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Salvador Dalí
Portrait of Salvador Dalí, 1954
Philippe Halsman (American, b. Latvia, 1906-1979) Gelatin silver print, 13 5/8 x 10 3/4 inches
© Philippe Halsman Estate/Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

Salvador Dalí

Spanish, 1904 - 1989

View Objects By Salvador Dalí >>

Salvador Dalí, perhaps the best-known artist of the international Surrealist movement, transformed his dreams and personal obsessions into some of the most original and arresting images of the twentieth century.

Early Years

Born at Figueres, Spain on May 11, 1904, Dalí became interested in painting and drawing from a very early age. Encouraged by his parents and inspired by the paintings of family friend Ramón Pichot, by the time he was a teenager he was exploring the heightened color effects and free brushstrokes of Postimpressionism. Pichot, who knew Pablo Picasso and was aware of the latest stylistic innovations in modern painting, spurred Dalí to pursue a career in art, and in January 1919 the young artist showed some of his work at an exhibition of local artists at the local Municipal Theater.

In a rented studio in Cadaqués, where his family spent each summer, Dalí continued to immerse himself in his painting. The terraced olive groves, hills, and secluded bays surrounding the picturesque Mediterranean coastal town supplied him with endless subjects, and the colors of the sunset illuminated many of his early landscapes. These paintings are key to understanding his deep love for the Catalan countryside, which became the setting for the majority of his subsequent works.

The young artist also painted numerous portraits of himself and his family. Early self-portraits already show him adopting a persona, such as the romantic or bohemian artist. The prophetically titled Self-Portrait with the Neck of Raphael (Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, Figueres), for example, pays homage to one of Dalí's favorite painters of the Italian Renaissance, while Portrait of Señor Pancraci (Private Collection, Barcelona) looks back to the work of his compatriot Francisco Goya. In his experiments with modern art, Dalí not only revealed his awareness of the great masters of the past, but also measured himself against them.

Encountering the Avant-Garde

Dalí's mastery of conventional life drawing secured him a place at the prestigious San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid in 1922, although by then he was already using vivid, Fauve-like colors and loose, Impressionist brushwork in his paintings-setting him apart from the more conservative students at the Academy. Through his uncle Anselm Domènech, a book dealer in Barcelona, he also received a steady supply of modern art books and journals (Valori Plastici and L'Esprit Nouveau among them) to inform his appreciation of the latest trends in European avant-garde painting. Indeed, Dalí was the first student at the Academy to experiment with Cubism, though he often made surprising color choices based on his use of black-and-white magazine illustrations as source material.

Dalí quickly assimilated the avant-garde movements of the previous two decades, often working in two different styles simultaneously. His burgeoning friendships with the poet Federico García Lorca and future filmmaker Luis Buñuel, both of whom he met at the Residencia de Estudiantes (University Residence) in Madrid, also encouraged him toward avant-garde experimentation, and the trio prided themselves on their "strident and revolutionary" activities. A prodigal talent and rebellious student, Dalí was suspended from school for a year in 1923 for subversive behavior. He was finally expelled in 1926 after declaring that none of the professors were competent to judge his work in the summer exam. The expulsion, however, could hardly affect Dalí's already launched career. His first one-man exhibition had been shown the year before at Dalmau Gallery, Barcelona, while 1926 saw his first visit to Paris and his second show at Dalmau.

In the mid-1920s, Dalí also made numerous paintings in which Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, cavorts with modern sailors. These works were inspired by the artist's nighttime excursions to the harbor area of Barcelona, where he experienced the fleeting eroticism of the brothel and marveled at the modern Venuses he saw there. His statuesque female figures look back to Picasso's voluptuous Neoclassical bathers of the early 1920s, with their slightly flattened curves and simple white drapery, which Dalí impudently mixed with the abstract planes of late Cubism in paintings such as Neo-Cubist Academy (Museu de Montserrat, Montserrat). Dalí was aware of the classical revival that took place in Catalonia after World War I-a movement that promoted the idea of the Mediterranean region as the foundation of civilization and the industrial port of Barcelona as a new Athens where tradition and modernity converged.

