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Dalí, Salvador: 1904

Salvador Dalí: 19041989: Artist

Surrealism was a European artistic movement that extended into film, fiction, poetry, and other arts in addition to its primary medium of painting. Nevertheless, in the public mind surrealism is identified above all with one towering figure: the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí. With a series of dreamlike works executed in the late 1920s and 1930s (including the landscape filled with drooping watches that has become the surrealist image par excellence ), Dalí mesmerized not only art enthusiasts but also the general public on both sides of the Atlantic. Even as modern art moved toward increasingly abstract and arcane languages, Dalíremained a public figure for much of his long life.

Born the son of a notary in the Catalan-region town of Figueras (now known by its Catalonian spelling of Figueres) on May 11, 1904, Dalí attended religious schools. From the beginning he had a strong imagination that tended toward the bizarre, and, if his sometimes-suspect autobiographical writings are to be believed, an occasional masochistic streak. As a child, Dalí would sometimes throw himself down a flight of stairs to get his parents' attention. His artistic gifts manifested themselves from the start, and he completed some substantial religious paintings before reaching his tenth birthday.

Dressed in Cape as Student

Admitted to the School of Fine Arts in Madrid in 1921, Dalí stood out from the crowd with outfits that included a cape and an oversized black felt hat. Yet, according to Time, his fellow students remembered him as "morbidly sick with timidity." In the 1920s Dalí experimented with many of the strains of European contemporary art of the day. He was expelled from the School of Fine Arts after refusing to take an exam. "I am sorry," he recalled saying (as quoted in Contemporary Authors ), "but I am infinitely more intelligent than these professors." In 1928 Dalí made his way to Paris, the center of European modernism at the time, and rapidly developed his wildly distinctive style after he allied himself with the surrealist movement.

Surrealism emphasized not only distortions of reality but also the power of unconscious, specifically sexual drives; the movement drew to some extent on the thinking of the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Dalí rapidly became the movement's star attraction, producing canvases that seemed to mirror the most bizarre depths of his subconscious mind and yet rendering them with a technique that was exquisitely controlled and exact. With friend and fellow surrealist Luis Buñuel, Dalí made a major impact in 1929 with the film An Andalusian Dog, a short subject that featured such disturbing images as an eyeball being sliced open with a razor blade. By 1931, Dalí was creating works that have become icons of surrealism; the most famous of them all, the watch-filled landscape entitled The Persistence of Memory, was painted that year.

At a Glance . . .

Born Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí y Domenech in Figueras, Spain, May 11, 1904; died January 23, 1989, in Figueras; married Gala Eluard, 1930. Education: Attended Marist Friars School, Figueras, 1914-18; attended San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts, Madrid, Spain, 1921-25. Religion: Roman Catholic.

Career: Worked as a book and magazine illustrator, Figueras, 1919-21; painted in Spain, first individual exhibition, Galería Dalmau, Barcelona, Spain, 1925; late 1920s; with Luis Buñuel made international impact with surrealist film An Andalusian Dog, 1929; moved to Paris, France, and became connected with surrealist movement, 1930; first U.S. exhibition, Julien Levy Gallery, New York, 1932; lived in Pebble Beach, CA, and New York City during World War II; returned to Spain, 1948; cultivated overtly religious style, late 1940s and 1950s; established Dalí Museum, Figueras, 1973; author of more than 15 books and pamphlets.

Many art critics consider Dalí's works of the 1930s his best. During that period he merged his surrealist sensibilities with a serious outlook that produced such masterpieces as Soft Construction with Boiled BeansPremonition of the Spanish Civil War (1936); that work, centered on the image of a powerful god tearing itself to pieces, has been compared with Pablo Picasso's Spanish Civil War masterpiece, Guérnica. When war did break out, Dalí showed some sympathy with the fascist leadership of dictator Francisco Franco.

Covered Rolls-Royce with Cauliflower

In the meantime, however, the artist was becoming a star. He visited the United States several times and proved a master of publicity, honored by, among other things, a surrealist-themed dance in which a cow carcass stuffed with a horn-type record player was mounted on the wall at one end of the room. He designed department-store windows in New York and even lent his name to a perfume line. Returning to Europe for a time, Dalí intensified his flamboyant ways, driving through Paris in a cauliflower-covered Rolls-Royce and appearing for a lecture in England dressed in a diving suit and leading two Russian wolfhounds on a leash. "The only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad," the artist said once in a widely quoted remark.

Dalí spent much of World War II in the United States, living well off the proceeds of his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. The work attracted attention with its portraits of high-society figures, its work with fashion designers including Coco Chanel, and of Dalí's design of the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's film Spellbound. With public acclaim, though, came increasing disdain in the art world. Part of that disdain came from Dalí's public success; fellow surrealist André Breton rechristened him with an anagram of his own name, "Avida Dollars."

But Dalí's style itself was growing more and more distant from the abstract modernist art mainstream and changing on its own terms. The artist rededicated himself to Catholicism in the late 1930s, and after the war began to produce canvases that, while they did not renounce surrealist elements, had a grandiose quality that, in the eyes of some observers, tried unsuccessfully to mimic the monumentality of the works of Spain's Old Masters. Dalí moved back to Spain with his wife Gala in 1955. He admitted (as quoted by Maclean's )to a "pure, vertical, mystical, gothic love of cash," and turned out huge quantities of prints of his works. Sometimes he simply signed his name to blank sheets onto which copies would be printed later.

Market Plagued by Inauthentic Prints

But the general public never lost its affection for Dalí's works. There was always a market for whatever he produced. Indeed, Dalí collectors in later years have been bedeviled by the large number of fake Dalí prints circulating through the art marketa result, certainly, of Dalí's own lax supervision of the printmaking process, but also of the sheer demand for his work. In later years Dalí painted less, troubled by the symptoms of Parkinson's disease and other ailments. Yet he remained a public figure, attending the construction of a museum devoted to his own works in his hometown of Figueras, and in the 1980s lending his support to a campaign to bring the summer Olympic Games to the Spanish city of Barcelona in 1992.

Dalí died of heart failure on January 23, 1989, and was buried on the grounds of his own museum. As the rigid canons of abstraction have weakened and modern art has become more welcoming to realist and even surrealist elements, there have been signs of an upward trend in Dalí's posthumous reputation. Though the disclosure of the number of ersatz Dalí works and the world recession of the early 1990s hurt prices of Dalí items for a time, the value of his artwork rebounded after several museums held major retrospectives in the 1990s. The city of St. Petersburg, Florida, continued to acquire works for the lavish new Dalí museum it had opened in 1982. For the average art lover, though, there had never been any question of fluctuations in critical opinion: Dalíí was surrealism.



Contemporary Artists, St. James, 1996.

International Dictionary of Art and Artists, St. James, 1990.


The Economist (US), December 17, 1988, p. 99; January 28, 1989, p. 88.

Forbes, August 29, 1994, p. 104.

Maclean's, February 6, 1989, p. 58.

The New Republic, October 17, 1994, p. 40.

Time, March 13, 2000, p. 79.

James M. Manheim

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