Wherever They Appear, Dali Works Steal the Show! (Sorry, Renoir)


By Paul Chimera

Salvador Dali Historian


Salvador Dali remains a big, big, big draw. Bigger than most realize. Dali’s “Persistence of Memory,” tiny in size, has been a huge pull for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. After all, it owns the most universally recognized Dali painting – and  the most popular Surrealist picture – ever created.


It’s impossible to know, but you can bet an enormous number of visitors to the MoMA have paid its price of admission expressly because they had to see in-person the iconic melting watches that etched Salvador Dali onto the Surrealist map and the world’s collective conscience.


Also in the Big Apple is Dali’s “Crucifixion” of 1954, whose title is better known (though not as easily repeated) as “Corpus Hypercubus.” I have personally seen how crowds line up to gaze upon this awe-inspiring masterpiece, which surely has motivated countless people to visit the great Metropolitan Museum of Art.


I remember the first time I saw it there. To its left was an abstract (quite forgettable), to its right a portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso (quite nice). I made it a point to watch the watchers that day. There was a continuous throng not around the unremarkable abstraction or the Stein portrait, but indeed in front of the nearly 7-foot-tall vision of Jesus ethereally integrated within a hypercube, towering high above Mary Magdalene in the form of Gala, whose gold satin robe could have been painted by Raphael.


Then there’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” a 1951 canvas so popular that a national poll in Scotland found it handily earning the moniker of that country’s most popular work of art. No surprise there. It’s a monumental depiction of Christ, unlike anything seen before or since. Its craftsmanship is perfection, its perspective unique, its beauty undeniable. 


A story is told of a group of Italian businessmen who traveled to Scotland for the expressed purpose of finally seeing in the flesh a painting whose reproductions hung in their homes for years. Priding themselves in being stoic, disciplined professionals, the group – upon looking up at Dali’s extraordinary vision of the crucified Christ – broke into tears, overcome with emotion.


Crossing the Atlantic back to the U.S., we’ll end with the painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. that reportedly replaced Renoir’s “Girl with a Watering Can” as the museum’s most popular work. Dali’s “Sacrament of the Last Supper” – though its various placements in the museum over the years have caused dissatisfaction among Dali aficionados – remains a tourist magnet.


The large work is painted so photographically that visitors cannot quite believe what they’re witnessing. And its unconventional depiction of the iconic repast mesmerizes us with its perfect symmetry, the grand dodecahedron background, and the transparent image of the beardless Christ.

Renoir's once most popular work in National Gallery is now second to Dali's "Last Supper."

Renoir’s once most popular work in National Gallery is now second to Dali’s “Last Supper.”


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