Some 70 years ago this week (23 June 1952), Christ of St John of the Cross
by Salvador Dali, the most controversial single painting ever purchased on behalf of the people of Glasgow, went on permanent public display at Kelvingrove Art Gallery. What happened next, according to the man at the centre of the ensuing storm, was 'a mighty volume of rage and indignation'.
Students at Glasgow School of Art claimed the money would have been better spent 'encouraging contemporary Scottish artists'. Establishment figures, such as August John, described the transaction as 'a wilful waste of public funds' and an 'extravagance the city of Glasgow coudn't afford'.
December 1951: Christ of St John of the Cross
went on sale at the Lefevre Gallery in London, priced, according to the catalogue, at £12,000. Tom Honeyman, director of Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums, and for years a senior figure at the Lefevre Gallery, had been alerted that 'the new Dali' was no ordinary painting. Not long 60 and already more than a decade in charge at Kelvingrove, Honeyman was a small, vigorous hurricane of a man who believed: 'Whatever you do in life, do it gloriously'.
He had met Dali personally, in the summer of 1936, when the gregarious Glasgwegian helped organise a large-scale exhibition of surrealist art at the New Burlington Galleries in Mayfair. It featured 392 paintings and sculptures by 71 artists, including Dali, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore.
Scheduled to speak about the 'subconscious depths' of the human mind, Dali addressed his audience from inside a diver's suit, while holding 'a pair of Irish wolfhounds on a lead in one hand, and a billiard cue in the other'. It was a warm day outside, extremely hot inside, according to reports. The stunt ended badly when Dali, trapped in his airtight suit, began staggering about the stage, on the verge of asphyxiation. Just in time, a member of the exhibition team intervened, employing the billiard cue, and a spanner, to prise the heavy helmet from Dali's head, freeing him to breathe.
Meanwhile, as this life and death struggle was enacted on stage, a number of people in the shirt-sleeved audience who had purchased tickets to witness a performance, seeing nothing amiss, laughed. Surreal, surely?
Born in Figueres, Spain, on 11 May 1904, Salvador Dali was an artistic genius, and a shameless self-publicist, who combined limitless levels of self-regard with a talent for self-promotion. With his comically expressive face (long moustache curling upwards, large unblinking eyes) he was widely known as an early member of the surrealist movement, along with Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and Joan Miro.
Other accomplishments included a collaboration with Luis Bunuel (Un Chien Andalou
and L'Age d'Or
) and Alfred Hitchcock, for whom he designed the intriguing dream sequence featured in the psychological thriller Spellbound
. He once disclosed: 'Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy – the joy of being Salvador Dali – and I ask myself in rapture: What wonderful things is this Salvador Dali going to accomplish today?'
A study of nuclear physics convinced Dali 'the discovery of the atomic nature of the universe proved the existence of God'. Never shy about proclaiming the unique nature of his own output, Dali let it be known that his 'aesthetic ambition' in painting Christ of St John of the Cross
was 'completely the opposite of all the Christs painted by most of the modern painters'. In his view, they obtained 'emotion through ugliness'. Dali promised his latest Christ would contain more 'beauty and joy' than 'anything that will have been painted up to the present'.
His version, Dali revealed, was based on a drawing of the Crucification made by the saint himself; the only drawing St John of the Cross (a Spanish Carmelite friar, 1542-1591) ever made. Dali believed his Christ would be 'as beautiful as the God that he is'. Adding, with characteristic modesty, 'a new era of mystic painting begins with me'.
The Lefevre Gallery, at 30 Bruton Street, Mayfair, was well known for its involvement in the sale of works by leading artists, including Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Picasso and Renoir. Originally known as Reid and Lefevre, the principal name above the door during the gallery's early days (when it operated from an address in St James) belonged to the celebrated Glasgow art dealer Alexander Reid. Purchased with assistance from the National Fund for Acquisitions, the National Art Collections Fund, public subscription and an anonymous donor, a portrait of Alexander Reid, by his close friend Vincent Van Gogh, is an important feature of Glasgow's prized French collection on permanent display at Kelvingrove.
The first time he saw Christ of St John of the Cross
for himself, Tom Honeyman was on a routine visit to the Lefevre Gallery, hoping to see old friends. Instead, as Honeyman recounted in his memoirs, Art and Audacity
, published in 1971, he found himself part of a large crowd whose 'chief interest was centred on Dali's large painting of Christ on the cross. I was strangely moved by it and began immediately to suspect my reactions. To be taken in by a trick is an affront and there is little enough reassurance in observing that others are being fooled at the same time'.
His main difficulty, Honeyman explained, was how to reconcile the theme of the painting 'with Dali's philosophy of art and public utterances as I remembered them. It became clear that I had been out of touch with recent developments and that there was less reason for surprise or doubt concerning Dali's motives or integrity'.