Towards the end of the decade, Dalí's deepening friendship with Lorca brought about a dramatic artistic transformation as he turned away from the Venus and sailor theme and began introducing coded erotic imagery into his work. The images in these paintings were related to the natural environment the two friends encountered while beachcombing in Cadaqués. When one such work, titled Unsatisfied Desires (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), was first exhibited at the Dalmau Gallery in 1928 (the same year as the publication of the Catalan Anti-Artistic Manifesto), it was considered so shocking that the gallery owner hung a piece of cork over the offending anatomy.


1929 was a momentous year for Dalí. He met Gala Eluard, then the wife of the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard, who would become his lifelong companion. He joined the ranks of the international Surrealist movement as well, taking part in frequent sessions at the Paris apartment of writer André Breton, contributing to Surrealist reviews and magazines, and showing his highly original paintings and objects in group exhibitions. Although Dalí often returned to Cadaqués in the summer, Paris was now his theater of action, and his first one-man exhibition in the city took place at Goemans Gallery in November of 1929.

His paintings of this time convey his sexual anxieties and personal obsessions through dreamlike imagery indebted to the earlier work of Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst. Although his new, meticulous style was geared to painting as realistically as possible, Dalí welcomed hallucinations, reveries, and dreams, and often disclaimed cognizance of his own images, thereby acknowledging the unconscious basis of his work.

In December of 1929, Dalí was expelled from the family home by his father, who vehemently objected to his son's adulterous relationship with Eluard as well as his blasphemous inscription on the painting The Sacred Heart (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). Dalí's father mistakenly understood the phrase "Sometimes I spit with pleasure on the portrait of my mother" as a cruel reference to his deceased wife, who had died of cancer eight years earlier, rather than the anticlerical Surrealist provocation that the artist no doubt intended. To protest his banishment, Dalí defiantly shaved his head and buried his hair on the beach at Cadaqués, where Buñuel photographed him with a sea urchin balanced on his head, a reference to the legend of William Tell. For Dalí, the tale of the Swiss patriot, who won a wager that he could shoot an apple placed on his son's head at a distance of two hundred paces, was a castration myth that could be related to his unresolved conflict with his overbearing, authoritarian father.

1931 saw a concerted effort by Dalí to persuade his friends and colleagues to produce erotic Surrealist objects. Updating the notion of the Surrealist "found object," he argued for symbolic works that would awaken the viewer's repressed desires, in line with Sigmund Freud's definition of fetishism. His Surrealist objects took the form of three-dimensional collages, in which the materials were chosen for their metaphorical, psychological, or sexual connotations rather than their aesthetic value. His ambition was to create complete Surrealist environments in which paintings and sculpture were part of a disorienting setting.

The Tragic Myth of Millet's Angelus

The following summer, in 1932, Dalí began a series of works that explored the emotional fears aroused in him by Jean-François Millet's Angelus of 1857 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris). This painting held an intense fascination for him that stemmed from a childhood memory seeing a reproduction of the work hanging in his school in Figueres. Whereas most people regarded The Angelus as an image of rural piety, for Dalí it was a monstrous example of disguised sexual repression and violence.

In his book-length, paranoiac-critical interpretation of the painting, entitled The Tragic Myth of Millet's Angelus, Dalí argued that the pastoral twilight scene was encoded with latent images of death and castration. According to this morbid scenario, the humble peasant woman and her husband, who patiently waits for his wife to finish her prayers, take on the sinister connotations of the mating ritual of the praying mantis, in which the male is devoured by the sexually aggressive female after copulation. The man's strategically placed hat hides an erection, which Dalí understood as a sure sign that he anticipates and even welcomes her fatal embrace.

This threatening scene is played out repeatedly in the artist's paintings and objects of the 1930s, with Gala often taking the form of the mantis-like peasant woman, perhaps suggesting that Dalí had combined the hidden meanings he perceived in The Angelus with his anxieties over Gala. By 1935, she had become his wife, muse, business manager, artistic advisor, cook, secretary, and nurse, thus dominating every sphere of his life and work.

