As a prominent surrealist, Salvador Dalí has continuously maintained a fine line between his ingeniously crafted expressionism and theatrics. However, we cannot deny the significance of his work and how it has influenced the way we perceive things. Born in the town of Figueras, Spain on 11th May 1904, Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí I Domènech, commonly known as Salvador Dalí was perhaps one of the greatest surreal artists of all time. He was widely recognized for his bizarre character, megalomaniac-like tendencies, and let’s not forget the iconic mustache, which helped him stand out from the rest of the surrealists. Dalí indulged us with his extravagant persona and dreamlike illustrations to such a degree that his name became embedded in our minds together with the term ‘Surreal’ itself, and although we witnessed the rise of many prominent artists from the Surreal Movement, a mere fraction of them could ever attain his stature. Even to this day, the moment we hear the term ‘Surrealism’, we instantaneously envision the images of melting clocks, tall elephants, and lobster phones. Although he was initially recognized for his paintings, he did not confine himself between the field of illustration as he explored many aspects of artistic creation; from painting and illustration to sculpture, design, literature, movies, fashion, etc. He incorporated the surrealist concept to everything he had said and done. The audacious and rebellious attitude towards art and politics set him apart from the rest and turned him into a global sensation. Through his skillfully crafted bizarre imagery and symbolisms, he didn’t just challenge the conventional perception of the world, he completely rejected the idea of it.
After the death of their firstborn, Dalí’s parents gave him the name ‘Salvador’ after his deceased brother. Later at the age of five, he was told that Dalí was the reincarnation of his brother, which left an everlasting impression on him. Dalí came to believe the concept and later said in an interview “we resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections. ‘He’ was probably the first version of myself but conceived too much in the absolute.” His parents encouraged him to study art at a very early age. A year after his mother’s death, Dalí moved into a student residence in Madrid at the age of 17 and continued studying fine arts. Soon after, he started experimenting with Cubism and because of his intricate craftsmanship and technical skills, Dalí started gaining popularity. He was doing exceptionally well in academia but was later expelled days before the final exams in 1926 when he stated that no one on the faculty was competent enough to examine him. Later in 1929, he went to Paris and began interacting with artists such as Picasso, Magritte, and Miró, which led to Dalí’s first Surrealist phase.
DALÍ ’S JOURNEY INTO SURREALISM:
Surrealism indicates the form of a cultural movement in visual expressions and literature, which gained immense popularity in Europe between the two World Wars. The movement represented a reaction against what its individuals saw as the destruction wrought by rationalism which had shaped history, art, and politics; it was characterized by unexpected juxtapositions in ordinary scenes that challenge the viewer’s imagination. It emphasized the total reunification of the conscious and unconscious realms of experience through the means of lucid dreaming and hypnotism, to the point where the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world in “a superior form of reality; surreality.”
Right after leaving the Dada movement in 1924, André Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto and begun the surrealist movement. During the late 20’s Salvador Dalí started getting involved with surrealism and rapidly became a leading advocate for the movement. Mirò introduced Dalí to the Surrealist group and was introduced to Magritte, Paul Eluard and Helena, who eventually became his wife Gala. Dalí’s first exhibition, presented by Breton, was held at the Galerie Goemans in Paris.
“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision,”
– Salvador Dalí
During the 1920s, Dalí began to develop a unique feature in his art style, which later helped to create the very foundation of his work. Dalí has taken his inspirations from many art styles, ranging from the most academically classic to the latest avant-garde. He used both traditional and modernist methods, while sometimes incorporating the two together, and leaving them separate based on their need. His work became so compelling that it not only gained a huge amount of attention during his exhibition in Barcelona, but the sheer complexity of it baffled the art critics and led them to hours of debate. He deliberately leveraged the hyperrealistic techniques of the Old Masters to illustrate personal fears and fetishes in his paintings, such as his dread of impotence and his inclination towards the backside of the human body. Although he took his inspiration from many classical artists like Raphael, Bronzino, Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and Diego Velazquez, the Dada artist Max Earnst’s works had the most significant influence in Dalí’s artstyle.
Dalí embarked on the world of films when he collaborated with the surrealist film director Luis Buñuel on the short film Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog) in 1929. Although his initial contract was to help Buñuel write the script for the film, his overall involvement in the films development is debatable. In the 1930s, Dalí developed his first surrealist piece: the iconic Lobster Telephone, along with the practice of image-making called the “paranoiac-critical method.” Images from this project contained a series of optical illusions and two-fold snaps, which could be interpreted in a number of ways. These “paranoiac” illustrations challenged its viewers to rethink the way they perceive things.
“I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject, rather does the person grow to look like his portrait.”
