On my way to the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, after driving two hours north on I-75, I stopped to pay the toll at the foot of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge but the man in the booth just waved me on.
“The guy in front of you already paid,” he said. I blinked at him, slow confused blinks. I’d heard of these pay-it-forward scenarios before but in all my life crisscrossing this state no one has ever paid a toll for me. I laughed in a mad, pleased way and drove on, straight up the bridge, suddenly shaken out of my highway hypnosis so that I was startled by the expanse of clear sky and blue water surrounding me. Cadaques, Spain, where Salvador Dalí spent most of his life and created many of his works, is like this, too—all blue sky and sparkling sea, a vista that often figures into his paintings, many of which are on display in St. Pete.
If you haven’t been to the museum for a while, it’s worth another visit. The new building, completed in 2011, is a modern structure made of concrete, glass and steel, filled with light, sleek and sophisticated, an appropriate counterbalance to the near-madness of much of Dalí’s work. Free audio guides come with admission ($24), but I opted for the docent-led tour (free). My docent sported a mustache and Pittsburgh-area accent, Tommy Bahama style and a flair for the big reveal. Typically I prefer to wander museums alone, but with an artist like Dalí I figured a little guidance might be nice.
The museum is laid out chronologically, and the docent began the tour early in Dalí’s career, where his first paintings drew their style directly from the Impressionists. From there, he showed us how Picasso’s influence crept in until in 1926 Dalí painted Girl with Curls, where for the first time many of his stylistic hallmarks appeared. From there we moved to increasingly complex works until our group stood gaping before the large-format Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The painting showed a nude woman from the back—Dalí’s wife, Gala—staring out at the sea, a blazing sun above her in a tumultuous ochre sky. The docent explained Dalí’s inspiration for the work, how he was fascinated by pixilation, the way one image might transmogrify into another.
“Want to see something cool?” the docent asked.
Like a magician, he held a palm-sized convex mirror over his head, facing the painting.
“Now look,” he commanded.
He moved through the group, walking from left to right, and people gasped then giggled self-consciously as he passed. Don’t gasp, I warned myself as he walked in front of me. I glanced up at the mirror’s reflective surface. There, the image in the painting had completely changed from a nude woman to, yes, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. I gasped. And then giggled self-consciously.
“It’s an amazing place to be,” the docent said, talking about the unconscious mind and Dalí’s tricks for accessing it, “but I wouldn’t want to go there.”
I’m not sure I would, either. Not forever, certainly. But for a time? Perhaps.
That’s how a visit to this museum feels: a dip into the strange and perplexing river of Dalí’s mind. As a group, we wound through small and unsettling pieces—The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus.” The work shone with a lucid brilliance, a dreamlike quality that seemed to shade the entire trip. I’ve been to the Teatro-Museo Dalí in Figueres, Spain, an operatic space created by Dalí himself. That place is wild, erratic and as difficult to navigate as one of Dalí’s paintings. The museum in St. Pete is just the opposite: cool, composed, filled with politely milling people and ready-to-help staff. There’s even a cafe, a lovely little place to have a bowl of gazpacho, a plate of manchego or, if you’re not driving on this particular excursion, a glass of cava.
Before the journey back, I couldn’t resist stopping in the museum gift shop with its extensive Dalí-inspired offerings—espresso cups, magnets, puzzles, posters, art books, shot glasses, coasters, ties, scarves and even Hallucinogenic Toreador cookies. At the counter in the back where they keep the jewelry and perfume (“What’s that scent you’re wearing? It’s very surreal.”), women clustered three-deep, pointing, inspecting, comparing. Dalí, who valued the money his artwork brought in, certainly would have approved.
Make no mistake: The trip to St. Pete is long and the drive back can be tedious. But for me, the pleasantly strange dream state of the outing more than made up for the hours on the road. Even if no one paid my toll on the way home.