The Spanish Civil War and the Enigma of Hitler

With its flair for detail as gruesome as it is meticulous, Dalí's Surrealist painting style was well suited to depict the unique horrors of the Spanish Civil War. The War began on July 17, 1936, when General Francisco Franco led a military coup against the democratically elected government of the Spanish Second Republic.

Though he spent several months in Italy at the home of English collector, writer, and Surrealist sympathizer Edward James to avoid the war, Dalí acknowledged the tragedy that beset his homeland in paintings such as Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), a work that has since become a universal icon decrying human hatred and destruction. His message reflected his belief that the Spanish Civil War was an inevitable occurrence involving instinctual forces rather than a political event in which one had to take sides. He adopted the clinical detachment of a scientist in his representation of a grotesquely contorted, decomposing body-its face racked in pain-as a metaphor for his country's inexorable slide into bloody conflict. Believing that his savage image of Spain ripping itself to pieces prophetically foretold the atrocities committed by both sides, he later explained, "The Spanish corpse was soon to let the world know what its guts smelled like."

Despite his apolitical stance during the Spanish Civil War, however, other paintings of the time (such as Inventions of the Monsters, The Art Institute of Chicago, and Imperial Violets, Arango Collection) reveal that Dalí was not immune to the ominous political reality of Europe in the late 1930s. Although completed before the outbreak of World War II, these works clearly anticipate the impending catastrophe of this global conflict, which the artist believed would lead not only to the collapse of European culture but to untold human suffering as well.

A broken black telephone was a recurring motif inspired by the artist's dreams of the ill-fated Munich Agreement of September 29, 1938, the treaty that led British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to deliver the empty promise of "peace in our time." The disconnected telephone receiver is a direct allusion to Chamberlain's widely reported phone calls to Adolf Hitler, but the pervading sense of melancholy and despair that characterizes these rather gloomy canvases anticipates the breakdown of dialogue between the two countries and the inevitability of world warfare. The contemporary political significance of these paintings is supported by The Enigma of Hitler (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid), perhaps the best known and most controversial work from this series.

The Late '30s and Double Images

Dalí's longstanding ambition to meet Sigmund Freud was realized on July 19, 1938, when he visited the famous psychiatrist at his London clinic. Freud was greatly impressed by "this young Spaniard, with his ingenious fanatical eyes, and his undoubtedly technically perfect mastership." Dalí sketched his idol as they discussed Surrealism and psychoanalysis, and he was particularly struck by Freud's comment that "in the paintings of the Old Masters one immediately looks for the unconscious, whereas when one looks at a Surrealist painting, one immediately looks for the conscious."

Dalí also produced a stunning series of paintings during this time in which he projected multiple images into elaborate, episodic compositions featuring ordinary surroundings and objects. These works, which the artist called double images, were the fruit of his paranoiac-critical method. Sharing the Surrealists' scientific interest in abnormal mental states, Dalí found a model in paranoia, a condition in which the sufferer misreads the world around him according to an overriding obsessional idea. He was inspired as well by Leonardo da Vinci's famous lesson on invention, which recommended looking for a prolonged period at clouds, fire, or stained and cracked walls to discover hidden images.

Dalí's earliest efforts in this vein took advantage of the slightest coincidences in shape and color to force the viewer to misread a specific image, such as a seated figure, whose contours could also be understood as a building in the far distance. He subsequently pushed this theory further by superimposing multiple images on a single canvas. When Dalí's series of double image paintings was exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in the spring of 1939 they were greeted with popular and critical acclaim, thus cementing the artist's reputation in the United States as the leading painter of the Surrealist group.

After the German invasion of France in 1940, Dalí fled to the U.S. via Spain-where he visited his father for first time since their rupture a decade earlier. Once in the United States, he settled at Caresse Crosby's house at Hampton, Virginia

Designs for Hollywood and the Ballet

During his long career, Dalí participated in the production of ten films, three theater productions, two operas, and nine ballets. His contribution to these projects often took the form of set or costume design, but occasionally he had a hand in writing or organizing the performances as well. Forever the performer himself, Dalí cultivated relationships throughout his life with actors, filmmakers and celebrities such as Harpo Marx, Alfred Hitchcock, and Walt Disney.

