the famous “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” considered one of the most important pieces of religious art in the 20th century. Other paintings to be displayed that the archbishop commented on are: “The Ecumenical Council,” 1960; “Santiago el Grande,” 1957; “Madonna of Port Lligat,” 1950.
On “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” which depicts the crucifixion from above, the archbishop noted that the artist does not show the face of Christ, an unusual perspective for Catholics. There is no sign of blood, and Jesus’ muscles are holding him up to the cross despite there being no nails.
“This crucifixion dominates the Earth. It is an active presence over creation,” said the archbishop.
Dali’s 1950 painting of “Madonna of Port Lligat” shows a common pose of the Christ child in the lap of Mary. In fact, Dali used his wife’s face as a model for Mary.
The archbishop called the piece “very Catholic.”
The church is incarnational, meaning it uses images of ordinary life and ordinary items for worship—bread and wine and candles and smoke—to help people encounter God, he said.
“From the Catholic perspective, using real people to be the models and the images of the supernatural people, the divine, the holy people, is very much in keeping with our Catholic heritage,” he said.
The Dali exhibit will be open in Atlanta until January 2011.