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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

World War II changed Dalí’s ideas about painting. As he had once been in thrall to Freud, he now became obsessed with the splitting of the atom and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Karl Heisenberg, leader of the German scientists who failed to develop an atomic bomb. “Dalí was acutely aware of his times,” says the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Michael R.Taylor, who curated the show in Philadelphia. “He said to himself: Velázquez and Raphael—if they had lived in a nuclear age, what would they paint?”

In 1951, Dalí painted a delicate, Raphaelite head, then let it burst apart into countless pieces, swirling like cascading atoms (Raphaelesque Head Exploding). In a Surrealist touch, the flying particles are tiny rhinoceros horns, which Dalí regarded as symbols of chastity. Dalí dubbed his new style Nuclear Mysticism.

His work during these years was often self-indulgent. He posed Gala too many times, for instance, as an unlikely Virgin Mary and painted enormous canvases with historical and religious scenes that look overblown today. Yet this new religious imagery often pulsed with power.

His stunts, too, were self-indulgent, though some were quite funny. In 1955 he showed up for a lecture in Paris in a Rolls Royce stuffed with cauliflower. To promote The Worldof Salvador Dalí, a book he produced with French photographer Robert Descharnes in 1962, Dalí dressed in a golden robe and lay on a bed in a Manhattan bookstore. Attended by a doctor, a nurse and Gala, he signed books while wired to a machine that recorded his brain waves and blood pressure. A copy of this data was then presented to the purchaser.

For a television commercial in 1967, he sat in an airplane alongside Whitey Ford, the New York Yankees star pitcher, and proclaimed the advertising campaign slogan of Braniff Airlines in heavily accented English—“If you got it, flaunt it.” Said Ford, “That’s telling ’em, Dalí baby.”

He flaunted it all right. In 1965 he began selling signed sheets of otherwise blank lithograph paper for $10 a sheet. He may have signed well over 50,000 in the remaining quarter century of his life, an action that resulted in a flood of Dalí lithograph forgeries.

But while Dalí could play the buffoon, he was also generous in reaching out to young artists and critics. When American Pop Art painter James Rosenquist was a struggling artist painting billboards in New York City, Dalí invited him to lunch at the St. Regis, then spent hours discussing art and encouraging his young guest. As a graduate student in the late 1960s, Dawn Ades knocked unannounced on Dalí’s door at Port Lligat. He invited her in. “Please sit down and watch me paint,” he said, then answered her questions as he worked.

And Dalí’s public popularity never waned. In 1974, when he was 70 years old, the town of Figueres opened the Dalí Theatre-Museum with an array of works donated by its renowned native son. The building was more of a Surrealist happening than a museum, featuring bizarre Dalí favorites such as the long black Cadillac that rained inside itself whenever a visitor dropped a coin into a slot. Hundreds of thousands of visitors still tour the museum each year.

Dalí’s last years were not joyful. He had bought a castle as a retreat for Gala in the town of Púbol, and beginning in 1971, she stayed there for weeks at a time. Dalí decorated parts of the castle with ostentatious furniture, but by his own account was allowed to visit only by written invitation. His fear that Gala might abandon him almost certainly contributed to his depression and decline in health.

After Gala’s death in 1982 at the age of 87, Dalí’s depression worsened, and he moved into the Púbol castle attended by nurses. His incessant use of a call button caused a short circuit that set off a fire in his bed and burned his leg. Doctors transferred him to Figueres, where he lay bedridden in the Torre Galatea, an old building with a tower that had been purchased after Gala’s death as an extension to the museum. “He does not want to walk, to speak, to eat,” the French photographer Descharnes, then managing Dalí’s affairs, told a newspaper reporter in 1986. “If he wants, he can draw, but he does not want.”

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