The first of the ballet productions on which he worked was Bacchanale, which premièred at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on November 9, 1939. Staged by the legendary Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, the performance revolved around the paranoiac delusions of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The set was dominated by a giant swan through which the dancers entered. In the background stretched Dalí's birthplace, the Ampurdán plain, in the center of which rose the temple from Raphael's painting The Betrothal of the Virgin. Dalí was in Europe when the production was first staged, but, as he later recalled, "Bacchanale appeared at the Metropolitan with improvised costumes, and without my having seen even a single rehearsal! Nevertheless it was, it appears, an immense success."

That controversial production led to repeat engagements with Les Ballets Russes, such as Labyrinth. First performed by the Metropolitan Opera on October 8, 1941, Labyrinth took as its theme the Greek myth of Theseus and Ariadne. The backdrop for the first act depicted a colossal bust standing at the entrance to a labyrinth of cypresses, inspired by Arnold Böcklin's painting The Isle of the Dead. As he was with The Angelus, Dalí was similarly obsessed with this melancholic Symbolist painting of 1880; Böcklin's tall cypresses and white-shrouded figure sailing toward a rocky island tomb had indeed haunted some of Dalí's most memorable paintings of the early 1930s. The second backdrop depicted the other side of the island, with a throne of bones surrounded by metamorphosing cypresses, whose long shadows recall the late afternoon light in Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical paintings.

Asked by Alfred Hitchcock to create a realistic dream sequence for his film Spellbound, Dalí made one hundred drawings and five paintings for the project in 1945. Spellbound was the first Hollywood film to take Freudian psychoanalysis seriously, and the interpretation of dreams was central to the plot.

New Classicism and the Disintegration of Matter

The post-World War II political situation, combined with advances in science and technology, led Dalí to embrace the serene perfection and order of Italian Renaissance painting. In a newspaper interview conducted in 1945, he revealed, "There comes a time when you have to stop experimenting and begin to realize. Constant experiment is sterility, Surrealist experiment no less than any other kind." However, this shift away from Surrealist art practice in favor of the techniques of the past did not mean that Dalí had to curb the unique flights of imagination. "At the same time," he explained, "the more classical I grow in the arrangement of subjects, the more irrational and inexplicable the subjects themselves become."

That same year, the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima profoundly affected Dalí, who came to believe that recent discoveries in the field of nuclear physics could be applied to the realm of painting. In Dalí's subsequent work, his desire to express the idea that matter was discontinuous replaced his earlier interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, as he would explain in his "Anti-Matter Manifesto" of 1958: "In the Surrealist period I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world-the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud. Today the exterior world-that of physics-has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr. Heisenberg."

Nuclear Mysticism

On November 23, 1949, Dalí was granted a special audience with Pope Pius XII, to whom he presented his first version of The Madonna of Port Lligat (Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, Milwaukee). The artist had hoped that his pilgrimage would persuade the Vatican to offer him a special dispensation to marry Gala, whose first husband, Paul Eluard, was still alive. Although the artist's marriage to Gala would not be sanctioned until after Eluard's death in 1952, the painting apparently met with the pontiff's approval and he blessed the work, thus paving the way for Dalí's gradual acceptance into the Catholic Church-despite his anticlerical stance of the 1920s and 1930s.

Dalí's renewed interest in Catholicism, however, was not a reactionary move away from his earlier interest in modern art. His embrace of spirituality, and his efforts to reinvigorate modern painting through the techniques and religious iconography of Italian Renaissance art, was inextricably linked with his understanding of atomic energy and particle physics. Dalí called this combination of nuclear science and Catholic doctrine "Nuclear Mysticism." Dalí's immense Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubicus) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is fairly typical of his Nuclear Mysticism paintings, which included some of the most powerful spiritual and devotional images of the modern era.

