Salvador Dalí was already a living legend when he got around to making the flora-inspired prints currently on display at the Denver Botanic Gardens. His most famous work, 1931’s “The Persistence of Memory,” with its melting clocks, was nearly four decades old and Dalí’s artist-impresario ways were fully melded into the zeitgeist of the 20th century.
These prints, mostly tripped-out etchings layered over traditional botanic illustrations, have that feel of a late-career artist looking for ways to make old ideas new again. They pull from his bag of dreamy, surrealist tricks and perform them on a different stage.
In that way, they do retain the Dalí magic, holding fast to his signature style of going deep into the unreal — boldly, fearlessly, playfully. But there’s a casualness about them, a quickness of concept and execution, and an excess of both punchlines and ego, that prevent a viewer from taking them too seriously.
If you go
“Salvador Dalí: Gardens of the Mind” continues through Aug. 22 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St. Info at 720-865-3500 or botanicgardens.org.
Still, they are captivating, like everything Dalí produced, and rare enough that it would be a missed opportunity to not see them. And seeing these works — selections from two series loaned out by the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla. — requires a great deal of looking.
That’s because parsing out their many layers, and savoring each of them individually, demands some work.
Take, for example, the pieces from his “FlorDalí” series from 1968-69. The objects consist of engravings and paintings done over the top of existing, botanic illustrations first completed in the 19th century. So there’s Dalí’s engraving and painting to consider, but also the original work by artists such as Pierre-Joseph Redouté, who lived from 1759 to 1840, tutored Marie Antoinette and earned the nickname “The Raphael of Flowers.”
There is precision but also personality in the skilled renderings of lilies, dahlias, peaches and grapefruits that form the base of these Dalí remixes. They’re scientific in the way that they document species, but superhuman, at times, in the way that they capture line and shape and light.
It’s easy to overlook them amid Dalí’s reality-busting embellishments, which double their entertainment quotient. The artist adds arms, legs and a head to an illustration of a plum tree branch to make it look like a beaded man running down a road. A cherry tree becomes something resembling a harlequin clown. He cuts see-through holes inside of pears. The flat, round flowers of a chrysanthemum serve as placemats for plates of fried eggs served with a side of bacon.
Dalí takes his cues from the natural shapes and names of the fruits and flowers he is messing with, but he lets his imagination fly. This artist was never afraid to look a little crazy — or to honor the insanity in all of us — and that trait is very much on display here.
The other series in the DBG exhibition is titled “Surrealist Flowers,” from 1972, and it is even more free-form. Here, Dalí bestows human and animal traits upon ordinary gouache paintings of familiar plants and flowers.
A tuberose is curved into the neck of a swan and a beak is added. A sunburst of severed fingers shoots out from behind a dahlia. A rose is converted into a nonsensical armoire. There’s an eyeball in his iris.
On the edges of all of the prints in the show, he adds simple line drawings that amplify their visuals and add intrigue to the scenery. A squiggly man on horseback rides under an illustration of an apricot. There are also snails, houses, fishermen and sensual female figures swirling in the shadows here.
At this point in his career, Dalí knew himself and he knew what his audience expected of him. That leads to a few inside jokes placed within these works. One piece in the “Surrealist Flowers” series revisits the melting clock motif, adding droopy minute and hour hands and the numbers “1” through “12” to the petals of a lily.
There’s more than a wink in another piece from the “FlorDalí” series which has the artist transforming an illustration of pansies into a self-portrait, complete with the same sort of curving mustache that Dalí himself, a major and endlessly photographed art world star at the time, donned as part of his signature look.
Those too-clever moves are a thrill to ferret out, especially for Dalí fans, but they move both series into the realm of nostalgia. They’re likable because they celebrate his celebrity and hark back to his glory days. But they’re also silly and self-involved and they lack the danger and psychic dare that makes for legit surrealism.
That said, they’re a suitable sideshow to the main event at the Denver Botanic Gardens, which, of course, is the actual plants and flowers on the acres of open, outdoor space that surround the indoor galleries where this work is displayed.
Like all of the art at DBG, they don’t just complement the sprawling garden, they also invite visitors to see the actual, leafy wares as more than the well-tended science experiments they can sometimes feel like, with their perfect placements and difficult-to-pronounce labels. They free us up to enjoy the sights and smells of trees and shrubs and blossoms on a deeply human level.
Sometimes, that level extends beyond the conscious into a deeper, less logical, more emotional, occasionally uncontrollable and, yes, surreal place. If that’s the journey, it’s hard to think of a better guide than Salvador Dalí.
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