Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was a prominent Spanish Surrealist painter and is one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th Century. Dalí was a leading figure in the French Surrealist Art Movement and his fiercely technical, yet highly unconventional paintings, sculptures and public behavior ushered in a new generation of imaginative expression.
The precocious Dalí was only 14 years old when his works were first featured as part of an exhibit in Figueres, Spain. Three years later, he gained admission to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid. As his education progressed, Dalí became increasingly disenchanted with his instructors, whom he believed were unimaginative and out of touch with the current artistic trends being promoted out of Paris.
Dalí was influenced by the French Surrealist Movement which was attempting to conceptualize the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud through their art. Dalí was well acquainted with Freud’s thoughts on repressed feelings manifesting themselves as dreams and irrational behaviors, and was fascinated with representing these concepts in their visual form. Throughout his career, Dalí incorporated Freudian symbolism, such as staircases, keys, and dripping candles, into the majority of his paintings, while also developing his own vocabulary of personally significant symbols, such as grasshoppers, ants, elephants and crutches.
Dalí also found a way to incorporate contemporary scientific motifs into his artwork. In an effort to visually represent Albert Einstein’s paradigm shifting theory of quantum mechanics, Dalí uses melting watches as an allusion to time being relative and not fixed. Dalí states he gained the idea for his work, The Persistence of Memory, c. 1931, while observing a runny piece of Camembert cheese on a hot August day. The work, which was acquired by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1934, excited viewers even as it puzzled them. One critic urged readers to “page Dr. Freud” to uncover the meaning in the canvas.
Dali also commemorated the splitting of the atom. In Raphaelesque Head Exploding, c. 1951, he portrays the advent of the nuclear age with the head of a cherub dissipating into a universe of swirling atom-like particles. Consistent with Surrealist composition, the flying particles are shaped as tiny rhinoceros horns, which Dalí regards as symbols of chastity. He labels his imaginative new form as “Nuclear Mysticism.”
By the early 1930’s, Dalí was receiving international recognition for his artistic innovations. He quickly became Surrealism’s most influential spokesperson, enjoying solo metropolitan exhibitions in Paris and New York. Dalí was feted by the social registry, whom organized Surrealist themed galas in his honor. Even the recognized leader of the Surrealist movement, French poet André Breton, commented that Dalí’s name was “synonymous with revelation in the most resplendent sense of the word.”
Dalí often took advantage of public events to engage grandiose and thought provoking behavior in furtherance of his artistic idealism. In 1934, Dalí and his wife, Gala, arrived at a masquerade party in New York, hosted by heiress Caresse Crosby, dressed as the Lindbergh baby and his kidnapper. The response of the American press was so hostile that Dalí was later forced to apologize.
In 1936, Dalí again caused a stir when he delivered his lecture at the London International Surrealist Exhibition while dressed in a deep-sea diving suit. The prank eventually backfired, as he was forced to seek assistance in removing the helmet due to his inability to breathe. In response to questions regarding his choice of attire, Dalí quipped, “I just wanted to show that I was plunging deeply into the human mind.”
Dalí was also notorious for challenging conventional political attitudes. He once confessed that he dreamed of Adolph Hitler “as a woman” whose flesh “ravished me.” On another occasion he extolled Spain’s fascist leader Gen. Francisco Franco for establishing “clarity, truth and order” in Spain. Dalí ardently rejected the claim by critics that these comments were intended as an endorsement of Fascism. Nevertheless, In 1939, Dalí was expelled from the French Surrealist community after being found guilty in a mock court proceeding for his refusal to explicitly denounce Fascism.
Dalí’s writings support the notion that his controversial political commentary most likely grew out of a desire to shock his audience, rather than any deep rooted ideological beliefs. This does not mean that Dalí remained apathetic to the political events transpiring in pre- World War II Europe. Just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Dalí painted a powerful antiwar statement, entitled, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), c. 1936. The painting depicts a tormented figure tearing itself apart in what Dalí called “a delirium of autostrangulation.”
Dalí again displayed his penchant for political sarcasm with a telegram he sent praising Romanian Communist leader, Nicolae Ceauşescu, for adopting of a scepter as part of his regalia. Surprisingly, the mocking tone went unnoticed by the Romanian daily newspaper Scînteia, which published the comment as Dalí’s ringing endorsement for their leader.
Salvador Dalí was an extraordinarily gifted artist whose quirky personality often overshadowed his immense talent. Advocates of Dalí defend his artistic genius, while opponents chastise him for shameless self-promotion and the over commercialization of his work. Despite these perceived shortcomings, Dalí’s influence on 20th century American culture is undeniable. Dalí’s fearless pranks and staunch refusal to adhere to traditional convention have cemented his status as a cultural icon in an age of uninhibited individual expression.