SALVADOR DALI: Larger-than-life Personality and Artistic Versatility

Dalí, in his studio in New York in 1943 - photo by Michael Ochs Archives | EL PAÍS

The Early Years of Salvador Dali

Salvador Dalí with his pet ocelot, Babou, and cane, 1965 – photo by Roger Higgins | Smithsonian Magazine

Salvador Dali was born to distinguished notary Salvador Dali Cusi and his wife Felipa Domènech Ferrés on May 11, 1904, in Figueres. Salvador was their second son and was named after their firstborn, who had died sometime before the artist was born. His father was an atheist while his mother was a devout Catholic. Some say that this background may have affected Dali’s personality and worldviews.

Dali was first enrolled in the State Primary School, but after his father saw that a public school did not suit his son, he had him attend the Hispano-French School of the Immaculate Conception. It was here that he learned the language he would primarily use as an artist, French. The environment of his hometown Figueres as well as coastal Cadaques, where they have a summer home, would inspire the young artist. The Catalonian landscape would be a recurring subject in his works. His parents recognised and encouraged Salvador’s artistic skills. At age ten, they had him take drawing lessons and eventually built him his own studio in Cadaques. Spending time in Cadaques led to Salvador meeting Ramon Pichot, a painter from the Pichot family of artists and intellectuals. Pichot’s painting introduced Dali to impressionism. At the Figueres’ Municipal Drawing School, Salvador took classes taught by Juan Núñez. Aside from art lessons, Dali attended the Marist Brothers’ school and the grammar school at Figueres.

Bathers Of Llane, 1923 by Salvador Dali – photo by WikiArt

In 1919, Dali participated in a group exhibition at the Figueres Municipal Theatre (later renamed as Dali Theatre-Museum). Salvador experimented with Impressionism and Pointillism when he attended the Fine Arts School in Madrid. In 1922, he joined the Students Original Artworks Competition Exhibition, at Barcelona’s Galeries Dalmau. He was awarded the University Vice-Chancellor’s prize for his work Market. While living at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, he attended the Special Painting, Sculpture and Engraving School of Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. It was also here that he befriended future prominent intellectuals and artists such as Luis Buñel, Pedro Garfias, Eugenio Montes and Pepín Bello. When he got expelled from the Academia in 1923, Dali took up etching under the instruction of Juan Núñez. He returned to the Academia in autumn of the next year, required to repeat an academic year. He presented his first solo exhibition at Galeries Dalmau for the First Exhibition of the Iberian Artists Society. He took part in several exhibits throughout Madrid and Barcelona. He met Picasso in Paris when he went to the French city with his aunt and sister. Having been expelled in 1926 by the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Madrid for calling its Tribunal incompetent, Dali returned to his hometown and focused on painting.

Surrealism and Success

Apparatus and Hand, 1927 by Salvador Dali – photo by

On his visit to Picasso’s studio in Paris, Dali was inspired by Cubism. He became interested in Futurism, as well as studying Freud’s psychoanalytic concepts and the works of metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico and Surrealist Joan Miró, and the like. Dali explored these concepts and worked to find a way to alter perception and vividly reinterpret reality. Apparatus and Hand (1927) was his first work on this style. It’s dreamlike scenery and symbolic imagery would become what Dali would be known for.

Dali piqued the Surrealists’ interest when Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), his work with filmmaker Luis Buñel came out in 1928. It was a meditation on illogical imagery and abject obsessions with a sexually and politically shocking subject matter that brought Dali infamy. The Surrealists sent Paul Eluard with his wife Gala (Elena Dmitrievna Diakona) to Cadaques in the hopes of recruiting the artist. Shortly after their first meeting, Gala and Dali began an affair which led to her divorce with Eluard and her eventual marriage with Dali. She became his muse and business manager. Dali eventually moved to Paris after that first meeting and met André Breton, who welcomed Dali into their circle.

Persistence of Memory, 1931 by Salvador Dali – photo by

Dali ascribed to Breton’s theory of Automatism, where an artist allows his intuition and unconscious mind to guide him through the creative process. Dali extended this further into the Paranoic Critical Method. Here, the artist would tap into his subconscious, emerging from a self-induced paranoid state to paint “dream photographs” of what he had seen in that state. The works were of widely unrelated but realistically painted objects. Dali would also apply optical illusion making them intensely vivid. The painter would use this method his entire life. His works The Persistence of Memory (1931) and Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936) are well-known examples of his use of this method.

As Dali’s work moved to the unconventional and his career grew, his father’s support began to wane. Dali’s relationship with Gala didn’t help but Dali being quoted by a newspaper saying that he sometimes spat on his mother’s portrait for fun was the last straw for the elder Salvador. At the end of 1929, Dali was expelled from his family home by his father. In the following decade, Dali was thrown out by the Surrealists due to his feud with Breton as well as his apolitical views.

Lobster telephone, 1936 by Salvador – photo by National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Dali continued to travel and experiment with the traditional methods of Gustave Courbet, Jan Vermeer and other painters he loved. Despite that, his works would still feature the strangest of subjects and emotionally charged themes. Wealthy, famous and fashionable clients sought Dali’s works. Coco Chanel invited him to her home in 1938. The paintings he created during his stay there were exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, later on. Dali also met his hero, Sigmund Freud, that same year. Freud claimed that Dali changed his perception of Surrealists, which delighted the latter. Dali also met Sir Edward James, an affluent British poet, who not only bought Dali’s works but also financially supported the artist for two years. James also collaborated with Dali on works like The Lobster Phone (1936) and Mae West Lips Sofa (1937).

Dali and Gala: Awe in America

Mad Tristan stage curtain, 1944 by Salvador Dalí – photo by artnet News

Dali spent most of the 1940s with Gala in the United States. In America, Dali’s fame and career continued to rise. Dali did not just paint and took part in exhibits, he also designed ballets like El Café de Chinitas (1943, performed at Detroit and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House) and Mad Tristan (1944), and published books such as The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942) and Hidden Faces (1944). Dali also created dreamlike sequences for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound. He also did book illustrations for Doubleday and Random House. Walt Disney also hired him to help produce Destino.

The Late Years and Legacy of Salvador Dali

Throughout the 60s to the 70s, Dali created canvases featuring accurately detailed historical and religious figures as well as scientific themes. He dubbed it “nuclear mysticism.” Dali further experimented with visual illusions and around this time became fixated with DNA, geometry, and divinity. He found science and holography very interesting as they presented him with new perspectives in achieving his goal of mastering three-dimensional images.

Main Hall at Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain – photo by Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

His final two decades were gruelling. Dali had bought the Pubol castle for Gala, but she would often go on retreats there and forbid him from visiting uninvited. This brought about a fear of abandonment and is said to have started Dali’s eventual spiral into depression. Later, Gala started going senile and gave Dali non-prescribed medication. This further affected his capacity to make art.

Despite the depression and other troubles, Dali was able to attain one of the most important achievements of his life. He created the Dali Theatre-Museum, building it from what remained of the Figueres Municipal Theatre. Dali worked hard on its design and the collection that he would leave with the museum before its opening in 1974.

Heart failure took Dali’s life on January 23, 1989. His remains are interred beneath the museum he built in his hometown, just a few blocks away from the house where he was born.

Dali may have been more known for his paintings, but he was also a sculptor, filmmaker and writer who published several books, articles and essays. Dali had also dabbled in advertising, fashion, and printmaking. With his larger-than-life personality and artistic versatility, Dali was among the most famous and prolific artists of the 20th century.