Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of Spanish artist Salvador Dali, who is one of the most recognized surrealist artists in the world.
Salvador Dali was born in 1904 in Figueres, a town close to the French border of Spain. His father was an attorney, who had a strict disciplinary approach to parenting, which was tempered by Dali’s mother, who encouraged her son’s artistic endeavors.
Dali was named after his older brother, who died before he was born, and he was haunted by the thought of his dead brother throughout his life. Dali often referred to him in his writings and art, such as in his painting Portrait of My Dead Brother. When Dali was five years old, he was once standing over the grave of his brother with his parents, and they told him that he was the reincarnation of his brother, and this had a strong psychological impact on him. Dali also had a younger sister, who published a book about him in 1949 called Dali as Seen by His Sister.
In 1916, Dali discovered modern painting while on a vacation with his family and another family, who had an artist among them. Dali began doing charcoal drawings, and he attended the Municipal Drawing School in Figueres. In 1917 Dali’s father organized an exhibition of his art at their home.
In 1918, Dali had his first public exhibition of his drawings at the Municipal Theatre in Figueres. In 1921 Dali was introduced to the art styles of Futurism and Cubism by acquaintances, which had an influence on his work. Futurism aimed to capture the dynamism of the modern world, and Cubism brought multiple perspectives into a single image.
In 1922 Dali moved to Madrid. He studied at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where he drew attention with his eccentric dress and long hair. At the school, Dali became involved with the Madrid avant-garde art group known as Ultra. He was expelled from the school twice, once in 1923 for inciting a student protest, and again in 1926, when he told a panel assessing him that none of them were competent to judge him.
Around this time, Dali made frequent trips to the Prado Museum, which he said was “incontestably the best museum of old paintings in the world.” Every Sunday Dali went to the Prado Museum to study the works of the great masters. Of this period in his life Dali said, “’This was the start of a monk-like period for me, devoted entirely to solitary work: visits to the Prado, where, pencil in hand, I analyzed all of the great masterpieces, studio work, models, research.” Dali began painting during this time, and his work was influenced by Futurist and Cubist styles.
In 1925 Dali had an exhibition of his work in Madrid, along with other artists. Seven of his paintings were done in the Cubist style and four were done in a more realist style. His work was praised by several leading critics, and that same year he also had his first solo exhibition, which met with critical and commercial success. In 1926 Dali traveled to Paris, where he met with Pablo Picasso, whose work he admired and had influenced him.
In 1927 Dali’s work began to become influenced by Surrealism, and this is where he found his calling. Surrealism was a movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. Dali began creating paintings with dreamlike imagery and hallucinatory juxtapositions. After being influenced by his readings of Sigmund Freud, Dali began incorporating sexual imagery and symbolism into his work, which caused controversy and some rejection of his work at the time.
Around this time, Dali grew a neatly trimmed mustache, which became more flamboyant in the years that followed, and this became part of his trademark style and iconic image. Dali become known for his impeccably waxed mustache, which he styled into two thin, upward-pointing curves.
In 1929 Dali collaborated on a short surrealist film called An Andalusian Dog, and he continued with his paintings that explored themes of sexual anxiety and unconscious desires. In 1929 Dali had an exhibition of his work that was described as “the most hallucinatory that has been produced up to now,” and this exhibition was a commercial success.
Dali was deeply in touch with his subconscious and unconscious mind, and he used a variety of methods to induce altered states of consciousness. He was an avid lucid dreamer and practiced techniques to help with becoming awake in his dreams. Dali also experimented with different psychoactive substances, such as cannabis and hashish, and in the 1930s he used the psychedelic drug mescaline, which he believed gave him greater access to his subconscious mind. In response to an interviewer’s question about drugs, Dali famously said, “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs,” and “Take me, I am the drug, take me, I am hallucinogenic.”
In 1931 Dali painted one of his most famous paintings, The Persistence of Memory, which depicts a surrealistic landscape with melting pocket watches. Dali had numerous exhibitions of his work that were met with more commercial and critical success, as his fame as a surrealist painter grew.
In 1934, Dali took his first visit to the United States, where he had exhibitions and he received widespread press coverage. He delivered lectures on surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art and other venues, where he said, “The sole difference between myself and a madman is the fact that I am not mad!”
Dali was theatrical and flamboyant in his presentation to the world. In 1936, while at an exhibition of his work in London, he gave a lecture wearing a deep-sea diving suit and helmet. He arrived carrying a billiard cue and was leading a pair of Russian wolfhounds. Dali said that he just wanted to show that he “was plunging deeply into the human mind.”
In 1938 Dali met Sigmund Freud and he did a sketch of him. As Dali was sketching him, Freud whispered, “That boy looks like a fanatic.” This comment delighted Dali.
In 1939, during the German invasion of France during World War II, Dali fled with his wife Gala to Portugal, and then to New York in 1940, where they stayed for eight years.
In 1941, at a gallery in New York, Dali announced the death of the Surrealist movement and the return of classicism at his exhibition, however, critics didn’t think that there was actually any major change in Dali’s work.
In 1942, Dali’s autobiography The Secret Life of Dali was published, and it was reviewed widely in the New York and London press. In 1948, Dali and his wife moved back to their house in Port Lligat in Spain, where they spent much of their time over the next three decades, although they spent their winters in Paris and New York.
In the late 1940s Dali became introduced to Christian mysticism, and this influenced his artwork— such as his 1949 painting The Madonna of Port Lligat, which shows a surreal Virgin Mary with a floating baby Jesus in her lap. Dali then sought to integrate Christian mysticism with Einsteinian physics in his work. In paintings such as The Christ of Saint John on the Cross and The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory Dalí synthesized Christian iconography with images of material disintegration, that was inspired by nuclear physics.
In 1968, Dali bought a castle in Púbol, Spain for his wife Gala, who would retreat there for weeks at a time, and Dali agreed not to visit her there without written permission. This led to estrangement from his wife, who was his artistic muse and caused Dali to become depressed. Dali’s health began to fail around this time.
In 1980, Dali’s health deteriorated, and he was treated for a number of medical ailments. In 1983, Dali’s last painting, The Swallow’s Tail, was revealed. After this, Dali lost his ability to paint, due to a motor disorder. In 1984 Dali’s depression worsened and he refused food, leading to severe undernourishment. In 1989 Dali died at the age of 84.
Two major museums are devoted to Dalí’s work: the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Catalonia, Spain, and the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Dalí’s life and work have had an important influence on pop art, other Surrealists, and many contemporary artists.
In 2003, a previously unreleased animated film that Dali created with Walt Disney in 1945 was released, about a love story between the mythic god of time Chronos and a woman named Dahlia. Dali was portrayed in a film by Robert Pattinson called Little Ashes in 2008, and by Adrien Brody in Midnight in Paris in 2011. The Salvador Dalí Desert in Bolivia and the Dalí Crater on the planet Mercury are named after him.
Some of the quotes that Salvador Dali is known for include:
Have no fear of perfection— you’ll never reach it.
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.
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?
A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.
What is important is to spread confusion, not eliminate it.
One day it will have to be officially admitted that what we have christened reality is an even greater illusion than the world of dreams.
It is not necessary for the public to know whether I am joking or whether I am serious, just as it is not necessary for me to know it myself.
Everything alters me, but nothing changes me.