My ambition is to give the world of the imagination the same degree of objectivity and reality as the everyday world. What Surrealism revolutionises above all is art’s themes, and to express these I use the same means as always. It’s the themes, derived from Freudianism, that are new.Salvador Dalí, 1934
It is perhaps unsurprising that Salvador Dalí has proven to be one of the most popular artists of the twentieth century, for his finest works explore universal and timeless states of mind, and most of his pictures were painted with a mastery of traditional representation that has proven rare in our time. For many people, that acute realism alone would have sufficed to attract them to Dalí’s work, and it has certainly served to mask any gradual lessening of quality in his art. Moreover, Dalí was also probably the greatest artistic self-publicist in a century in which (as Igor Stravinsky commented in 1970), publicity gradually became ‘about all that is left of the arts’. In this respect he was in a class of his own for much of his lifetime, as was his brilliant wife and co-publicist, Gala.
Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech was born on 11 May 1904 in Figueres, a small town in the Catalan province of Gerona, northern Spain, the son of Salvador Dalí i Cusi and Felipa Domènech. Dalí senior was the public notary of Figueres and, as such, an important and widely respected local official. He was a very forceful man, and it was rumoured that he had been responsible for the death of Dalí’s elder brother, also named Salvador, who had been born in 1901 and who died in 1903; officially the death was caused by catarrh and gastroenteritis but according to Dalí, his older brother died of meningitis that had possibly been brought on by a blow to the head.
Certainly that death left Dalí’s parents with an inescapable sense of anguish, and the young Dalí was always aware of the demise simply because both parents constantly projected his lost brother onto him, every day making comparisons between the two boys, dressing the younger Salvador in his deceased brother’s clothes, giving him the same toys to play with, and generally treating him as the reincarnation of his departed brother, rather than as a person in his own right.
Faced with such a denial of self, Dalí understandably mutinied in an assertion of his own identity, while equally rebelling against the perfected image of the dead brother his parents attempted to impose upon him. Thus the painter later recounted that ‘Each day I looked for a new way of bringing my father to a paroxysm of rage or fear or humiliation and forcing him to consider me, his son, me Salvador, as an object of dislike and shame. I threw him off, I amazed him, I provoked him, defied him more and more.’ If Dalí’s later claims are to be taken seriously, among other things his rebelliousness involved him in deliberate bed-wetting, simulated convulsions, prolonged screaming, feigned muteness, jumping from heights, and acts of random aggressiveness such as flinging another little boy off a suspension bridge or kicking his younger sister in the head for no apparent reason.
Supposedly Dalí also frequently overcompensated for the suppression of his identity by indulging in exhibitionist behaviour, as when he placed a dying, ant-covered bat in his mouth and bit it almost in half. There is probably only a very limited amount of truth in these assertions, but eventually both Dalí’s innate rebelliousness and exhibitionism would serve him in good stead artistically.
Port of Cadaqués at Night, c. 1918. Oil on canvas, 18.7 x 24.2 cm. Salvador Dalí Museum, St Petersburg, Florida.
Cadaqués is located about 25 kilometres to the east of Figueres, Dalí’s birthplace. Today good roads ensure that a journey between the two usually takes less than an hour, but in Dalí’s childhood it could easily take more than ten times as long. This was due to the poor communications over Cape Creus, a huge, intervening headland that forms the easternmost point of the Spanish peninsula and some of whose mountains can be seen here. Cape Creus also contains fantastical rock formations, a number of which Dalí would draw upon for the ‘grandiose geological delirium’ to be expressed in his mature images. Today Cadaqués is a lively holiday town that understandably maximises its connection with Dalí, but when the painter stayed there during the late 1900s and throughout the 1910s it was little more than a bitterly impoverished fishing village much given over to smuggling to make ends meet.
During Dalí’s early years his family would spend each summer just outside Cadaqués, renting a whitewashed house on Es Llané bay from their friends, the Pichot family. One member of that clan was the painter Ramon Pichot (1872-1925) whose influence can be detected in Dalí’s early works. This is unsurprising, for Pichot’s canvases were the first real paintings Dalí ever saw. Pichot himself was deeply influenced by French Impressionism, and exposure to his work opened Dalí’s eyes to the virtues of that approach, although not before he had encountered some difficulty in recognising what he was seeing.
Cubist Self-Portrait, 1923. Gouache and collage on cardboard, 104 x 75 cm. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Dalí’s art-school years understandably formed a period of intense stylistic experimentation. Here the student explored the Cubist approach pioneered over ten years earlier by his fellow-Spaniards, Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. A pipe, a newspaper and merely a few hints at a self-portrait act as the representational pegs on which the entire architecture of the image is hung. All else is jagged movement within a pictorial universe whose spatial certainties are shattered, like so many other aspects of the modern world.
Venus and Sailor (Homage to Salvat-Papasseit), 1925. Oil on canvas, 216 x 147 cm. Ikeda Museum of Fine Art, Shizuoka.
This is one of a number of depictions of women with sailors that Dalí made around 1925. The person to whom the work pays titular homage was Joan Salvat-Papasseit, a Catalan working-class poet, writer and journalist born in 1894 who had died in 1924. At this time Dalí shared Salvat-Papasseit’s anarchist sympathies and modernist aspirations.
Here again Picasso and Gris were major influences upon Dalí. The input of the former can be detected in the expansive physique of the goddess; in the fact that Dalí represented a goddess at all, for such classical creatures had been very important to Picasso since the early 1920s; in the Cubistic angularities of both figures, especially the sailor; and in the spatial ambiguities and contradictions apparent throughout. The influence of Gris is discernible in the suavely stylised way the sailor is represented.
Explore more on Salvador Dalí’s artworks here:
The Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain
The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida
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