Dali’s iconic ‘Christ of St. John of the Cross’ coming to America

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By Paul Chimera

Salvador Dali Historian

 

Next month, something rather exceptional will be occurring in the endlessly exciting world of Salvador Dali. What many, including me, consider Dali’s most famous religious painting – in fact, what might be the most famous religious painting of the last century – is coming to the Dali Museum in Florida from Great Britain.

 

To St. Petersburg, to be precise. To One Dali Boulevard, to be even more precise. It’s an address guaranteed to be overrun with traffic from across the country. And from practically everywhere else.

 

“Dali/Duchamp” opens at the Florida Dali Museum Saturday, Feb. 10 and runs through Sunday, May 27. Works by Marcel Duchamp will be compared and contrasted with those of Dali – but nothing can possibly compare with “Christ of St. John of the Cross.”

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It leaves me incredulous that some people don’t even know who Salvador Dali was. But when they’re shown the image of Dali’s “Christ” – whose permanent home is the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Scotland – they’re unanimous in responding, “Oh, yes, I’ve seen that picture,” invariably followed by their own incredulity: “That was painted by Salvador Dali?”

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I suppose critics have been divided on this monumental masterwork not because of what it portrays or how it was painted, but because its creator was Dali. Some simply didn’t want to accept that such a wickedly impish self-promoter painted one of the most heart-stopping religious icons of the century.

 

Meanwhile, the public has adored this beautiful picture since Dali finished it in 1951. Its design is based on a small sketch made by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish friar; his drawing is preserved in the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. Its unusual perspective of the Crucifixion gave rise to Dali’s unorthodox view of Jesus from above.

This sketch by John of the Cross started it all.

This sketch by John of the Cross started it all.

 

It’s interesting that Hollywood stuntman Russell Saunders posed for this work in 1950, suspended from an overhead gantry. I interviewed Mr. Saunders many years ago about this experience, and he said Dali was very particular and precise – wanting everything to be just so as he shaped up one of his most universally recognized and revered masterpieces.

Photos of Saunders, who posed for Dali's "Christ."

Photos of Saunders, who posed for Dali’s “Christ.”

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In its obituary of Saunders in 2001, the Los Angeles Times quoted him about his Dalinian experience: “I didn’t even know who he (Dali) was at the time,” Saunders recalled in 1984. “I was working for Warner Bros Studios and tested in front of this guy with a cane and a waxed mustache. I got paid $35 a day to pose.” According to the Royal Academy in England, Saunders was also stunt double for Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.”

 

What I find fascinating is the photo seen below:

 

Handing it to Dali.

Handing it to Dali.

It shows a man – I don’t believe it’s Saunders, but it might be – actually hand-posing for Dali, so that he could capture the most realistic intensity of a hand with curled fingers.

 

When “Christ of St. John of the Cross” first went on display in Glasgow in 1951, it received a cool reception, at least by some. Museum officials groused that they wanted to allocate their budget differently. They didn’t want to pour so much money into the acquisition of just a single piece of art.

 

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Ironically, Dali’s “Christ” has been determined in a nationwide Scottish poll to be that country’s most admired work of art. No surprise there.

 

Dali discusses his "Christ" with Bobbie Kennedy.

Dali discusses his “Christ” with Bobbie Kennedy.

 

And while “Christ” may not have received the warmest reception in Glasgow all those years back, I think we can safely say it’s going to take St. Petersburg, and the whole country, by storm.

 

 

 

 

 

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