Salvador Dali

Artist: Salvador Domingo Felipe Dali i Domènch
Born: 11 May 1904, Figueres, Spain
Nationality: Spanish
Movement: Surrealism
Died: 23 January 1989, Figueres, Spain

Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, 1st Marquis of Dalí de Púbol, better known as Salvador Dali, was the most famous of the Surrealist artists and is among the most prolific and versatile artists of the 20th century. He was a skilled draftsman but is best known for his striking, bizarre and sometimes disturbing images of his surrealist work. However, over his lengthy career of nearly 70 years he was also successful in the fields of sculpture, printmaking, advertising, writing and filmmaking. Dali was highly imaginative and a flamboyant, over the top character. He was well-known for his unusual, often grandiose behaviour who enjoyed the role of a provocateur of mischievousness. Much to the dismay of his fans and critics his eccentric manner and public exhibitionism sometimes drew more attention than his artistical virtuosity.

The Burning Giraffe, 1937, oil on panel. Currently located in the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland.

Dali’s attempts at creating a visual language that rendered his dreams and hallucinations were heavily influenced by Freudian theory. Dali’s interpretations are now the universal and iconic images through which Dali achieved his fame. Dali’s work was permeated with obsessive themes of eroticism, death and decay reflecting is intimate familiarity with the psychoanalytical theories of the time. Drawing on childhood memory and other autobiographical material his work is rife with pre-interpreted symbolism ranging from fetish and animal imagery to religious symbols. Subscribing to Surrealist André Breton’s theory of automatism Dali opted to his own self-created system of tapping into the subconscious to stimulate delusion while sane. This method of irrational knowledge was also used by his Surrealist contemporaries through painting, theatre, poetry, fashion and various other media.

Tuna Fishing, 1966-67, oil on canvas. Currently housed in the Foundation Paul Ricard collection.

Dali was born in Figueres, a town just outside Barcelona, to a wealthy middle-class family. Despite their wealth the family had suffered before the artist’s birth as their first son, also named Salvador, died very young. Dali was often told he was the reincarnation of his dead brother – an idea that planted various ideas in the young and impressionable mind of a child. His flamboyant character developed early in life alongside is passion for art.

From that very young age, Dali found inspiration in the surrounding Catalan vistas of his childhood and many of its landscapes became recurring motifs in his key paintings. Dali’s interest in art was nurtured by both his parents and he had his first drawing lessons at 10 years old. In his late teens he was enrolled in the Madrid School of Fine Arts, where he experimented with Impressionism and Pointillism. Dali was 16 years old when his mother died, which the artist considered to be the greatest blow of his life. At 19, Dali’s father hosted a solo exhibition of the artist’s technically exquisite charcoals in the family home.

Dream Caused by a Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, 1944, oil on wood. Located in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain

In 1922 Dali entered the Special Painting, Sculpture and Engraving School of San Fernando. He fully came of age there and confidently inhabited his own skin with is flamboyant and provocative personality. Originally more renowned for his eccentricity than his artwork, he was notorious. He kept his hair long and dressed like an English aesthete from the 19th century which earned him the title of a dandy. Artistically he experimented with assorted styles of the time that took his curiosity. He formed close connections with artistic personalities such as Luis Buñuel and Federico Garcia Lorca. The school was very progressive and exposed the young Dali to the most important minds of the time such as Le Corbusier, Stravinsky, Einstein and Calder. However he was expelled in 1926 for insulting one of his professors during the final examinations before graduation.

Dali took a life-changing trip to Paris after his expulsion. He visited Picasso at his studio and found inspiration in Cubism. His became interested in Futurist attempts to recreate motion and show objects from multiple angles simultaneously. He began a study of the psychoanalytic perceptions of Freud and the metaphysical painters such as Chirico and Surrealists such as Mirό. Dali explored these concepts as a means of reinterpreting reality and altering perceptions.

Galatea of the Spheres, 1952, oil on canvas. Currently located in the Dali Theatre-Museum, Figueres, Spain

Dali partnered with the filmmaker Luis Buñuel in 1928 on Un Chien Andalou, a filmic meditation on obsessions and irrational imagery. The sexually and politically shocking subject matter of the film caused a stir with the Parisian Surrealists and made Dali infamous. In 1929 the Surrealists sent Paul Eluard and is wife Gala to visit Dali in Cudaques. This was the first meeting of Gala and Dali, shortly after they began an affair resulting in Gala’s divorce from Eluard. The Russian born Gala became Dali’s lifelong and most important muse, his greatest passion and wife. Soon after the original meeting Dali moved to Paris and was invited by André Breton to join the Surrealists.

