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Hello, Dali: North Dakota's first major surrealist exhibition offers view of the famed artist's life

Salvador Dali's 1960 print "Paradise the Mystical Ladder" is part of the exhibit "Stairway to Heaven" at the Plains Art Museum. Courtesy of the Park West Museum / Special to The Forum1 / 6
Salvador Dali's "Les Chants de Maldoror Plate 11" (1934). Courtesy of the Park West Museum / Special to The Forum2 / 6
The Salvador Dali exhibit at the Plains Art Museum features 143 images from two projects in the late surrealist's life. Courtesy of the Plains Art Museum / Special to The Forum3 / 6
Salvador Dali's 1960 print "Purgatory Dante Purified" is part of the exhibit "Stairway to Heaven" at the Plains Art Museum. Courtesy of the Park West Museum / Special to The Forum4 / 6
Salvador Dali's 1960 print "Inferno Cerberus" is now on display at the Plains Art Museum. Courtesy of the Park West Museum / Special to The Forum5 / 6
An image from Salvador Dali's "Les Chants de Maldoror" is part of the exhibit "Stairway to Heaven." Courtesy of the Park West Museum / Special to The Forum6 / 6

FARGO — Things are getting pretty surreal at the Plains Art Museum, and that’s entirely by design.

In December, the Plains opened “Stairway to Heaven,” a sprawling exhibit of prints by celebrated surrealist Salvador Dalí that's a touring exhibit from the Park West Museum in Southfield, Mich.

The show features works from two Dali portfolios, illustrations for the books “Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror” (“The Songs of Maldoror”) and Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy,” originally published in 1320. The artist created the images for “Maldoror” in 1934 and illustrated “The Divine Comedy” in 1960.

“It’s pretty exciting for us to exhibit a large number in one space,” says the Plains Director and CEO Andy Maus, adding that he believes it’s the first major Dalí show in North Dakota.

The organization is celebrating the occasion, throwing a Winter Party on Thursday, Jan. 16, celebrating with an array of surreal-inspired activities and various Spanish flavors, a reference to Dalí's home.

The surreal exhibit is showing very real results for the Plains.

“The first day we opened, we saw a spike in attendance,” he says.

Maus is standing in the gallery on a recent day as five visitors explore the show. Not bad for a Friday afternoon.

While the two series were created nearly 30 years apart, Maus points to similarities that span both collections, from ideas and imagery used in each to the common theme of faith, or lack of.

“The exhibition is personal to him, relating to his religion. That’s what makes it compelling,” says Maus, referring to the Spanish artist’s on-again, off-again relationship with Catholicism.

“Maldoror” was written in the 1860s, but a 1924 translation was embraced by artists at the height of surrealism in the 1930s for its absurdist themes and combative attitude toward the norm. Dalí, who was distanced from Catholicism at the time, was one of the book’s champions, and his illustrations for the text show how it may have played into some of his better-known works.

“Stairway to Heaven” includes informational placards by curator David S. Rubin, a Los Angeles-based curator, art critic, author and artist. His notes add context to the show, connecting the exhibited images to other Dalí works or those by different artists.

One image from “Maldoror” shows eating utensils thrust into pieces of meat and Rubin points to the droopy watches in Dalí’s famed 1931 painting, “The Persistence of Time,” saying both exhibit death and mutilation. Another "Maldoror" image of a tattered female form supported by crutches seems to act as a sketch for Dalí’s painting, “The Spectre of Sex Appeal,” also from 1934.

“There’s a bit of bodily discomfort in his work,” Maus says.

Dalí also harkens back to older works throughout “The Divine Comedy.” His depiction of “The Fallen Angel” shows his playful take on anatomy, depicting a human chest opening like a chest of drawers, something he explored in 1936’s “The Anthropomorphic Cabinet,” Rubin points out.

Rubin also shows that Dalí didn’t just reference his own work, but also artists who inspired him. His perspective on the crucifixion in “Ghost of Christ” is compared not only to his 1951 painting “The Christ of Saint John of the Cross” but also a drawing of the scene from a similar bird's-eye angle from the late 1500s.

While the works in "Maldoror" are black and white and “The Divine Comedy” prints have a loose, watercolor-like feel to them, both are far from the highly detailed paintings Dalí is best known for.

“It’s almost what you’d expect a Dalí sketchbook to look like,” Maus says of “Stairway to Heaven.”

“We seldom see late Dalí, from his religious period. It’s interesting to see how he reuses ideas from a nonreligious time in his life and perspective,” says Theodore “Ted” Gracyk, who saw the show last week. “You get a good sense of how artists over their career often recycle.”

A professor of philosophy at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Gracyk gives a lecture at the Plains on March 5 about abstract art.

“If you really don’t know him, you can get a crash course on his career by seeing this show,” he says.

As Gracyk was looking around the gallery and Maus was talking about the show, a woman approached the Plains’ director to discuss the exhibit.

“I don’t know much about Dalí,” Kay Johnson says. “Did he have mental health issues?”

Maus carefully considered the question.

“He may have explored his subconscious,” Maus says.

“It’s a show people could return to again and again,” he says.

If you go

What: Winter Party

Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 First Ave. N., Fargo

When: 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16

Info: This event is free for members, partners and exhibiting Native American artists, $10 for nonmembers or $5 for students; https://plainsart.org/ or 701-551-6100.