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Salvador Dali's painting Santiago El Grande has been pretty much the first thing visitors see at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery since the gallery's doors opened in Fredericton in the fall of 1959.

Anything 408 centimetres tall by 305 cm would be hard to miss, of course. Yet Santiago El Grande also packs a decided visual wallop, courtesy of Dali's almost psychedelic depiction of Spain's patron saint, a muscular James of Compostella, mounted on a rearing white steed, escorting the risen Christ to heaven as an atomic-bomb mushroom cloud billows in the distance.

The signature work of the Beaverbrook, the Dali has understandably been a big "ask" from major galleries around the world. But in every instance requests for its loan have been turned down. Until this year, that is.

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Next month the monumental canvas, which Dali completed in 1957, will be taken from its home on the wall across from the Beaverbrook's gift shop, put in a specially designed crate and shipped more than 2,200 kilometres to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Beginning Aug. 7, it will serve as one of the major draws for an ambitious, five-month-long exhibition called Salvador Dali: The Late Work.

Bernard Riordon has been keen to loan the Dali since becoming the Beaverbrook's director in 2003. He's long seen the gallery as a kind of "sleeping giant," modest in size but stuffed with significant works deserving wider attention. However, "people didn't feel [the Dali]was appropriate to leave; they always felt it should be here," Riordon remarked recently.

Besides, much of Riordon's tenure has been absorbed by, and continues to be absorbed by the lengthy and expensive legal dispute the gallery has had with the Beaverbrook (U.K.) Foundation and the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation over the ownership of more than 200 works. The largesse the foundations once provided to the gallery has dried up while its legal bills have swollen to more than $7-million.

It's these straitened circumstances that gave the High Museum its window of opportunity to borrow Santiago El Grande. Riordon won't disclose the dollars involved except to say "it's a good business deal, all expenses paid." Riordon hopes other institutions will borrow the Dali - the High show, which ends in early January, is not, at this stage, intended to travel - and (should the dispute be settled in the gallery's favour) it can be part of a three-year "Masterpieces of the Beaverbrook Collection" international tour.

As luck would have it, the Dali is not actually one of the 211 paintings in dispute, having been donated by Lady Dunn, widow of Sir James Dunn, to the gallery in the months before its official opening. A New Brunswick-born financier and industrialist, Sir James was, in the years before his death in 1956, a close friend of Max Aitken, the first Lord Beaverbrook and founder of the Fredericton gallery. (Indeed, in 1963, Dunn's widow became the second Lady Beaverbrook.)

Sir James and Lady Dunn befriended Dali in the late 1940s during a visit to New York, Dali's home since leaving Europe in 1940. According to Elliott King, the Dali scholar curating the Atlanta show, Santiago El Grande was created for the Spanish pavilion at the 1958 Brussels world's fair. Dali hoped it eventually would become an altar piece at the Escorial palace near Madrid. But, King laughed, "I have the feeling the Spanish government didn't know this." Dali then turned to Huntington Hartford, the billionaire American businessman and art collector, who agreed to purchase the painting. However, "at the last minute Dali decided to sell it to Lady Dunn instead," King said.

King regards Santiago El Grande as "absolutely one of the major Dali pieces of his whole life, really; certainly it's a key work of the 1950s." And he's chuffed that his exhibition marks its inaugural museum bow outside Canada. "I was sort of shocked when the word came that we'd gotten it, to be totally honest." In shaping the show, he told the High's director Michael Shapiro "we have to ask for it" even as they fully expected to be declined.

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The consensus among critics and scholars is that Dali, who died at 84 in 1989, did his best work in the 1920s and 1930s when he was identified as one of the major Surrealists. Time magazine put him on its cover in December 1936. However, by the start of the Second World War, he'd been expelled from the Surrealist movement and embraced Catholicism while his work, to most critics, became "extremely commercial, kitschy, and overly figurative," in King's words.

In recent years, though, there have been efforts to see Dali's late work as "an underappreciated and underexposed aspect of his career," said David Brenneman, the High's director of collections and exhibitions. Similar revaluations have happened recently with the late works of Renoir, Picasso and Warhol, and the hope is the Atlanta show can prompt a debate at least about the merits Dali's output from the late 1940s into the early 80s. Noted Brenneman, "It's exactly this late work that appeals to a younger generation of artists," including Jeff Koons, delivering a lecture in Atlanta Oct. 5.

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