St. Petersburg, Fla. – He’s now known as the king of surrealism. But in the mid-1920s, a young Salvador Dalí was searching for his style.
He painted a startlingly lifelike basket of bread in a typical Renaissance form. He dabbled in cubism and painted in abstract black, white and gray. He also painted a scene in 1925 that he called "Desnudo en el Agua" (Nude in the Water), which gives an inkling of the surrealist genius to come.
The painting is a close-up of a woman's shapely buttocks, and the unique perspective reveals that Dalí was looking at subjects and paintings in a whole new way as a young artist.
"He's not doing an academic perspective," wryly notes Hank Hine, the director of the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg.
That subtly erotic work, along with 11 others, is on display at the Florida museum until March 31, 2013 in a show called "The Royal Inheritance: Dalí Works From the Spanish National Collection." The paintings, which span from 1918 to 1983, have never before been exhibited the United States.
The works are on loan from the National Collection of Modern Art in Spain.
It's an exhibit that merges the vast permanent collection housed in St. Petersburg — which was amassed by one couple from Cleveland who befriended the artist — with works owned by the Spanish Kingdom, which inherited Dalí's estate after he died in 1989.
For a visitor to the museum in St. Petersburg, it means a well-rounded and fun romp through Dalí's vast body of work.
Hine said the Florida museum was able to acquire the Spanish loans in exchange for collaborating on another Dalí exhibition, one at the Centre Pompidou in Paris on Nov. 21. The show will also be shown in Madrid starting April 23, 2013.
"The world has a huge appetite for Dalí," said Hine. "He's lastingly exciting."
That appetite for his surrealist paintings, and the desire to see the striking new museum, has sparked an arts renaissance in St. Petersburg. The museum moved into a $36 million glass-and-concrete building along the city's waterfront on January 11, 2011, and has welcomed an average of 1,000 people a day since opening.
The museum's signature detail is a wave of glass paneling that undulates around the building — a feature that was designed by architect Yann Weymouth, who had a hand in creating the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. There's also a helix-like concrete staircase that stretches from the ticket counter to the third floor, and a cafe that serves smooth glasses of Spanish wine and traditional olives.
The biggest visitor demographic, said Hine, is the 18-30 age group — which is interesting considering that St. Petersburg has been long known as a retirement haven.
And 25 percent of the Dalí's visitors have never been to a museum before, he said.
"They don't feel like they have to know anything about art to come here," said Hine. "Dalí's works are whimsical, and charming."
Yet even without knowing much about art, visitors can appreciate Dalí's genius, talent and, some would say, madness.
In the new exhibit, one of Dalí's paintings from late in his career — 1983's "Bed and Two Bedside Tables Ferociously Attacking a Cello" — is a frenzy of strange. Two paintings from 1975-76 titled "Las Meninas" are Dalí's version of Velazquez's timeless classic 17th century portrait of a young Spanish princess and her entourage; Dalí recreated them in 3-D stereoscopic view. (Hint: look at both, cross-eyed).
There's also a soft, traditional still life from 1918, painted when Dalí was only 14.
That's the beauty of the museum and the exhibit: the visitor learns that Dalí wasn't just a master of shocking images. He was a well-rounded, curious and prolific artist who constantly questioned everything — from religion to politics to his own memories.
The museum's permanent collection, in the wing across from the temporary exhibit, holds some of Dalí's most important, and popular works. There are the dripping watches, the marching ants, the sodomized pianos.
Dalí had no connection to St. Petersburg, and the museum's collection of 100 of his works ended up there almost by accident. The pieces were acquired by A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse of Ohio, much to the surprise of their staid Midwestern friends and family, beginning with their first Dalí purchase in 1942, a painting titled "Daddy Longlegs of the Evening-Hope!"
The couple became so enamored of Dalí and his style that they eventually befriended the artist and his wife, Gala. Later they started looking for a home for the collection. A. Reynolds Morse was willing to donate the works for free to any venue that would keep them together, and a St. Petersburg lawyer, Jim Martin, who read about the collection in a newspaper article, suggested St. Pete. The original museum was built in 1980.