Artist's Biography - Salvador Dali
( 1904 - 1989 )
Salvador Dali was born in 1904 into a prosperous family in Figueras, Catalonia, coincidentally the same Spanish region that produced Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. An older brother, also named Salvador, died in infancy exactly nine months and ten days before Dali's birth. The surviving Dali often spoke of an awareness of his older brother's presence. Although they kept a picture of the deceased brother in their bedroom, Dali's parents doted on him as well, this in spite of his frequent temper tantrums and violent tendencies. From early on, Dali was drawn to displays of power, either by authorities or of his own. In his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, he described himself as a self-absorbed, often cruel child who enjoyed exhibitionism and voyeurism. In one incident, he recalled kicking his sister in the head when she was a toddler--and his "delirious joy" in doing so.
But along with this unusual behavior, Dali showed an unusual talent for drawing and painting. Before he was ten, Dali concentrated primarily on landscapes; two exceptions are Portrait of Helen of Troy and Joseph Greeting His Brethren, both of which show the direct influence of nineteenth-century academic Spanish painting. Not only did his parents encourage his interest, they provided space for a studio in an unused part of their house. They also arranged for the adolescent Dali to live with their friend, Ramon Pitchot, an impressionist artist. Pitchot exposed the young artist to ideas beyond the academic paintings he had seen and copied. He began seeing the canvas as more than merely a surface for paint. In one instance, he attached cherry stems and worms to a painting of cherries, favorably impressing his mentor. Pitchot's influence was both direct and indirect. Quite by accident, Pitchot provided a prop that would serve Dali for most of his artistic life, when the young painter came across a crutch during his exploration of Pitchot's attic.
Dali enrolled at the San Fernando Institute of Fine Arts in Madrid in 1921, his days consumed with making his own art and familiarizing himself with the Prado Art Museum collection. Influenced by Juan Gris and Cubism, he left the sunnier colors of his early work behind, concentrating on a darker, more disconcerting palette. Yet he still incorporated the harsh elements of his native Catalonian landscape; impressions left by this dry, rocky terrain remained in his work throughout his career. The ease with which Dali painted and drew allowed him to move freely among various forms of art; he was a meticulous imitator (and ardent admirer) of Raphael and especially Jan Vermeer, in addition to his more flamboyant flirtations with dadaism and other revisionary artistic movements whose agendas included social upheaval. Dali's embrace of revolutionary ideas and his need to act on them led to his eventual expulsion from the Institute, though not before he befriended the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and filmmaker Luis Bunuel. He later collaborated with Bunuel on two films, Un Chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog) and L'age d'or (The Golden Age), deemed "provocative classics" by Time art critic Robert Hughes.
His visit to Pablo Picasso in Paris in 1928 became a seminal event for Dali: his first meeting with Andre Breton and the group of writers and artists that identified themselves as surrealists. Incorporating the controversial writings of Sigmund Freud on the unconscious, dreams, and sexuality, the surrealists aimed to break the constraints of realist representation, to reach the fantasies and dreams that constitute inner life. Surrealism's key spokesman, Breton, the artist Tristan Tzara (the founder of the surrealist movement) and poet Paul Eluard (whose wife, Gala, Dali eventually married) effectively changed the course of Dali's life.
Many critics highlight 1928 through 1938 as the artist's most solidly productive period. It was at this time that he announced the invention of his "paranoiac critical method," a self-hypnosis that he claimed allowed him to hallucinate freely. He said that he served as no more than a conduit for the unconscious images produced in this state, visions he then transferred onto his canvas. He explained these "double images" in his essay The Stinking Ass, as "such a representation of an object that it is also, without the slightest physical or anatomical change, the representation of another entirely different object, the second representation being equally devoid of any deformation or abnormality betraying arrangement." Thus, Dali not only emphasized the images in his paintings, but the importance of the process that brought them about.
