This month’s birthday article is a little belated because I had some personal projects I had to take care of, but Salvador Dali is a May baby and his creations just make him too great to pass up, even if his birthday was back on the 11. So without further ado, I bring you a brief history of Dali and his infinite weirdness in celebration of his much belated birthday.
The Reincarnated Salvador Dali?
The Dali we all recognize was actually the third Salvador Dali in his family. His father also had the name and his parents had another son that was also named Salvador, but he died nine months before Dali was born. For this reason, Dali’s parents always believed that he was the reincarnation of his brother, a belief the artist also held throughout his life. In many of his writings, he claimed that he felt deep stress from the pressures of living as both himself and his dead brother.
Humble, But Flashy Beginnings
Dali’s family was decidedly middle class and his mother was incredibly supportive of his work…until she died when he was only 16. The next year, he moved to the student housing at an arts school in Madrid and he immediately started to stand out through his eccentric methods of dress. The young student enjoyed wearing knee breeches with sideburns and long hair, similar to something Oscar Wilde would have worn forty years earlier. While he made friends with a number of students at the school, he was not an ideal student and was expelled shortly before he completed his courses after he refused to be tested by anyone in the faculty, saying, “I am very sorry, but I am infinitely more intelligent than these three professors, and I therefore refuse to be examined by them.” It wasn’t long after this that his unique painting style, which seamlessly blended classic influences like Raphael with modern avant garde styles like those of Joan Miro, started to garner him quite a bit of attention in the art community. Not to be outdone by his own artwork, Dali promptly started to grow his trademark moustache, which was influenced by the seventeenth-century painter Diego Velazquez.
His Wife Was a Bit of a Groupie
When Dali met his future wife, Gala, in 1929, she was already married to a prominent French poet. She soon left this artist for Dali, who was ten years her junior, but after their 1934 marriage, she continued to have many other affairs with young artists and even a rockstar in the 70s –all with Dali’s permission of course. While Dali was said to have a terrible fear of the female genitalia (part of the reason he was so accepting of her affairs was because he preferred to watch, but not partake in the activities), he was still unquestionably in love with Gala all the way up until his death. “Without Gala,” he said, “Divine Dalí would be insane.”
When To Make An Apology…And When Not To
Dali was a prominent player in the surrealist movement, but many of the surrealists actually disliked him. This was for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest issues was the fact that surrealists did not believe that anyone should ever apologize for their art. To some extent, Dali did agree with this sentiment and when his father demanded an apology for a painting the young artist made that bore the words “Sometimes, I spit with pleasure on my mother's portrait.” While it seems unlikely that Dali actually even meant it about his own mother because he adored her, he still refused to tell his father he was sorry, which resulted in his being thrown out of his childhood home, written out of his father’s will and being threatened by his pop that he should never step foot in Cadaquès again. When Dali and Gala caused a serious scandal in America, shortly after his work was introduced into the country, though, he quickly changed his tune. The incident in question involved the couple showing up to a masquerade party in New York dressed as the Lindbergh baby and his kidnapper. After facing great outrage on the part of the American press, he apologized, but he only ended up facing more outrage from the surrealist group he was a member of when he returned home. Of course, they were furious about the apology, not the act.
Around this same time, the majority of surrealists began to lean to leftist politics, but Dali further incensed them by always maintaining an ambiguous position on the matters. Dali disagreed with the idea that surrealism should involve politics and at the same time that he refused to support fascism, he also refused to denounce it. Eventually he was subject to a mock trial in his surrealist group and was expelled largely for his absence of political beliefs. His politics didn’t just bother the surrealists. Dali moved to France at the outbreak of war and only moved back after World War II ended. George Orwell denounced him for this, stating, “When the European War approaches he has one preoccupation only: how to find a place which has good cookery and from which he can make a quick bolt if danger comes too near.”
All About The Benjamins
Another major problem the surrealists had with Dali was his apparent willingness to sell his soul for money. As some started referring to him in the past tense, although he was dead, others preferred the nickname “Avida Dollars,” which is more than just an anagram for his name, it also sounds the same as avide à dollar, which can be translated as “eager for dollars.” More Surreal Than The Surreal Dali is famous for quipping, "the only difference between me and the surrealists is that I am a surrealist,” but perhaps even that was a bit of an understatement, as he developed many of his best known works by connecting with his subconscious not through drugs, but through sleep manipulation. He claims he would sit in a chair with a metal spoon in his hand, directly above a metal pan. When he started to fall into deep sleep, he would drop the spoon, the clang of the spoon hitting the pan would wake him up. Perhaps this method is what he used to create his most enduring surrealist works, the lobster telephone and the Mae West Lips Sofa.
