Salvador Dali painted images from his dreams and the question is often asked, was Dali genius, or madman?
Throughout his life he enjoyed creating a sensation as well as creating controversy. He spent most of his life promoting himself and shocking the world at large. His reputation often overshadowed his artwork, and some critics believe Dali peaked in his 20s as an artist and from that point on was nothing more than a greedy exhibitionist. He opens his autobiography with the phrase: “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 since.” (Dali, 1942)
Dali, full name Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí Domènech, was born in Spain in 1904, nine months after his brother, also named Salvador, died of gastroenteritis. His father, also named Salvador, was a lawyer and strict disciplinarian. His mother, Felipa, encouraged his artistic endeavors. At five, Dali was taken to the grave of his brother and informed that he was his brother’s reincarnation. Dali said of his brother, ‘[we] resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections’ and that he ‘was probably a first version of myself but conceived too much in the absolute.’(Wikipedia, 2010). His younger sister, Ana Maria, also encouraged Dali’s artwork.
In school, Dali could be a disruptive student. Even early on, he showed an affinity for grandiose behavior and loved to draw attention to himself. He was spoiled and self-centered. His mother also possessed an artistic background, and often amused him by molding wax figures from colorful candles. She encouraged Dali, and would boast of his talent. She died of cancer when Dali was sixteen, and he stated it was the greatest blow he had experienced in his life. (Smithsonian, 2005)
A young Dali attended the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. His first one-man show was in Barcelona, in 1925, and provided him with some early recognition. He achieved international acclaim with three of his paintings, including the Basket of Bread, showing in the third annual Carnegie International Exhibition in Pitssburgh, 1928.
He experimented with cubism in his early works, but showed an incomplete understanding of the art form. There were no cubist artists in Madrid at that time for him to study under. At school he developed a friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca, one that involved some mutual passion, but Dali ultimately rejected Lorca’s sexual advances. In 1924, Dali illustrated his first book, a publication of a Catalan poem called “The Witches of Ller’s”, written by his schoolmate Carles Fages de Climent.
Dali was expelled from art school shortly before his final exams in 1926 after insulting the competence of the faculty. He was already a master at painting, having completed The Basket of Bread. Shortly after, he held his first one-man show in Paris. He joined with other surrealists, including former Dadaist Andre Breton. He also met Gala Eluard, the woman who would become his lover, muse, and business manager, in spite of her marriage to the poet Paul Eluard. His relationship with Gala helped rupture his relationship with his father, which finally culminated in Dali being thrown from his paternal home in December of 1929. The final straw was Dali’s drawing ‘Sacred Heart’, which featured the words “Sometimes I Spit With Pleasure on the Portrait of My Mother.” (Smithsonian, 2005)
The painting, ‘The Persistence of Memory’ became one of the best-known surrealist works and helped Dali become a leader of the Surrealist Movement. He clashed with other Surrealists and was expelled from a surrealist group during a sort of trial in 1934, though he continued to exhibit his work at international surrealist exhibitions. Dali’s politics were ambiguous, and he refused to state opinions on several political movements, including fascism. Dali believed that surrealism was apolitical. After being expelled, Dali noted ‘I myself am surrealism’. As a youth, he had embraced both anarchism and communism, though he admits that many of his political statements were made to shock listeners rather than out of conviction.
In 1934, Dali married Gala in a civil ceremony, though they later had a Catholic ceremony in 1958. Dali and Gala escaped from Europe during the tumult of WWII and spent 1940-48 in the US. During this time, he was moving to a new type of painting that included a preoccupation with science and religion. This move away from Surrealism is considered his classic period, and included nineteen large canvases with scientific, historical, and religious themes. (Dali Museum, 2010)
Returning to his beloved Catalonia in 1949, Dali drew criticism from other artist by willingly living under Franco. This resulted in the dismissal of some of his later works. He experimented with other art forms, including holography. Other post WWII works were inspired by the dawning of the atomic age, and Dali labeled this period ‘Nuclear Mysticism’. Much of his artwork was also inspired by his love of Spain and it’s landscapes, and he built himself a villa by the sea from a small fisherman’s cabin in Port Lligat.
The year 1974 saw Dali open the Teatro Museo in Figueres, Spain, followed by retrospectives in Paris and London. His wife, Gala, died in 1982, and Dali’s health begin to fail. He was burned in a home fire in Pubol in 1984, and in 1986 was implanted with a pacemaker. Gala’s decline included senility, and she allegedly had given him drug cocktails that damaged his nervous system. Parkinson-like symptoms, which included hand shaking, put an end too much of Dali’s artistic capacity. After her death, he lost his will to live and may have attempted suicide. He spent the final years of his life in seclusion, and died in 1989 of heart failure.
Opinions on Dali vary, but tend to be strong. George Orwell said of Dali, “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.” (Wikipedia, 2010). As a surrealist, Dali’s own life was a work of art, including sending a mocking telegram to Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. He cut a colorful presence by dressing in a long cap and carrying a walking stick. In many ways, he cultivated an eccentric to outright strange reputation, and said once “every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí.” (Smithsonian, 2005)
By the time of his death, Dali had created works in film, ballet, opera, fashion, jewelry, and advertising. He had worked in almost all forms of media, including oils, sculptures, watercolors, drawings, photographs, graphics, and objects of many descriptions. He worked for commission and from pure inspiration.
Having lived a life exploring all the aspects of his own life and giving them artistic expression, Dali remains an example for posterity. The answer the question, was Dali genius or madman, is simple. He was both.
Dali Museum. (2010). Biography. Retrieved from www.salvadordalimuseum.org/history/biography.html
Dali, S. (1942). The secret life of Salvador Dalí. . : Dial Press.
Smithsonian. (2005). The Surreal World of Salvador Dali. Retrieved from www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/dali.html
Wikipedia. (2010). Salvador Dalí. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Dali
© 2010 – 2012, Within this mind. All rights reserved.