Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí, or rather one of his artworks, has recently been involved in an elaborate cover up at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton in New Brunswick, Canada. Don’t worry, nothing sinister is going on - the ‘cover up’ was in fact part of an event to mark World AIDS Day back on December 1st, but more on that in a second. The Dalí oil painting at the heart of the matter is his 1957 masterpiece Santiago El Grande. The work, along with paintings by J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, was bequeathed to Canadian gallery in 1958 by British-Canadian press baron Max Aitken, otherwise known as Lord Beaverbrook.
Thanks to the gallery’s generous benefactor, who created the institution as a gift to the region where he spent his childhood, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery boasts an incredible collection of works given its size and small town location outside of ‘traditional art areas’. Dalí’s Santiago El Grande is an epic oil painting that explores themes of Catholicism and nuclear physics, and is filled with allusions and symbolism. The work depicts the Apostle St. James riding a magnificent steed that is rising from the sea towards the heavens, and has been described by some as one of the Spanish Master’s most triumphant and majestic works that he ever produced.
So what did covering the canvas have to do with World AIDS Day? Well back in 1989, the arts community in the US initiated an event, A Day With(out) Art, in order to help raise awareness on the impact and widespread effects of the AIDS crisis, particularly on those in the artistic community. Museums and galleries in the US closed for a day, sending their staff to volunteer with AIDS assistance services, or helped by sponsoring special exhibitions to promote AIDS awareness.
A Day With(out) Art proved to be successful and since its inception in 1989, it has spread across the world with events being held at major galleries and museums, many highlighting the potential artistic and cultural losses that AIDS could wreak by covering up major art works. As the chief curator and deputy director of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Terry Graff, said, “The gallery is honoured to acknowledge this day by covering significant works in its collection to emphasize what the world be like without art.”
Dalí was a vocal political and social activist in his day, and although he passed away in the same year that the A Day With(out) Art movement first started, Graff feels that covering the Santiago El Grande has particular resonance, given the stature of the artist and his activism. As Graff put it, “It seems appropriate that we would shroud that painting in particular to make a statement, to have people to reflect on what it would be like to reflect on a world without art. I think we all know that would be such an impoverished place to be.”