Celebrating Dali’s ‘Columbus’ on Columbus Day!
By Paul Chimera
Dali Society Historian/Writer
The late Reynolds Morse, Dali’s leading patron, Dali expert and benefactor of the Dali Museum in St. Pete, Florida, was an intense man. He spoke his mind. He was insistent in his beliefs. Even if it meant duking it out with Dali.
“I don’t like it. It doesn’t fit with the rest. You’re going to ruin it!”
That was Morse’s comment when he and his wife Eleanor stood inside Dali’s studio in Port Lligat, Spain and gazed upon the massive “Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus” (1958-1959). It was a Dali work in progress, shaping up nicely. But across the bottom eighth of the 14-foot-tall canvas was a band of bland. Or so Morse thought.
Contrasting with the Mediteranean-inspired colors and overall beauty of the majority of the Dali painting was a curiously monochromatic grayish-brown space at the bottom. Morse didn’t understand it but thought it was out of place. He didn’t hide his disappointment with that section of the work.
“You will see in time,” countered Dali, speaking in the third-person, “that Dali is ahead of his time!” While those might not be his exact words, it’s close enough. The Morse’s left perplexed. Not happy. Perhaps they wondered, moreover, what Huntington Hartford would think, since the businessman, philanthropist and art collector had commissioned the painting for his gallery on Columbus Circle in New York.
“Discovery of America…” shows a young Christopher setting foot on the “new world,” his foot casting a shadow on that puzzling space Morse railed against. Until — of course! — it suddenly struck the Dali collector like a meteor. All the signs were there: a huge sea urchin with bands encircling it…a lunar-like landscape….a new frontier…the absence of any real color…deep, unearthly shadows…
This was Salvador Dali’s prediction — years before it happened — that an American would be the first to set foot on the moon!
Now it all made sense to the Morse’s, and to anyone else who would come to see the extraordinary prescience of what might otherwise be a kind of forgettable footnote in a remarkable pictorial story. Years before Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap for mankind,” Salvador Dali took his own giant leap, proving — not for the first time — that he really was ahead of his time.
But Dali also pays homage in “Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus” to the 4ooth anniversary of the death of Velasquez, the great Spanish Renaissance artist whom Dali long held as his single favorite artist. Those tall lances you see at right are quoted right out of Velasquez’s “Surrender at Breda.”
Look discerningly in the upper right and you’ll spot the image of Dali’s iconic religious masterpiece, “Christ of St. John of the Cross” cleverly revealed by additional background lances — and then its mirror image appearing as dots on the flags. Incredibly, the “St. John of the Cross” image appears a third time as a small Crucifix held by Dali himself, who kneels in the foreground to the right of the ship’s hull. Gala, of course, is reverently pictured on the huge banner Columbus carries in his hand.
Wow! So much to see, discover, and enjoy on this Columbus Day, thanks to the master of Surrealism — and a man who was a pretty good predictor of world events, too!