Dali ascribed to Breton’s theory of automatism, where an artist attempts to stifles conscious control over the creative process and allow the unconscious mind and instinct to guide the work process. In the early 1930s Dali took the concept to a new level with his own Paranoiac Critical Method which used irrational thought to tap into the subconscious mind through a self-induced paranoid state. Dali would create hand-painted dream photographs of what he had witnessed whilst in a paranoid state. For several years Dali’s paintings were illustrative of his theories about the psychological state of paranoia and its importance as a subject. His work depicted bodies, bones and symbolic objects that reflected sexualised fears of male figures and impotence as well as symbols that reflected to anxiousness over the passage of time.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937, oil on canvas. Located at the Tate Modern, London, UK.

With his career on the rise Dali’s personal life was undergoing change. He was both inspired and besotted by Gala, his father was none too keen on Dali’s relationship with an older woman. As Dali moved towards more avant-garde development in his work his father’s support for his son’s art was waning. The elder Dali expelled his son from the family home at the end of 1929 when Dali was quoted by a Barcelona newspaper as saying, ‘sometimes, I spit for fun on my mother’s portrait.’

War politics were at the forefront of Surrealist debates and due to differing views on fascism, communism and General Franco Breton removed Dali from the Surrealist group in 1934. For years after Breton and some members of the Surrealists had a stormy relationship with Dali, sometimes honouring the artist and other times distancing themselves from him. Other Surrealists continued their close relationship with Dali.

Dali travelled widely and practiced more traditional painting styles inspired by Courbet and Vermeer, however his themes remained emotionally charged and the subject matter remained as bizarre as ever. As his fame grew, he was in demand of the rich, celebrity and fashionable people of the time.

Lobster Phone, 1936. Currently housed at the Tate Modern, London, UK

In the 1930s Dali met his major patron, Sir Edward James who not only purchased Dali’s work he also supported the artist financially for two years. James also collaborated on some of Dali’s most famous pieces including the Lobster Phone and Mae West Lips Sofa.

Dali was already well-known in the USA before his first visit. In 1934 Julien Levy held an exhibition of Dali’s work in New York which included The Persistence of Memory. The exhibition was well received turning Dali into a sensation. He first travelled to the USA in the mid-1930s and continued to ruffle the waters wherever he went staging deliberate public appearances which were early examples of his love of public performance. In New York Dali was featured in the first exhibition on Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art.

The Persistence of Memory, 1931, oil on canvas. Located in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.

After the Second World War, Dali and Gala returned to the USA in 1940. For the next eight years they split their time between New York and California. Dali was highly productive expanding his practice beyond the visual arts into a wide variety of other creative interests. He designed clothing, furniture, jewellery, stage sets for plays and ballets and even window displays.

After being evicted from the family home in 1929, Dali bought a small seaside house in Port Lligat, eventually buying all the surrounding houses to transform his property into a grand villa. In 1948 Dali and Gala made Port Lligat their home base for the next three decades.

Dali continued to evolve his art, exploring different mediums and using optical illusions, negative space, visual puns, and trompe l’oeil. From 1948 he would produce one monumental painting a year, known as his Dali Masterworks. These pieces were at least five feet long in one or both directions and kept Dali creatively occupied for at least a year. He painted at least 18 works between 1948 and 1970.

Swans Reflecting Elephants, 1937, oil on canvas. Currently housed in a private collection.

During the 1940s and 1950s Dali focused primarily on religious themes reflecting his interest in the supernatural. He aimed to portray space as a subjective reality with figures and objects portrayed at extremely foreshortened angles. Dali’s paranoiac-critical method entailed long and arduous hours in the studio expressing his dreams directly on canvas in manic bouts of energy.

Dali became reclusive while in his studio, yet, he continued to orchestrate his stunts as outrageous as before. These stunts were designed to provoke reactions and interactions with the public, reminding them his inner mischief was alive and well. In New York City, during the 1960s, Dali made his home at the St Regis Hotel and throughout his stay held parties in the hotel bar with his entourage of charismatic and strange characters, including Andy Warhol.

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936, oil on canvas. Currently located at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA

The last two decades of Dali’s life were difficult and psychologically arduous. In 1968 Dali and Gala bought a castle in Pubol and she began staying there for weeks at a time on her own, forbidding Dali from visiting without permission. These retreats gave the artist a fear of abandonment and sent him into spirals of depression. Gala, in her senility, inflicted permanent damage on Dali’s health by dosing him with non-prescribed medication. This hindered his art-making abilities until his death. Gala died in 1982and Dali experienced a further bout of depression and is believed to have attempted suicide. The most important achievement made during this time was the creation of The Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres. In preparation for the museum’s opening in 1974 Dali worked tirelessly to design and put together a permanent collection that would serve as his legacy.

The Great Mastubator, 1931, oil on canvas. Located at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain

Dali died of heart failure on January 23, 1989. He is buried beneath the museum he built at Figueres, three blocks away from the house he was born in and across the road from the church where he was baptized and received his first communion.

©JG Farmer 2019

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