In The Imagery of Surrealism, critic J. H. Matthews noted that the "paranoiac-critical method stands for something of more lasting significance than Daliesque self-advertisement." He added that Dali's "special contribution...to the surrealist concept of the reality of things" is that the theory "vigorously affirmed the polyvalent function of visible forms." In short, it is the effect of seeing one object within another (the shape of a dog in the bark of a tree, for example). Writing of the paranoiac-critical method, Robert Hughes notes that "Dali's art may not tap far into his unconscious, but it reveals a great deal about what he imagined his unconscious to be." Several well-known works were painted during this time, particularly in 1929, including The Great Masturbator, The Lugubrious Game, Illumined Pleasures, Accommodations of Desire, and The Enigma of Desire. They introduced viewers to the disturbing combination of highly accomplished realistic representations coupled with nightmarish images that would become Dali's trademark. Vast, uninviting landscapes serve as backdrop for several classically Freudian images: the lion (frequently emblematic of a threatening father), and the locust and the ant (both associated with sexual desire). Dali himself claimed to be surprised at what he saw appear with "fatality" on his canvases; in an article in Art Digest, he alluded to "all those manifestations, concrete and irrational, of that sensational and obscure world discovered by Freud, one of the most important discoveries of our epoch, reaching to the most profound and vital roots of the human spirit." That same year Dali had his first solo exhibition in Paris. Critical reception was not entirely favorable, but enthusiasts compared his work to the Dutch medieval painter Hieronymous Bosch and sixteenth-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Over the next two years, he worked with Bunuel on An Andalusian Dog and The Golden Age. He would later collaborate on several other films, including work with Walt Disney and Harpo Marx. Of these, his dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 film, Spellbound, is the best known.
By 1930, Dali had established himself as a rising art star and was deeply involved with Gala Eluard. Many art historians and critics credit Gala as muse to several of the Surrealists, but her most wide-reaching influence was with Dali. Their love affair became serious during the summer of 1929, when Gala and then-husband Paul Eluard visited Dali in Cadaques, Spain. Dressed in ragged clothes, his body smeared with a combination of fish glue and water, Dali managed to lure her away from her first marriage with his willingness to go to any excess. By the time of their own marriage in 1935, Gala had taken full charge of Dali's career, advising him on how to promote his work and himself. Their connection was so integral to his life and work that he often signed both names to his paintings.
Among the important paintings of 1931 are Slumber, Burning Giraffe, and his most recognizable work, The Persistence of Memory. Other important works he produced at this time include The Enigma of William Tell (1933) and Average Atmospherocephalic Bureaucrat in the Act of Milking a Cranial Harp (1933). Along with The Persistence of Memory, they are generally agreed by critics to be replete with symbols of impotence and decay, recurring themes in Dali's work. Dali's work was exhibited in Europe and, beginning in 1932, in the United States. He began to expand from painting to sculpture--including Lobster Telephone (1936), which featured a lobster as a receiver--and eventually collaborated with jewelry and clothing designers, including Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel.
By the mid-1930s, Dali's relationship with the Surrealists and Breton in particular became strained. In part, this had to do with Breton's idea that Surrealism align itself with the Marxist revolution, but more distressing to the Surrealists was Dali's fascination with power, specifically his unabashed early admiration for Adolf Hitler. His unwillingness to choose sides in the Spanish Civil War only alienated his former friends more. Dali had recently finished Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonitions of Civil War (1936), which many critics consider an antiwar piece. Writing about this painting, which depicts a human figure pulling itself to bits, William Gaunt observed in The Surrealists that "as a memento of a cruel century, the painting is comparable with Guernica of Picasso." Dismayed by Dali's political fence-sitting and embrace of brazen consumption, the Surrealists formally dropped him in 1938. A decade later, Breton anagrammed Dali's name to make his famous nickname: Avida Dollars (Greedy Dollars), a pointed reference to Dali's self-admitted devotion to cash.
