Salvador Dalí is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest painters, and one of the most important and influential figures in the history of modern art. He is known for his eccentric personality, which blurred the lines between life and art, and the incredible realism with which he painted surreal mental landscapes.
Born in Figueres, Spain, in 1904, Dalí had discovered his love of art by the age of ten. The Catalan landscape that he loved as a child became the backdrop for many of his works. His childhood was spent with a strict father and a free-spirited mother, who told him he was the reincarnation of his brother, who had died just before his birth. Though both encouraged his artistic endeavours, his mother indulged his eccentricities, while his father did not. They built him a personal art studio at their summer home in Cadaques, and his father organised an exhibition of his charcoal drawings in the family home. By 1919, at age 14, Dalí held his first public exhibition at the Municipal Theatre of Figueres, which would later become the Teatro-Museo Dalí.
As he studied at the Colegio de Hermanos Maristas, and the Instituto in Figueres, Dalí stood out from his peers more because of his clothing and his contempt for the teaching staff than his work. After the death of his mother, Dalí travelled to Madrid to study at the Academia de San Fernando. He dressed in the style of English Aesthetes of the 19th century, and was taken by Metaphysical and Cubist art, but was suspended for criticising his teachers. After his return, he was permanently expelled after proclaiming that no member of the faculty was competent enough to assess his work.
At school, he admired the works of classical painters, including Velázquez, who inspired his curled moustache. Though he dabbled in the anti-establishment movement Dada, his apolitical nature prevented him from fully investing, though its influence in his work is clear.
THE SURREALIST MOVEMENT
Dalí travelled to Paris in 1926, where he met Picasso, René Magritte, and Joan Miró, and entered his first Surrealist phase. It was after creating two films with Luis Buñuel, that he caught the Surrealists’ eye: Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. Un Chien Andalou (1929) was notorious for its shocking sexuality, with an obsessive focus on the abject and irrational. The Surrealists sent Paul Eluard and his wife Gala, who soon became Dalí’s lover, wife, and life-long muse, to meet him. The Surrealist movement complemented the Impressionism, Futurism, and Cubism that he was experimenting with. The Futurist attempts to recreate motion, and the Cubist challenge of capturing an object from multiple angles fascinated him.
His oil paintings from this time were collages of the motifs and landscapes that populated his dreams. The techniques he used were incongruously classical, bringing detailed life to unreal scenes. His art from this time can be divided into three categories: man’s universe and sensations, sexual symbolism, and ideographic imagery, all of which carry the same dreamlike quality.
Dalí’s most famous piece from this time, and perhaps from his career, is The Persistence of Memory (1931), featuring his characteristic melting clocks, which exemplify the transience of the physical world and the flexibility of time.
Dalí was eventually expelled from the Surrealist movement after a series of ongoing feuds with its members, as he refused to take a stance against the rise of fascist leader Francisco Franco in Spain. Dalí’s apolitical stance was at odds with the revolutionary ideals of the Surrealists, but it is suspected that it was also his public stunts that caused friction between Dalí and the Surrealist leader André Breton. Dalí continued to take part in Surrealist exhibitions across the world for the following years, going so far as to lecture (‘Authentic Paranoid Ghosts’) at the opening of the London Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, while dressed in a wetsuit, carrying a billiard cue, with two Russian wolfhounds.
It was Breton’s theory of Automatism that appealed most to Dalí; the idea that you can hold your conscious mind back and let the unconscious mind paint using its own intuition. Dalí’s interpretation of this led to his own so-called Paranoiac-Critical Method, inspired also by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical techniques of reaching into the subconscious. During this time, Dalí would go into deep paranoid states, and then paint what he had seen with striking realism. He believed these works would appeal to his audience because the subconscious language is universal, built around sexual urges, fear of death, and primitive needs. Examples of this technique can be seen in Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936) and Apparatus and Hand (1927).
The results of this technique led Alfred Hitchcock to ask Dalí to produce artwork for the dream-sequence in Spellbound (1945), in which the protagonist’s psychological problems are explored.
Between 1948 and 1970, Dalí used this technique to create 18 ‘Dalí Masterworks.’ These large-scale paintings, each over five feet long, would often take him a year to complete, and featured optical illusions, holography, divine geometry, and preoccupations with religious virtues and scientific discovery.
PERSONALITY AND PERFORMANCE
Dalí became famous for his personality as much as his art. Critics openly discussed his choice of attire alongside discussion of his work, as he chose to appear publicly with his trademark moustache, a cape, and a walking stick. This blurring of the distinction between real life and art mirrored the subjects of Dalí’s paintings, which was perhaps part of the reason that he became the figurehead of the Surrealist movement. His flamboyant nature kept him in the public eye, never far from controversy or scandal.
As his career took him in a more commercial direction, appearing in adverts and dabbling in set design, Dalí’s publicity stunts continued. He was seen driving around in a car full of cauliflowers, and sipping from a swan’s egg full of ants. During his visits to New York, Dalí regularly took over the St Regis Hotel with his parties, fraternising with controversial artists such as Andy Warhol, which only served to bolster his sense of star quality and celebrity.
Between the years of 1960 and 1974, the Teatre-Museo Dali was established in Dalí’s hometown of Figueres. The original building of the Municipal Theatre was destroyed in the Spanish Civil War, but the ruins were saved and Dalí added to them with his own design. The museum is recognised as the largest Surrealist structure in the world; a series of unique spaces that form a single artistic object. It houses the broadest range of Dalí’s work from throughout his life, some of which was created especially for the museum’s opening.
In 1989, Dalí died of heart failure, after a traumatic few years of isolation from Gala before her death, self-reclusion, a debilitating motor condition, and injuries sustained in a fire at his castle in Pubol. His funeral was held at the Teatro-Museo, and then his body fittingly buried in the crypt.