The Surreal World of Salvador Dalí

Genius or madman? A new exhibition may help you decide

Portrait of Salvador Dalí, Paris (Carl Van Vechten)
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Dalí had come to Paris to take part in the filming of Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), which Spanish film directorLuis Buñuel, whom Dalí had also known since his studentdays, was directing from a script on which he and Dalíhad collaborated. The 17-minute film, as incoherent as adream, riveted—and appalled—audiences with its overt sexualand graphic imagery. Even today, it’s hard not to cringe atimages of a man wielding a razor against the eye of a woman, priests towing dead donkeys, and ants devouring a rottinghand. Dalí boasted that the movie, which was praised byavant-garde critics, “plunged like a dagger into the heart of Paris.”

In the summer of that same year, Dalí, 25, met his future wife and lifelong companion, Gala, at his family’s vacation home in Cadaqués, a picturesque fishing village on the craggy Mediterranean coast, 20 miles from Figueres. Among the visitors that summer were Buñuel, Magritte and French poet Paul Éluard and his Russian-born wife, Helena Diakanoff Devulina, better known as Gala. Ten years older than Dalí, Gala was at first put off by Dalí’s showoff manner, heavily pomaded hair and air of dandyism that included a necklace of imitation pearls. His demeanor struck her as “professional Argentine tango slickness.” But the two were ultimately drawn to each other, and when Gala’s husband and the others left Cadaqués, she stayed behind with Dalí.

The affair proceeded slowly. It was not until the next year, according to Dalí, that in a hotel in the south of France, he “consummated love with the same speculative fanaticism that I put into my work.” Dalí’s father was so upset by the liaison and by Dalí’s eccentric behavior that he branded him “a perverted son on whom you cannot depend for anything” and permanently banished him from the family homes. Critic Robert Hughes described Gala in his Guardian article as a “very nasty and very extravagant harpy.” But Dalí was completely dependent on her. (The couple would marry in 1934.) “Without Gala,” he once claimed, “Divine Dalí would be insane.”

International acclaim for Dalí’s art came not long after he met Gala. In 1933, he enjoyed solo exhibitions in Paris and New York City and became, as Dawn Ades, who curated the exhibition in Venice, puts it, “Surrealism’s most exotic and prominent figure.” French poet and critic André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement, wrote that Dalí’s name was “synonymous with revelation in the most resplendent sense of the word.” In 1936, Dalí, at 32, made the cover of Time magazine.

In addition to Freudian imagery—staircases, keys, dripping candles—he also used a host of his own symbols, which had special, usually sexual, significance to him alone: the grasshoppers that once tormented him, ants, crutches, and a William Tell who approaches his son not with a bow and arrow but a pair of scissors. When Dalí finally met Freud in London in 1938 and started to sketch him, the 82-year-old psychoanalyst whispered to others in the room, “That boy looks like a fanatic.” The remark, repeated to Dalí, delighted him.

Dalí’s Surrealist paintings are surely his finest work—even though his penchant for excess often led him to paint too many shocking images on a single canvas and too many canvases that seem to repeat themselves. But at his best, Dalí, a superb draftsman, could be spare and orderly. The Persistenceof Memory, for example, features three “melting” watches, and a fourth covered by a swarm of ants. One of the watches saddles a strange biomorphic form that looks like some kind of mollusk but is meant to be the deflated head of Dalí. When New York dealer Julien Levy bought the painting for $250 in 1931, he called it “10 x 14 inches of Dalí dynamite.” The work, which was acquired by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1934, excited viewers even as it puzzled them. One critic urged readers to “page Dr. Freud” to uncover the meaning in the canvas.

As his fame grew, Dalí’s reputation was undermined by his outrageous pronouncements. He confessed that he dreamed of Adolph Hitler “as a woman” whose flesh “ravished me.” Although he insisted he rejected Hitlerism despite such fantasies, the Surrealists, who were allied to the French Communist Party, expelled him in 1939. He also later extolled Spain’s fascist leader Gen. Francisco Franco for establishing “clarity, truth and order” in Spain.Yet just before the civil war began, Dalí painted Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonitionof Civil War), in which a tormented figure, straight out of the works of Francisco Goya, tears itself apart in what Dalí called “a delirium of autostrangulation.” The work is a powerful antiwar statement.

Dalí and Gala visited the United States often in the late 1930s and made it their home during World War II. The American sojourn ushered in the era of Dalí’s greatest notoriety. “Every morning upon awakening,” he wrote in 1953, “I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí.”

Dalí admitted having a “pure, vertical, mystical, gothic love of cash.” He felt impelled, he said, to accumulate millions of dollars. So he created jewelry, designed clothes and furniture (including a sofa in the form of actress Mae West’s lips), painted sets for ballets and plays, wrote fiction, produced a dream sequence for the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Spellbound and designed displays for store windows. He took these commissions seriously. In 1939, he was so enraged when his Bonwit Teller window display in Manhattan was changed that he shoved a bathtub in it so hard that both he and the tub crashed through the window.

In 1948 Dalí and Gala moved back to their house (which Dalí had festooned with sculptures of eggs) in Port Lligat, Spain, a couple of miles along the Mediterranean coast from Cadaqués. Dalí was 44; for the next 30 years, he would paint most of the year in Port Lligat and, with Gala, divide his winters between the Hotel Meurice in Paris and the St.RegisHotel in New York City.


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