Dalí and Halsman

When Life magazine had assigned the Latvian-born photographer Philippe Halsman to shoot Dalí's outsized costumes for 1941's Labyrinth, the two artists became fast friends. For the next three decades their collaborations were an almost annual event. During the 1949 Popcorn Nude session, a nude model (and sometimes Dalí himself) jumped off a platform amid a shower of popcorn and loaves of bread. In the following year Halsman darkened his studio, dressed his friend in a dark suit, and then kept the camera lens open while Dalí made a shimmering three-dimensional light sculpture by tracing his own body with a glowing ball. The pair's most notorious photograph was 1951's In Voluptas Mors (Voluptuous Death), in which seven naked women posed together, creating a grinning human skull, its teeth formed by the models' talcum-covered feet.

Dalí and Halsman's most extended collaboration took the form of a book entitled Dalí's Mustache, in which the artist's antennae-like facial hair illustrates a hilarious question-and-answer session. These photographs remain as fresh today as they did when they were first published in 1954. The critically acclaimed book resulted in few sales when it appeared, but achieved a cult following that has kept it in print ever since.

The Railway Station at Perpignan

In the early '60s, Dalí returned to the theme that had haunted him decades before, namely his paranoiac-critical interpretation of Millet's Angelus. This was prompted by a 1963 episode when, while changing trains at Perpignan (a town in the French Pyrenees), he experienced a "cosmogonic ecstasy" in which the railway station suddenly revealed itself to him as the center of the universe. This revelation was later confirmed to his satisfaction when the mathematician René Thom told him that the Iberian Peninsula had pivoted precisely at Perpignan during the geological upheavals that shaped the European continent 132 million years earlier.

Dalí commemorated his discovery in The Railway Station at Perpignan (Museum Ludwig, Cologne). In this painting, he placed the famous peasant couple from The Angelus in the horizontal dimension, and paired himself vertically with Gala. He repeated his own suspended body at the luminous center of a Maltese cross formed by beams of light. Here he aligned himself with the head of the crucified Christ, a shadowy presence identified through his crown of thorns and bloody gash.

In Dalí's mind, Millet's painting included a missing presence-a dead son whom the peasant couple mourns. Dalí was obsessed with his own brother, who had died just over nine months before the artist was born. In Portrait of My Dead Brother (Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida), Dalí rendered the imaginary visage of his older sibling by employing a Benday dot pattern, an imitation of modern industrial printing techniques that anticipated the Pop Art paintings of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, or the later work of Sigmar Polke.

Optical Illusions

Dalí's last great monumental canvas, The Hallucinogenic Toreador, completed in 1970, was inspired by an illustration of the Venus de Milo on a box of pencils, in which the artist saw the nose, mouth, and cheek of a bullfighter. Dalí spent two years developing this double imagery on a vast scale, intending the work as the grand summation of his previous experiments with optical illusions.

In 1971, perhaps exhausted by the creation of The Hallucinogenic Toreador (Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg), Dalí began to experiment with holograms as a less labor-intensive way to capture the illusion of three-dimensional painting. His first experiments in this vein premiered at the Knoedler Gallery, New York, in 1972. He then expanded into more expensive cylindrical holograms, which he called "chronoholograms." In 1973 he executed First Cylindric Chronohologram Portrait of Alice Cooper's Brain (Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg), which featured the jewel-bedecked rock star Alice Cooper sitting cross-legged on a rotating base and holding a sliced-up Venus de Milo statuette. Dalí admired the "total confusion" of Alice Cooper's music and stage act, which reached a mass audience following the release of the album Welcome to My Nightmare.

Final Years

Dalí's poignant last painting, 1983's The Swallow's Tail (Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, Figueres), was one of a series based on the catastrophe theories of his friend René Thom, a French mathematician known for his work in topology (the branch of mathematics that studies the shapes and symmetries of abstract geometric figures and solids). The shape of The Swallow's Tail was taken from Thom's four-dimensional graph of the same name and a second graph, the S-curve that Thom dubbed "the cusp." Dalí related this combined shape to the antennae-like forms of his own handlebar moustache and the F-holes of a cello.

In August of the following year, however, Dalí suffered severe burns on eighteen percent of his body in a fire in his bedroom. He never painted again.

Salvador Dalí died on January 23, 1989 of heart failure. He was buried in the crypt of the Teatro-Museo.

Salvador Dalí, 2005

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