– Salvador Dalí
A major part of the Surrealist movement was based on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Dalí had his share of fascination towards knowing the subconscious self and what could be revealed by his dreams. After his discovery of Freud’s writings on the erotic significance of the subconscious imagery, Dalí deliberately started indulging in hallucinatory states within himself. And once he had skillfully done so, his painting style matured at an extraordinary rate. This helped him reach his peak artistic creativity from the year 1929 to 1937. These are the times when he created some of his greatest artworks. In his trance state, he used to see commonplace items in a very contrasting nature, deformed or otherwise in metamorphosed condition and he used to include these figures in his drawing as meticulously as possible. From which, emerged his most famous piece of artwork, The Persistence of Memory in 1931.
Although Dalí continued his exploration of eroticism, depiction of childhood memories and the use of his wife Gala as the key subject in many of his works, such as The Madonna of Port Lligat (which depicts an image of Mary holding baby Jesus in her lap, said to refer to the Crucifixion and birth of new life), during the period from 1950 to 1970, he painted many works with religious themes as well. As absurd as it may sound, Dalí produced a 3 series lithograph of the Holy Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy & Lautreamont’s Les Chants De Maldoror called the Biblia Sacra. This side project of his was commission work from Dr. Giuseppe Albaretto, a devout man of the Church and Dalí’s friend. This came as a desperate attempt by Dr. Albaretto, hoping that by having to illustrate the Bible, he would have to read the book, which might bring his friend closer to God. Ironically enough, Dalí was the same man who took dead aim at the Catholic Church in a cinema he co-wrote with Luis Buñuel in 1930 called L’Age d’Or, which was banned after right-wing groups staged a riot in the Parisian theater where it was being shown due to its overtly anti-clerical and anti-establishment viewpoints.
DALÍ ’S SYMBOLISM:
Considered as his most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory became an overnight sensation on its debut exhibition in New York, in January 1932. Renowned art dealer and Gallerist Julien Levy explained the painting as a “10 by 14 inches of Dalí dynamite”. Levy was the owner of Julien Levy Gallery in New York City, an important venue for Surrealists, avante-garde artists and American photographers in the 1930s and 1940s.
Rendered with the artist’s precise detailing, the painting’s three pocket watch hang flaccidly from a denuded tree branch, a ledge, and an animal-like object that, upon closer examination, resembles Dalí’s own distorted face. We can see ants crawling on the surface of the single closed watch, devouring it as it is- referring to the rot and decay of everything, the end of time in an otherwise pristine terrain. With its uncanny contiguity of the ordinary and the bizarre, it reminds us that there will come a time when everything comes to an end. The Persistence of Memory possesses an eerily dreamlike quality. It showcases the artist’s interest in understanding the human mind and how it interprets reality. Dalí’s melting clocks are said to represent the omnipresence of time and identify its dominance over human lives. It is said that his inspiration for the soft watch came when he noticed a soft camembert cheese getting melted under the shining sun. These symbols represent a metaphysical image of time, devouring itself and everything around it. The swarming ants in Dalí’s pictures and sculptures refer to death and decay. They remind us of our impermanence and that eventually, all of us will die. These swarms of insects are also said to represent overwhelming sexual desire within oneself. Dalí’s eggs are a symbol of fertility and the circle of life. Christian symbol of the resurrection of Christ and the emblem of purity and perfection, the egg, with its unhatched potential, is said to represent new life as it brings hope and purity. The crutch is a symbol of reality and anchor in the ground of the real world, providing spiritual and physical guidance for the inadequacy in life. It is also a symbol of tradition, upholding essential human values and morals.
Dalí’s elephants are usually depicted with, and carry objects on their backs. Dalí’s elephants are said to represent the future and are also a symbol of strength. They are often shown carrying obelisks, which are also symbols of power and domination. The weight supported by the long, multi-jointed, almost invisible legs of desire show weightlessness, only made more significant by the burden of their backs. The snail is linked to a landmark event in the life of Dalí: his meeting with Sigmund Freud. Dalí believed that nothing just happens by accident. He was captivated by the vision of a snail on a bicycle outside Freud’s house. He became fascinated by the geometrical curves of the snail and just like the egg, its hard shell with a softer interior. The drawers in Dalí’s paintings and sculptures symbolize the memory and the unconscious and refer to the “idea drawer”, which he understood after reading Freud’s concept. Human bodies that open with drawers are found repeatedly in paintings and objects from Dalí. They express the mystery of the hidden secrets. Most children explore every drawer, cabinet and closet of their home.