Deeper Meanings of Dali
The surreal nature of his works should never be taken as a sign that Dali’s work was without meaning though. In fact, Dali was a huge fan of Freud and believed in a much deeper meaning of dreams, which is widely demonstrated in his artwork. Here are a few interesting symbolisms to look for next time you enjoy some of his artworks:
- Melting clocks. These are probably the most famous of all Dali’s symbolisms and they represent the changing nature of time and eternity. Interestingly, he got the idea for these classic representations when he was looking at a melting piece of Camembert cheese on a hot summer day.
- Absurdly tall elephants. Other classic images of Dali’s are the long-legged and multi-jointed elephants carrying huge obelisks on their back. These are used largely to represent men struggling to reach new heights while burdened with the weight of reality.
- Drawers. Many of his human subjects are made up of a number of drawers, which are representative of the secrets of the soul and the hidden sins of the individual.
- Eggs. If you’ve ever seen the Dali Theater-Museum in Spain, you probably noticed the massive eggs adorning the building’s roof. While it is easy to realize that these represent maternity, femininity and the prenatal, they also, in turn, are used to indicate hope and love.
- Ants. Ants are seen in a number of his works, even those where you don’t immediately notice them. These insects are used to show death and decay.
- Grasshoppers and locusts. These two critters are used for both fear and waste. (An interesting side note: Dali was terrified of grasshoppers as a child and the other kids would throw them at him to scare him.)
- Crutches. While the obvious symbolism behind crutches is to show handicaps and man’s weakness, he also used them regularly to show man’s ability to overcome these problems in a feat of ingenuity.
Image via Kaneda99 [Flickr]
His Portfolio is Massive
Throughout his life, Dali painted over 1,500 works. This number is on top of the many illustrations, lithographs, theater sets, costumes, drawings, photographs, sculptures, films, holographs, and other works he helped to create. He loved to experiment with new mediums and even stepped into the world of high fashion, designing a few outfits for Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior. He also created the rainbow-colored Chupa Chups logo. Even more amazing is the fact that his portfolio only recently expanded to include his completed Disney animation, Destino. While he started it with Walt in 1946, the pair soon found themselves out of money for the project. It was instead completed in 2003 by Roy Disney and Baker Bloodworth. That wasn’t his only film contribution though. He also worked on the famous surreal art piece Un Chien Andalou, worked on a dream sequence for Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and narrated about a search for magic mushrooms in Impressions of Upper Mongolia. Image via pecaenrique [Flickr]
Dedicating A Museum to Himself
As a matter of fact, Dali was one of only a few artists to actually play an active role in the museum dedicated to his works. His Theater and Museum in Figueres goes beyond showcasing his paintings, it is in its own way, another work of his. It’s hardly surprising that a self-obsessed creator like Dali would make a museum for himself, after all, he was famous for once saying, "every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí." He started working on the building in 1960 and he continued adding to it all the way through the mid-80’s.These days, it houses the largest collection of his works, followed by the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. The most interesting place for his work to be displayed though was the Rikers Island jail in New York. Dali donated a crucifixion drawing to the warden and it was hung in the dining room for years before officials decided to move it into the lobby so it could be kept safe. Humorously, after spending 16 years in a jail dining room, the painting wasn’t lost or damaged until it was moved to the lobby, where it was stolen in 2003. It is still missing to this day.
The Death of an Immortal
When Dali went on 60 Minutes in the 70’s, he told Mike Wallace that, “Dalí is immortal and will not die.” Unfortunately, like all self-proclaimed immortals, he was wrong. In 1980, his health started to fade and when Gala started dosing him with unprescribed medicine, it only made things worse as her drug cocktail damaged his nervous system. In 1982, Gala passed away and this made Dali’s health fade away even faster as he lost his will to live. He started dehydrating himself and a few years later a fire broke out in his bedroom. Both acts may have been accidents or he may have been trying to commit suicide, no one knows for sure. After the fire though, he started living in his museum until the end of his life. In 1989, Dali died of a heart failure, shortly after King Juan Carlos visited him on his deathbed and confessed his lifelong adoration of Dali’s works. Dali quickly sketched a drawing for the king and it turned out to be the last artwork ever done by the artist. I love Dali, so I was really excited to write this article, but I must admit, he was a bit of a freak. There is so much information about him, particularly his crazy stunts, that I couldn't even begin to describe them all here. So, instead I leave them to you. What are your favorite Dali tales? Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, Artcyclopedia, Smithsonian Magazine, BBC News, Salvador Dali Museum, and Neatorama