Best Bets: Dali exhibit takes ‘Stairway’ to Biggs Museum

Throughout the last eight months of the pandemic, through the closures and the concern for fellow employees and patrons, the one thing Biggs Museum of American Art curator Ryan Grover could look forward to is the arrival of Salvador Dalí.

“It’s always been, ‘The show’s coming. The show’s coming,’” he said.

The show finally arrives today, as 150 pieces of the eccentric, famed artist’s work is on display at the Dover museum in a traveling exhibition of his illustrations for “Les Chants de Maldoror” and “The Divine Comedy,” titled “Stairway to Heaven: Life and Death in the Visions of Salvador Dalí.”

All the works are from the collection of the Park West Museum in Southfield, Michigan, which organized the exhibition. The almost-three-year U.S. tour will end Feb. 8 at the Biggs.

Getting the exhibit to the Biggs was a three-year process. Mr. Grover thought perhaps it wouldn’t come to pass once coronavirus hit the country.

“We were a little nervous at first that because of COVID that they might have canceled. I mean, it would have been within their purview to do so if they really wanted to. But luckily, that didn’t happen and, luckily, we were able to stay open. So the stars kind of aligned with us there,” he said.

“That’s not always the case. We had other exhibitions that were lined up for next spring that did cancel, and we’ve had to create other exhibitions. So it all depends on the lender and the organizing company — what their comfort levels are in the situation. Naturally, with COVID, most people are pretty uncomfortable.”

Created for two publications, the artworks in this exhibition signal two distinct periods in Dalí’s career: the hedonism of his youth and the redemption he sought later in life. These two sets also signal his transition from surrealism to mysticism.

Under the influence of intimate friends and poets such as Federico García Lorca and André Breton, Dalí became infatuated with the sadistic and amoral subjects of the surrealist icon, the Count of Lutréamont (pseudonym of the French Uruguayan romantic poet Isidore Lucien Ducasse).

Dalí was soon asked to supply illustrations for a reprinting of the Count of Lutréamont’s epic poem, “Les Chants de Maldoror.” The artist created 44 original intaglio prints for the publication, which are on view at the Biggs.

This was among his earliest book projects; however, Dalí, who died in 1989 at age 84, would supply art for dozens of publications in his lifetime, including the Shakespearean plays “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Divine Comedy,” also included in the exhibit.

Dalí originally began illustrating “The Divine Comedy” as a commission by the Italian state and with papal approval to commemorate the 700-year anniversary of the birth of its author, the poet Dante Alighieri. Due to Dalí’s Spanish heritage and early blasphemous attitude, his agreement to illustrate this centrally important biblical Italian text fell through.

Instead, he personally oversaw the creation of woodblock prints replicating all 100 of the watercolors he produced for the project. From an astounding 3,500 individually carved printing blocks, the series of prints was produced over four years. The result was a portfolio of 100 fine art prints corresponding to “The Divine Comedy” and among the most expensive books ever produced.

Mr. Grover said he read about the exhibition in a trade magazine.

“I knew about the images that were made for one of the two publications (“The Divine Comedy”) that we have featured here in the show, and so I was interested in it automatically and then read a little bit more about the exhibition. So I just contacted them, and they basically just added us to the contract. So we’re feeling very fortunate about it.”

At 150 pieces, it’s one of the largest exhibitions the Biggs has hosted.

“We typically do not have shows with this many works in them. So there is a lot of Dalí’ to take in,” Mr. Grover said.

“We’re definitely not the biggest museum. We’re a very approachable size, and so a lot of the temporary exhibitions that we put on, you’re usually able to come in and out like within a half-hour to 45 minutes. With this one, you could just sort of take it in and sort of read the text and just kind of get through it in the traditional time frame. But you also have the absolute option to also just kind of slow down a little bit and really analyze the images because there’s a lot of them. There’s a lot going on in the images and especially with the fine art prints that were created for ‘The Divine Comedy.’

“So many people are really familiar with that text and the storyline. Even if they’ve not read it, you know a little bit about the sort of journey through the underworld that this person is experiencing, and so there’s a lot that’s going to be very familiar about the subject and this work.”

Mr. Grover was less familiar with the illustrations for “Les Chants de Maldoror.”

“They aren’t really meant to be pictures directly into the storyline. They’re meant to really sort of accompany the epic poem. And so they are actually more familiar to people than you might think because they are all of what Dalí was doing during his surreal phase,” he said.

“So it is the melting clocks and the bodies with the chest of drawers in them, and it is the angels and the crutches and all these other kind of things that we’ve always sort of picked up a little bit by a little bit when you see the iconic Dalí paintings on the side of a lunchbox. So there’s just a lot that you can study and a lot of symbols and a lot to take in in a really great narrative.”

Despite closing Thursday due to the report of a possible secondary COVID-19 exposure, the Biggs reopens its doors today for the exhibition.

But the museum is limiting the number of visitors on site per government guidelines. Due to anticipated demand, it is highly recommended to purchase tickets in advance and to call to reserve a time slot. The museum will still welcome walk-ins, but those visitors without reservations will be asked to wait before entering if there are parties on the schedule. Making a reservation will guarantee admittance and limit wait time.

Daily admission passes can be purchased up to one month in advance via the Event Calendar on biggsmuseum.org or by calling 674-2111. Current hours of operation are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.

For those who can’t make it to the Biggs in person, a virtual tour of “The Divine Comedy” will take place Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. and a virtual tour of “Les Chants de Maldoror” will be staged Jan. 5 at 6 p.m.

There will also be a virtual guest lecture with the curator of the exhibition, David Rubin, on Jan. 19 at 6 p.m.

On Jan. 2, kids can celebrate First Saturday with the free digital Biggs Kids Workshop. Visit the Biggs’ Facebook page any time after 10 a.m. that day to access the latest Biggs Kids Workshop video, which teaches children about the art of Salvador Dalí and guides them to create their own Dalí-inspired art.

To help complete the Biggs Kids Workshop projects at home, a limited supply of “Big Ol’ Bag of Biggs Art” with all needed supplies are available for pickup free of charge. These can be collected from the museum throughout the month.

To arrange pickup in advance, contact Curator of Community and Academic Programs Kristen Matulewicz by emailing kmatulewicz@biggsmuseum.org. Follow the Biggs on Facebook to be notified when the video is posted.

The Biggs Museum is at 406 Federal St. in Dover.

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New in theaters this weekend is the comedic drama “Half Brothers.”

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