Road Warrior

When Disney met Dalí: Unlikely kinship becomes subject of an art exhibit

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
Salvador Dali: Baseball and Ballerina (1947). India ink and watercolor.
© Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dali, [Artist Rights Society], 2015. Collection of The Dalí Museum, Inc., St. Petersburg, FL, 2015.

In the history of business, there have been plenty of unlikely business partnerships. At first blush, the link between entertainment legend Walt Disney and eccentric Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí should qualify for one of the strangest.

However, these innovators became friends and, for a brief time, collaborators. The two men were very much alike in their dedication to stretching art's boundaries and entertaining the public.

"They were both quintessential men of the 20th century" said filmmaker Ted Nikolaou, guest curator of "Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination," an exhibition that tells the story of two artistic icons that "sailed on the winds of the culture of the time."

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The multimedia exhibition incorporates a host of art and archival information, and an audio program narrated by actress Sigourney Weaver that includes commentary from Disney, Dalí and artists who worked with them both.

A joint project between the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, the exhibition is on view through Jan. 3, 2016 in California. In late January, the exhibit shifts to Florida, where it will remain through June 2016. Below are some images from the show.

—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC. Follow Road Warrior on Twitter at @CNBCtravel.
Posted 29 Aug. 2015

'Pushing the boundaries'

Courtesy The Walt Disney Company, © Disney

"Walt Disney was always trying to push the boundaries of what could be done with animation and was always on the lookout for new artists who could infuse new ideas into his movies," Nikolaou told CNBC.

Disney's library was filled with books about art and fairy tales. In 1944 he sent his copy of Dalí's autobiography, "The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí," to the artist to be autographed. Disney also suggested a collaboration between Dalí and the Walt Disney Studios.

What ensued, first through correspondence and then—a year after they met in person at a party in Hollywood—"was the oddest friendship you could imagine," said Nikolaou.

Kindred spirits

Willy Rizzo photograph for Paris-Match, Collection Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation

Eccentric, prolific and self-promoting, Dalí believed he'd found several kindred spirits in Hollywood—and Disney was one of them. In 1937, Dalí wrote to André Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement, to say that he'd come in contact "with three great American Surrealists—the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille and Walt Disney."

Dogs, giraffes and salad

© Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí [Artist Rights Society (ARS)], 2015. Collection Animation Research Library, © Disney.

In 1929, Dalí produced the silent surrealist film short "Un Chien Andalou" ("An Andalusian Dog" in English) with Spanish director Luis Bunuel. A screenplay Dalí wrote in 1937 for the Marx Brothers, titled "Giraffes on Horseback Salad" (or "The Surrealist Woman") was never picked up, but in 1946 Dalí began working for Disney on an animated short set to the ballad "Destino."

That project was never completed. However, in 2003, the Walt Disney Co. released a version of the film based on the original sketches and storyboards previously created by Dalí and Disney artist John Hench.

The unfinished project that didn't kill a friendship

Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company, © Disney

Disney pulled the plug on the "Destino" film when the project dragged on and costs became too high. "Disney may have overestimated Dalí's sense of story sensibility," said Nikolaou. "It was a miscalculation, but certainly [a] beautiful one." While the artistic and business collaboration between Dalí and Disney ended, their friendship continued.

A union of two 'iconic and influential' artists

© Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí , [Artist Rights Society (ARS)], 2015. Collection of The Dalí Museum, Inc., St. Petersburg, FL, 2015

Looking back, Nikolaou considers the collaboration between Dalí and Disney "the coming together of two of the most iconic and influential artists in the 20th century."

Dalí admired Disney because he considered him an American surrealist, said Nikolaou, and Disney admired Dalí's draftsmanship and imagination. "Their friendship was unusual, for sure, but not unusual when you see all of the qualities that made it their destiny that they would meet," he added.

From California to Florida

Courtesy the Salvador Dalí Museum

When "Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination" moves from the Walt Disney Family Museum to the larger Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg in late January 2016, additional photos and animation will be added to the show.

"Their interactions seem to have been highly important to these artists," said Hank Hine, executive director of the Dalí Museum. "Their friendship is something we can intuit from the photos, letters and the mutual visits; but influence is everywhere evident."