Dalí in America: Desire for Money, Fame & Hollywood:
When the Second World War broke out, Dalí had to flee from Europe and settled in the United States, where he remained until 1948. During his eight year stay in the states, Dalí gained an immense popularity and got the anagrammatic nickname “Avida Dollars”. He always had a yearning for money and worked in whichever project that earned him a good buck. From designing shop windows for Fifth Avenue and collaborating on set design for ballets to working on Hollywood films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and Walt Disney’s Destino, he did it all. He even authored two books: Hidden Faces (1944) and The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942). Influenced by the seventeenth-century Spanish master painter Diego Velazquez, Dalí grew a flamboyant mustache, which later became an iconic image of him. His rebellious nature and rejection of the ordinary gained so much attention that his face somewhat became a global icon and a widely used pop-culture reference. Even in the popular Netflix crime drama Money Heist (Spanish: La casa de Papel, “The House of Paper”), we get to see the main characters wearing Dalí Masks as a symbol of Resistance.
“When you wear that mask you start seeing the world from a different perspective. To me, that’s the symbol of the wonderful craziness Dalí had in his life”
-Itziar Ituno (Raquel)
It comes as no surprise that Salvador Dalí had a lot of famous friends like Elvis Presley, John Lennon, David Bowie, Pablo Picasso, and even Sigmund Freud. But probably his strangest acquaintance was with the controversial rock legend Alice Cooper.
Dalí was fascinated by Cooper’s live performances and wanted to collaborate with him. In 1973 Salvador Dalí gave Cooper a plaster sculpture of his brain, crowned by a chocolate éclair with real ants running down the middle—and then asked Cooper to model for him. The encounter between the two artists from two completely different worlds resulted in perhaps the strangest and most fascinating artistic encounters of the 20th century. Dalí called this project ‘First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain’ On the very first day of the project, Dalí gave Cooper a 2million (Now 30million) dollar Diamond necklace and tiara. Dali had created an amazing revolving hologram of Cooper covered in diamonds and biting the head of a Venus de Milo statuette, which he accomplished this by using lasers to capture a three-dimensional image. Upon Cooper’s remark on the communication gap between the two at a press briefing, Dalí replied “Confusion is the best form of communication.” In the 1940’s Dalí was actively collaborating with the Museum of Modern Art and exhibited his artworks. In 1943, he became an accepted member of New York society and began painting portraits of rich Americans for Knoedler Gallery and constructed his famous Mae West’s face. During his stay in America, Dalí capitalized upon mass media culture—appearing in television advertisements, designing magazine covers, and collaborating with the iconic photographer Philippe Halsman—which set the stage for Pop artists like Andy Warhol to do the same. Though some of his contemporaries viewed this venture as low-brow, Dalí became a brand name, one of the first painters to truly achieve global celebrity status. By the mid-1940s, pop psychology was on the rise in America, fueled in large part by the fallout and trauma of World War II. Hitchcock’s Spellbound, capitalized on this growing public interest in Freudian psychology as the film was one of the first major Hollywood productions to rely on psychoanalysis and mental illness as a the key driving force for the plot.
The 1945 atomic explosions of the Hiroshima & Nagasaki inspired Dalí to develop a new form of style, which he referred to as “Nuclear mysticism”. Upon returning to Spain in 1948, he announced his return to the Catholic faith and began working on his new art style, based on his interest in classicism, mysticism and recent scientific developments. This resulted in some of his more complex works, such as the painting Galatea of the Spheres where he portrays a synthesis of Renaissance art and atomic theory and illustrates the ultimate discontinuity of matter. Not known to a lot of people but Dalí even designed the iconic logo for the global candy brand Chupa Chups.
“In 1969, Dalí was approached to design a new Chupa Chups logo, and the result became as instantly recognizable as his melting clocks. Dalí incorporated the Chupa Chups name into a brightly colored daisy shape. Always keenly aware of branding, Dalí suggested that the logo be placed on top of the lolly instead of the side so that it could always be seen intact.”
-Quoted from BBC’s Modern Masters: Dalí, Chupa Chups logo
Fascination with Hitler, Sexuality & Political Ambiguity:
Dalí’s interest in erotic neuroses and death, together with his eerie portrayal of fear, influenced his distinctive brand of surrealism, mixing classic techniques with avant-garde subject matter and laying the groundwork for future generations of artists. While the use of Dalí’s abject subject matter, such as the projection of sexual encounters or bodily fluids, bothered his fellow surrealists, it was the artist’s unwillingness to condemn fascism in the mid-1930s which ultimately resulted in his excommunication from the group.
