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Portrait of Salvador Dalí, Paris (Carl Van Vechten)

The Surreal World of Salvador Dalí

Genius or madman? A new exhibition may help you decide

Salvador Dalí spent much of his life promoting himself and shocking the world. He relished courting the masses, and he was probably better known, especially in the United States, than any other 20th-century painter, including even fellow Spaniard Pablo Picasso. He loved creating a sensation, not to mention controversy, and early in his career exhibited a drawing, titled SacredHeart, that featured the words “Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of My Mother.” Publicity and money apparently mattered so much to Dalí that, twitching his waxed, upturned mustache, he endorsed a host of products for French and American television commercials. Diffidence was not in his vocabulary. “Compared to Velázquez, I am nothing,” he said in 1960, “but compared to contemporary painters, I am the most big genius of modern time.”

Dalí’s antics, however, often obscured the genius. And many art critics believe that he peaked artistically in his 20s and 30s, then gave himself over to exhibitionism and greed. (He died in 1989 at age 84.) Writing in the British newspaper The Guardian a year ago, critic Robert Hughes dismissed Dalí’s later works as “kitschy repetition of old motifs or vulgarly pompous piety on a Cinemascope scale.” When Dawn Ades of England’s University of Essex, a leading Dalí scholar, began specializing in his work 30 years ago, her colleagues were aghast. “They thought I was wasting my time,” she says. “He had a reputation that was hard to salvage. I have had to work very hard to make it clear how serious he really was.”

Now Americans will have a fresh opportunity to make up their own minds. An exhibition of more than 200 paintings, sculptures and drawings, the largest assemblage of the artist’s work ever, is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 15. The retrospective, which comes from the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, marks the climax of a worldwide celebration of Dalí that began in Spain last year on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Titled “Salvador Dalí,” the show, sponsored in Philadelphia by the financial services company Advanta, plays down the exhibitionism. Visitors can thus assess the work without being assaulted by Dalí the clown. But while that makes good artistic sense, it neglects a vital aspect of the artist. After all, Dalí without the antics is not Dalí.

That is addressed in a second exhibition, “Dalí and Mass Culture,” which originated in Barcelona last year, moved on to Madrid and to the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, and concludes its tour at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (March 5 to June 12). In addition to his paintings, the “Mass Culture” show features Dalí film projects, magazine covers, jewelry, furniture and photographs of his outlandish “Dream of Venus” pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí Domènech was born May 11, 1904, in the Catalonian town of Figueres in northeastern Spain. His authoritarian father, Salvador Dalí Cusí, was a well-paid official with the authority to draw up legal documents. His mother, Felipa Domènech Ferres, came from a family that designed and sold decorated fans, boxes and other art objects. Although she stopped working in the family business after marriage, she would amuse her young son by molding wax figurines out of colored candles, and she encouraged his creativity. According to Dalí biographer Ian Gibson, she was proud of Salvador’s childhood drawings. “When he says he’ll draw a swan,” she would boast, “he draws a swan, and when he says he’ll do a duck, it’s a duck.”

Dalí had an older brother, also named Salvador, who died just nine months before the future artist’s birth. A sister, Ana María, was born four years later. Dreamy, imaginative, spoiled and self-centered, the young Salvador was used to getting his own way. “At the age of six,” he wrote in his 1942 autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, “I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” He prided himself on being different and felt himself blessed with a delicate sensitivity. Grasshoppers frightened him so much that other children threw them at him to delight in his terror.

Dalí was 16 when his mother died of cancer. “This was the greatest blow I had experienced in my life,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I worshiped her. . . . I swore to myself that I would snatch my mother from death and destiny with the swords of light that some day would savagely gleam around my glorious name!” Yet eight years after her death, he would sketch the outline of Christ in an ink drawing and scrawl across it the words about spitting on his mother’s portrait. (Although Dalí probably intended the work as an anticlerical statement, not a personal slur against his mother, news of it infuriated his father, who threw him out of the house.)

The precocious Dalí was just 14 when his works were first exhibited, as part of a show in Figueres. Three years later, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid but, once there, felt there was more to learn about the latest currents in Paris from French art magazines than from his teachers, whom he believed were out of touch. (On a brief excursion to Paris with his father in 1926, he called on his idol, Pablo Picasso. “I have come to see you before visiting the Louvre,” Dalí said. “You’re quite right,” Picasso replied.) When it came time for his year-end oral exam in art history at the academy, Dalí balked at the trio of examiners. “I am very sorry,” he declared, “but I am infinitely more intelligent than these three professors, and I therefore refuse to be examined by them. I know this subject much too well.” Academy officials expelled him without a diploma.

It was probably inevitable that the then-current ideas of the French Surrealists—artists such as Jean Arp, René Magritte and Max Ernst—would attract Dalí. They were trying to apply the new, psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud to painting and writing. Dalí was well acquainted with Freud and his ideas about sexual repression taking the form of dreams and delusions, and he was fascinated with the Surrealists’ attempts to capture these dreams in paint.

It was Spanish artist Joan Miró, a fellow Catalan allied to the Surrealists, who would bring Dalí to their attention. Miró even had his own Paris dealer look at Dalí’s paintings on a visit to Figueres. Afterward, Dalí wrote to his friend the Spanish playwright and poet Federico García Lorca, whom he had met during their student days in Madrid, that Miró “thinks that I’m much better than all the young painters in Paris put together, and he’s written to me telling me that I’ve got everything set up for me there in order to make a great hit.” Miró continued to drum up interest in Dalí’s work in Paris, and when the artist arrived there in 1929, Miró introduced him to many of the Surrealists.

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