Dalí, Salvador (1904–1989)

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DALÍ, SALVADOR (1904–1989)


Spanish painter, sculptor, and graphic artist.

Born and raised in the Spanish province of Catalonia, situated in the country's northeast corner, Salvador Dalí was destined to win worldwide fame. Indeed, as a result of his continual self-promotion, Dalí is probably the best known of all the surrealists—the only one who achieved celebrity status during his lifetime. Although he published numerous writings, his most important contributions were concerned with surrealist painting. While his name conjures up images of melting watches and flaming giraffes, his mature style took years to develop. By 1926, Dalí had experimented with half a dozen styles, including pointillism, purism, primitivism, Marc Chagall's visionary cubism, and Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical art. The same year, he exhibited the painting Basket of Bread at the Dalmau Gallery in Barcelona, inspired by the seventeenth-century artist Francisco de Zurbarán. However, his early work was chiefly influenced by the nineteenth-century realists and by cubist artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

The publication of André Breton's first Manifeste du surréalisme in 1924 made an indelible impression on Dalí. Although Catalonia and the rest of Spain were seething with avant-garde activity, Dalí was excited by what was taking place in France. Moving to Paris in 1929, he joined the French surrealists and participated in their various activities. Except for vacation trips to Catalonia, he remained there for many years. Quickly assimilated into the French movement, Dalí contributed a whole series of articles and paintings to journals such as La révolution surréaliste, Le surréalisme au service de la révolution, and Minotaure. While Breton, the leader of the surrealists, eventually came to despise the artist, whom he accused of rampant commercialism, he was extremely impressed by his talent initially. "For the first time perhaps," he announced in 1929, "Dalí has opened our mental windows wide." Calling his art "the most hallucinatory in existence," Breton advised the surrealists to cultivate voluntary hallucination like the painter (vol. 2, pp. 308–309; author's translation).

By this date, Dalí's art had evolved beyond his earlier obsession with strange objects and had acquired a visionary character. It would undergo a radical transformation during the next few years as the artist experimented with a new hallucinatory aesthetics that made his former efforts seem pale by comparison. Taking a leaf from the poet Arthur Rimbaud's book, who taught himself to see a mosque in place of a factory, Dalí boasted he was able to imagine a woman who was simultaneously a horse. By accustoming himself to voluntary hallucination, he was able to reshape reality according to the dictates of his desire. This experience, which foreshadowed the invention of his famous paranoiac-critical method, testified to the triumph of the pleasure principle over the reality principle. At the same time, Dalí's obsession with putrefaction and scatological subjects increased, and he began to explore Freudian themes overtly in paintings such as The Great Masturbator (1929) and in the movie An Andalusian Dog, created the same year with the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. By 1934 Dalí had managed to violate every conceivable artistic taboo and had perfected the outrageous persona that would contribute to his notoriety.

While voluntary hallucination produced excellent results, it was essentially a conscious process. Inspired by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who published a thesis on paranoia in 1932, Dalí developed a method of incorporating involuntary hallucinations into his art. Defined by Dalíasa "spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the irrational-critical association of delirious phenomena" (Ades, p. 126), the paranoiac-critical method furnished the artist with an endless number of paintings. In the early 1930s, he became obsessed with Jean-François Millet's The Angelus (1858), which he cited over and over in his works, and with the story of William Tell. Toward the end of the decade, Dalí began to juxtapose pairs of images to illustrate the theme of involuntary transformation. In The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), for example, two identical constructions are placed side by side. The image of Narcissus admiring himself in the water is juxtaposed with several objects that closely resemble him. In other paintings, two images are superimposed in such a way that each is continually transformed into the other, creating a deliberate confusion between figure and ground. In The Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940), a statue of the French philosopher in the foreground dissolves to reveal three servants standing in the background, who dissolve again to depict Voltaire in the foreground. Dalí would exploit these and other hallucinatory techniques brilliantly during the next fifty years, broadening his repertoire to include mystical and scientific themes while remaining faithful to his original inspiration.

See alsoBreton, André; Chagall, Marc; Cubism; Painting, Avant-Garde; Surrealism.


Ades, Dawn. Dalí. London and New York, 1995. The best book on the subject.

Alexandrian, Sarane. Surrealist Art. Translated by Gordon Clough. London and New York, 1985.

Breton, André. Oeuvres complètes. Edited by Marguerite Bonnet et al. 3 vols. Paris, 1988–1999.

Finkelstein, Haim. Salvador Dalí's Art and Writing, 1927–1942: The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Neret, Gilles, and Robert Descharnes. Dalí 1904–1989. Translated by Michael Hulse. New York, 1998.

Willard Bohn