SALVADOR DALI (May 11, 1904 – January 23, 1989)
Spanish surrealist painter, filmmaker, and eccentric.
- Produced over 1500 paintings, including The Invisible Man (1929), The Persistence of Memory (1931), and The Face Of War (1941).
- Drove the surrealist movement and served as its representative in the public eye; mixed surrealism and psychoanalysis to explore the human subconscious through art.
- Collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney on film sequences.
Although inspired by Renaissance masters, Spanish painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and designer Salvador Dalí is known to the general public for his bizarre and eccentric surrealist images. To this day, his versatile style and imagery exert considerable influence on artists the world over.
The flamboyant and famous surrealist Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí y Domenech was born in Catalonia, Spain, near the French border. He often claimed descent from the Moors, who had once conquered Spain, claiming this ancestry was the source for his flamboyance and passion for excess. The son of a lawyer and his servant, he was named after their older son who had died nine months before he was born (presumably a day or two before his conception), and was told that he was the reincarnation of the older boy. This bizarre circumstance probably contributed to Dalí’s lifelong eccentricities—or indicated some oddness in his parents that they passed on to him.
His mother, who had encouraged his artistic ambitions, died when he was sixteen, and his father married her sister—which pleased Dalí, who was close to his mother’s family. He left for Madrid to study art at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. While studying there, he began to affect an eccentric style, wearing clothes a hundred years out of fashion with long sideburns and shaggy hair. In school, he dabbled with Dada and Cubism and was expelled just before his final examinations when he declared that no one among the faculty was qualified to judge his work. Around this time, he cultivated the mustache that would be so closely associated with his image throughout his life. He also made the acquaintance of many of the major European artists of the day, including his idol Pablo Picasso.
Dali first began to rise to fame in 1925, with his first one-man show in Barcelona. That fame reached international status in 1928 when three of his paintings, one of which was The Basket of Bread, were shown in the annual Carnegie International Exhibition. The following year was a life-changing one for Dali. After a one-man show in Paris, he joined the Surrealist movement led by Andre Breton which was also the year that he met his muse, lover, and future wife—Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, a Russian immigrant who went by the name of Gala. The fact that she was married to one of Dali’s peers, the surrealist poet Paul Éluard, did nothing to stop their burgeoning romance.
Later in 1929, Dalí collaborated with friend and filmmaker Luis Bunuel on the famous 17-minute surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, which opens with the simulated slicing of an eyeball. Dalí did little more than assist with the script, but only two years later he painted his most famous work: The Persistence of Memory. Better known to the general public as “the melting clocks painting,” Persistence of Memory is a 24×33 cm oil painting of pocket watches draped over the landscape, as flimsy and flexible as a wet cloth. A detail often missed in prints behind the odd (perhaps beached, perhaps dead) Leviathan-like creature, is a human figure that is probably a self-portrait of the artist.
THE ECCENTRIC ARTIST
Throughout the 1930s, Dalí was well-received in artistic circles around the world, especially New York, where his flamboyance was enjoyed, and in London, where he delivered a lecture while wearing a diving suit accompanied by a pair of dogs. He alienated much of the surrealist community when he supported the regime of Spanish fascist Francisco Franco, a rift that was never healed; they expelled him altogether, while he retorted that without him, there was no surrealism. He and his wife moved to the United States when World War II broke out in Europe, as many European artists and intellectuals did. They eventually moved back to Spain at the end of the 40s, again facing criticism for returning while Franco was still in power. Dali’s disdain for his former peers continued throughout his life; he once famously proclaimed, “The only difference between me and the surrealists is that I am a surrealist.”
Much of Dalí’s work was symbolic to such a heavy extent that there’s no apparent meaning in looking at the painting. Only a closer examination—informed by knowledge of his comments and body of work—reveals anything beyond the compelling image. His 1944 painting Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening portrays his naked wife reclining on a stone slab, while tigers pounce in the air above her and an elephant with long spindly legs (a frequent image in his work from this point on) floats in the background. A partially eaten pomegranate looms near the horizon like a rising sun. Like a dream in the hands of a psychoanalyst, the painting offers rich detail and memorable imagery, open to any number of interpretations.
He was also a sculptor and fashioned a variety of surrealist objects, famously including a telephone with a lobster as its handset, and a sofa shaped like a movie star and sex symbol Mae West’s mouth to accompany his 1935 painting The Face of Mae West. Alfred Hitchcock shared his fascination with psychoanalysis, and Dalí’s co-direction of the dream sequences in Spellbound remains a moment of genius amidst a movie now lamented as the worst of Hitchcock’s work. In the 1940s, Dalí even collaborated with Walt Disney on a short cartoon called Destino; the cartoon was never completed in its creators’ lifetimes, but in the twenty-first century, animators completed it based on the original storyboards. Although finally finished in 2003, Destino was not released on home video until 2010.
THE ARTIST’S END
Dalí was a successful painter and sculptor all his life. He remained famous enough that he never faced poverty as so many artists do, and he took a number of well-known commercial projects (including high-profile advertisements and product logos). When Gala died in 1982, Dali’s health began to flag. His growing health concerns were accelerated by a house fire in 1984 that left him badly burned, as well as the subsequent implantation of a pacemaker two years later.
The iconic eccentric finally died in 1989, seven years after his wife. Though he is alleged to have attempted suicide several times following her death, it was finally heart failure that ended his life at the age of 84. In a twist that the famous self-publicist might have appreciated, Dalí passed away in the tower of his own Dalí Theater And Museum, where he had been living for the last five years of his life.