Honeyman left London convinced Christ of St John of the Cross
was an art event of major public importance. He recognised, however, that Glasgow couldn't 'afford to purchase events at fantastic prices' and the £12,000 asking price, set by the artist, was almost certainly beyond the city's reach. It's easy to imagine that his enthusiasm for the latest Dali masterwork impressed Jack Kelly, convenor of the Art Galleries and Museums committee. According to Honeyman, it was Bailie Kelly, doubling as city treasurer, who suggested raiding the 1901 Exhibition Art Fund, with a view to making an offer. Previously, it was the Kelvingrove director's understanding that 'only interest from the fund was available for art purchases'.
In his view, once the city chamberlain agreed that capital from the art fund could be drawn upon: 'Perhaps the most significant fact in this whole transaction was the unanimity with which the purchase of the picture was recommended, step by step, to the final decision by the Corporation. At no stage was it found necessary to put it to the vote'.
Negotiations, involving Dali's agent in New York, lasted through Christmas and the New Year. Following its London presentation, Christ of St John of the Cross
was due to go on public display at galleries in Madrid and Basle. Tom Honeyman was desperate to avoid being 'confronted with strong competition. We had evidence of widespread increasing interest in the face of growing public reaction, favourable and otherwise'. He and Dali's agent, Georges Keiller, were old friends. Prompted by Honeyman, the American 'built up for the artist the importance of Glasgow's collection'. He also 'persuaded Dali to conclude the negotiations before the painting was shown in Madrid and Basle'.
To Tom Honeyman's huge relief and considerable delight, in February 1952, Salvador Dali agreed to reduce his asking price, for Christ of St John of the Cross
, from £12,000 to £8,200, in favour of Glasgow. Glasgow Corporation announced Christ of St John of the Cross
would be going on permanent display at Kelvingrove Art Galleries and Museum, date to be confirmed.
Honeyman expected criticism. However, the 'concentrated bitterness' and extreme levels of 'irresponsibility' which greeted the purchase price surprised him. It had been decided after 'considerable negotiation' and at 'the lowest figure acceptable to the artist'. Confronted by people who complained it was a 'mad price' to pay for work by a living artist, Honeyman responded angrily: 'Why do they not rejoice that, for once, the artist rather than the collector or dealer or their descendants reaps the benefits from his labour?'
Significantly, the sum paid to Dali covered commercial rights. These included royalties, exhibitions, sales of reproductions, postcards, etc, which, Honeyman explained, Dali was 'delighted' to surrender, 'principally because of the over-riding control we would be able to exercise'. This part of the purchase agreement brought visible financial returns to the city. In its first six months, an art fund established by Honeyman, to offset the high cost of the Dali, netted £3,200. By the time of his death in 1971 (his career at Kelvingrove long past) income directly linked to Christ of St John of the Cross
exceeded £33,000. In the event Glasgow ever wanted rid of it, Honeyman remarked archly, he knew 'several places where they would like to have it'.
Pre-pandemic, attendances at Kelvingrove totalled nearly two million annually. Surveys show almost half of all visitors make a point of seeing the once-controversial Dali. The official view is unequivocal: 'Christ of St John of the Cross
is a masterpiece that has been enjoyed through the decades and has become an iconic piece with global recognition'.
Head of Glasgow Life Museums, Duncan Dornan, explained: 'The striking angle of the crucified Christ on the cross, the eerie contrast of light and dark, and the magical and effortless surface effects all make an unforgettable impression on the viewer'.
Tom Honeyman never regarded Christ of St John of the Cross
as the greatest work of art in Glasgow's civic collection. 'It is a masterpiece of its kind,' he wrote. 'There are others, in all the schools of painting we are fortunate to possess, which are greater masterpieces, within the pure aim and purpose of pictorial art.'
Added the man who brought 'the Dali' to Glasgow: 'Its acquisition stirred up a variety of emotions covering all aspects of love and hatred. It is now becoming an old story, but the end of it is by no means in sight'.
Short biographical note: Sir Denis Brogan, the distinguished historian and academic, suggested Tom Honeyman 'was the most interesting Glasgow man active in public life since the First World War'. Born in Glasgow on 10 June 1891, Honeyman was educated at Queen's Park School and Glasgow University where he graduated in medicine. As a doctor, he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Greece during the First World War, and as a general practitioner in Glasgow's East End.
In 1929, he switched careers to become an art dealer, travelling widely. Appointed director of Glasgow Corporation Art Galleries and Museums in 1939, he departed this employment in acrimonious circumstances 15 years later after a fall-out with his political masters on Glasgow Corporation. Winner of the St Mungo Prize (Glasgow's highest civic honour) in 1943, it was Honeyman, perhaps more than anyone, who persuaded Sir William Burrell to bequeath his world-famous art collection to the city. Tom Honeyman died at the home of friends in Perthshire on 5 July 1971.
Russell Galbraith is a writer and former television executive
Photo at top of page by Mary Simpson