Most surrealist during the Nazi up-rise denounced Hitler and were loudly anti- fascists. Dalí, on the other hand, began to paint the dictator. He dedicated two of his paintings to Hitler, “The Enigma of Hitler” and “Hitler Masturbating”. He even commented that he “often dreamed of Hitler as a woman” and that the Nazi dictator “turned [him] on”. While the majority of the Surrealist artists had become increasingly associated with leftist politics, Dalí maintained an ambiguous position on the matters of politics and art as e didn’t want the two to get intertwined. Leading surrealist André Breton accused Dalí of defending the “new” and “irrational” in “the Hitler phenomenon,” but Dalí quickly objected to this accusation, saying, “I am Hitlerian neither in fact nor intention.” He insisted that surrealism could exist in an unbiased state, free of political control, and refused to publicly denounce fascism. Among other factors, this had landed him in trouble with other members of the group and later in 1934, was subjected to a “trial”, in which he was formally expelled from the Surrealist group for being a Nazi sympathizer. To this, Dalí retorted,
“The difference between the Surrealists and me is that I am a Surrealist”
His blatant self-love was publicly denounced by the English writer and critic George Orwell, who criticized Dalí’s autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí with an essay entitled “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí”. Orwell defined the autobiography as “a strip-tease act conducted in pink limelight” and pointed out Dalí’s character, describing him as “an unmistakable assault on sanity and decency.”
Although masturbation is a very common means to fulfill one’s self-gratification, in Dalí’s case however, it was slightly different as it became the primary and perhaps the only sexual activity he enjoyed throughout his life, despite the weekly orgies he used to host alongside his wife, Gala. Weirdly enough, what’s even more interesting is that Dalí himself didn’t participate in orgies except to watch. In his autobiography, he claimed he kept up the practice well into adult life, often in front of a mirror. Masturbation, nevertheless, filled Dalí with fear because it was at the time believed to cause impotence, homosexuality, and insanity. There is a very common analogy where the artist is portrayed as a hired gun, pledging his services to the highest bidder, be it anarchists, Communists, Surrealists, or even multimillionaire patrons like A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse. No matter which political group he supports, at the core of him, his main goal was defending the ideology of Dalí-ism, and the more money he could make while doing so, the better. Upon the allegations for being lenient towards Fascism, he declared himself an “anarcho-monarchist.” And as he moves forward in his career, this oxymoron becomes more apparent. Even so, what goes for Adam and Eve can go for Dalí as well: he gave up the dogmatic purity of his youth for worldly gains of money, fame, and eros.
Legacy and Recognition:
Many of Dalí’s admirers get bummed about how his eccentric and extravagant public behavior at times attracted more attention than his artwork while a lot of his critics feel irritated just by hearing his name. There has been a lot of controversy over his public support for the Francoist regime, his commercial activities as well as the quality and authenticity of some of his late works. Either way, we cannot deny the influence his life and work had on other Surrealists, pop art, and contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. There are two major museums devoted to his work: The Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain and the Salvador Dalí Museum in Florida. For his unparallel contribution to art, he received a number of recognitions.
1964: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic
1972: Associate member of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium
1978: Associate member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France
1981: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Charles III
1982: Created 1st Marqués de Dalí de Púbol, by King Juan Carlos
Life Lessons from Salvador Dalí:
Salvador Dalí has led an exciting life and even if he was an oddball, we can learn a thing or two from this legendary artist.
1. Take art history and make it your own
Dalí may be known primarily as a surrealist, but he was actually a restless experimenter, working in many different styles and mediums throughout his career. As a young man, he shamelessly appropriated elements from other movements, including impressionism, pointillism, cubism, fauvism, purism and futurism with great skill.
2. Learn from your mistakes
“Mistakes are almost always of a sacred nature. Never try to correct them. On the contrary: rationalize them, understand them thoroughly. After that, it will be possible for you to sublimate them.”
– Salvador Dalí
3. Love thy self
“Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy — the joy of being Salvador Dalí — and I ask myself in rapture, ‘What wonderful things is this Salvador Dalí going to accomplish today?”
– Salvador Dalí
4. It’s okay to have a change of heart
“At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since”
– Salvador Dalí
5. Never stress out over the little things
“Have no fear of perfection- you’ll never reach it”
– Salvador Dalí
After the death of his wife in 1982, Dalí lost much of his will to live, and purposely dehydrated himself almost to the point of death. In 1984, a mysterious fire broke out in his apartment. Luckily, he was saved but many suspected it as a suicide attempt. He eventually succumbed to heart failure and met his end at the age of 84, five years after that incident. Dalí even insisted on being buried at his own Theater-Museum in Figueres when he died in 1989, in a lifelong demonstration that art and man are inseparable for the artist as well as his audience.
Dalí broke through the conventions of both art as well as life, forging modern artistic languages and methods capable of exploring the human psyche. Throughout his commercial work in the fields of fashion, photography, advertisement, and film, his unconventional style and often outrageous ideas became widely sought-after, as they introduced the theme to a wider range of audience. In his life, he did not just make an impact on surrealism, but his works and ideas transcended through life itself and can be found in almost every part of the world, even after 20 years of his death. Salvador Dalí, the name itself has become a timeless symbol of unorthodoxy and experimentation.
“There is only one difference between a madman and me. The madman thinks he is sane. I know I am mad.”
– Salvador Dalí
He was a madman indeed, but a genius madman nevertheless.