Meanwhile, Dali continued to show his work and to spark controversy with his appearances. Engaged to lecture in London, he arrived encased in a deep-sea diving suit, to which he had attached an ornamental dagger and a cue stick, two leashed Russian wolfhounds in tow. Dali's popular reputation grew in the United States, leading to a commission for the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Titled "Dali's Dream of Venus," the extravaganza was described by Fleur Cowles in her book The Case of Salvador Dali as: "Seventeen live mermaids, wearing fins, tails, brassieres, and very little else dived and played inside a tank filled with water. These girls were supposed to represent a 'prenatal chateau,' but among other things they were busy at highly surrealist activities inside the tank.... Some milked an underwater cow, some played imaginary music on piano keys painted on the body of a rubber woman (who was chained to a grand piano). Some 'liquid ladies' (as Dali called them) were also busy telephoning and typing." Unhappy with necessary changes to his overall concept decreed by his sponsors, Dali published The Declaration of Independence of the Imagination and of the Rights of Man to His Own Madness.
Anxious to capitalize on Dali's recognition in the United States, the New York department store Bonwit Teller commissioned a window from him. According to Cowles, Dali's design incorporated "a mannequin whose head was roses (her fingernails ermine, her negligee green feathers)" and "a lobster telephone." A male mannequin "wore Dali's 'aphrodisiac' dinner jacket with eighty-one glasses of creme de menthe attached to it.... Each glass was complete with a dead fly and a straw." The only furniture was "an old- fashioned bathtub" which Dali "lined in Persian lamb [and] filled with water and floating narcissi--with three wax hands holding mirrors about the edge." Unprepared for Dali's version of a display window, the Bonwit Teller staff took it upon themselves to make changes. As Cowles described, "Dali was so infuriated by [the] changes made without his permission that he stalked into the shop, walked inside the window, tipped the water out of his bathtub and smashed his way right through the pane of glass into the street amid a stunned sidewalk audience." Officers who briefly held him but soon let him go chalked up his aberrant behavior to being an artist.
With the onslaught of World War II, Dali and Gala moved to California. There, Helena Rubinstein and Billy Rose, among others, commissioned paintings. In addition to his film work, Dali published The Secret Life of Salvador Dali and his first novel, Hidden Faces, neither of which were hailed by most critics. One exception was B. D. Wolfe, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, who found it "impossible not to admire this painter as writer."
The explosion of the atomic bomb affected Dali deeply with what he termed a "great fear." Characteristic of this new awareness of the power of science and scientific ideas is Exploding Raphaelesque Head, which he painted in 1951. After the war, Dali returned to Spain, soon making another unexpected turnaround: he dedicated himself to strict Catholicism and began producing work for the church. Dali took on traditional New Testament subjects in his religious paintings, convinced, according to his own statements, that he had mystical abilities. The best known of his early 1950s paintings, Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951) and Crucifixion (1954), display a different perspective that hints of this otherworldly element. At the same time, Dali continued to experiment with more hallucinatory material in other canvases of the period.
Dali's obsession with science continued, with works such as Sistine Madonna (1958) which shows the double image of a woman and an ear, both composed of particles. A 1963 canvas titled Portrait of My Dead Brother shows a grainy image blown-up to form a series of dots. Stereoscopy and holography, both methods for making three-dimensional images, captured his imagination as well. He carried on his experimentation into the next two decades.
By the late 1960s, Parkinson's Disease had begun to hamper Dali's work, but his personality had so thoroughly captured the public's imagination that he continued to exert influence, if only as a source from which to copy ideas. Financial and strategic blunders resulted in many scandals during the late 1970s, the worst of which was his reported signing of thousands of sheets of blank paper, falsely rendering anything later added to the paper a Dali lithograph. It was later estimated that collectors had spent at least $750 million on phony Dali prints between 1980 and 1989.
Gala's death in 1982 plummeted Dali into a severe depression; he had to be force-fed through a tube and remained reclusive. In 1984 an electrical fire nearly cost him his own life. Finally, he settled in Torre Galatea, a castle in Figueras, where he was nursed twenty-four hours a day until his death on January 23, 1989. He left his hefty estate to the Catalan government, the Spanish state, and the Dali Museum. Dali's remains, entombed under a glass dome, were embalmed to last 300 years.
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