Where clocks melt. A St. Petersburg museum boasts world's largest collection of Salvador Dali works

THE world's largest collection of Salvador Dali's works happens to be in Florida, at St. Petersburg's Dali Museum. Dali, you'll recall, is the man with the wild, curlicue mustache, the Mephistophelian stare, and the extravagant behavior - the artist who painted limp watches and melting telephones and clocks. How the museum came to this location is a curious story. A. Reynolds Morse of Cleveland was an avid collector of Dali's paintings and a friend of the Spanish artist as well. Mr. Morse amassed a multimillion-dollar collection of Dali's work, which he tried to give away in 1980, because it had outgrown his small Cleveland museum.

No museum would take the collection, however. Why? Well, Morse had set one stipulation with his gift. The collection was to stay intact; no museum could lend, sell, or merely store the works.

Morse was afraid that museum curators would use the Dali collection as a bargaining chip to acquire other pieces of art that they wanted more than the Dalis. His fears were probably justified, as museums engage in this kind of bargaining all the time.

Finally, Morse found a taker for his gift in St. Petersburg. The city accepted the collection with Morse's stipulation, and it supported the project to make it successful.

The State of Florida pitched in $2 million and a promise to fund the museum until it was on its feet. The museum, which opened in March 1982, is open to the public, and includes 93 oil paintings, 200 watercolors and drawings, and 1,000 graphics.

Dali's paintings are Surrealistic. Doug Strutz, a docent at the museum, notes, ``Dali had the ability to dream in color and to remember what he dreamed. In fact, he kept an easel by his bed, so when he woke up he could capture on canvas what he dreamed.''

Dali's work isn't always easy to interpret. The docents help museum guests to appreciate what they're seeing.

Mr. Strutz explains, ``The museum is laid out chronologically. This first wall shows Dali's early works, and you can see the influence Renoir and Picasso had on him. The next wall shows the artist's move to Impressionism and to Surrealism.''

As Strutz describes individual paintings, he also gives a running history of Dali's life. The anecdotes he relates about Dali reveal more about the artist than do some of his paintings.

For example, Strutz tells this story: ``Dali was about to take a final exam in art school by picking a question from a fishbowl to answer in front of a faculty committee. Dali said, `I refuse to take an exam from people who know less than I do.' He was promptly expelled from school. That was in 1924.''

Most of his paintings are discussed in this walk-about, one-hour lecture. Visitors come away with the feeling that they really understand what Dali is about. Morse, president and benefactor of the museum, personally trained the docents.

Strutz points out that Dali's wife, Gala, appears in many of his paintings.

``Gala served as Dali's model, his financial and business adviser, and his close friend,'' says Strutz.

``He was so indebted to her that he painted her over and over again. In fact, he signed some of his paintings `Gala Salvador Dali.'

Dali's larger paintings draw the attention of all who visit. On the back wall of the museum hang four of these jumbo paintings.

As we approached ``The Hallucinogenic Toreador,'' which is about 14 feet tall by 6 feet wide, Strutz asked, ``Can anyone find the toreador in all that paint?''

Slowly, the group began to pick out the hidden bullfighter. This painting, like the other large ones, is loaded with images, which the guides help visitors pick out.

Though his painting titled ``Sleep'' brought $870,000 in 1981 - a record sale for a living artist - the critics haven't been too kind to Dali. Dali himself, who lives in Spain, has never been to St. Petersburg to see the largest collection of his works.

If you go

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Regular admission is $3, and seniors and students pay $2.

From Tampa take Interstate 275 to St. Petersburg. Then take Interstate 175 to the Fourth Street exit; drive one block and turn right onto Third Street South. The museum is five blocks south on the left at 1000 Third Street South. -30-{et

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