Portrait of Salvador Dalí by Carl Van Vechten, 1939. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection

Salvador Dalí

By Estrella de Diego

Entering Salvador Dalí’s Teatre-Museu in Figueres—near Girona, in the North-West of Spain—the visitor’s impression is strong and distinct: Dalí’s essence is all over the place, just like an old vice or a never negotiated remorse. In fact, this prodigious building is not only Dalí’s museum: it is also his mausoleum. If, as Adorno wrote, the two words have not only etymology in common, in the case of the Teatre-Museu the implications are more than linguistic: Dalí is literally buried there.

Estrella de Diego reads this essay in the podcast “Major Figures in Spanish Culture”

Yet the Teatre-Museu is not only Dali’s final home. It is the most eloquent part of Dalí’s artistic project. Together with the Púbol Castle—Gala’s private home, which Dalí could only visit after a formal written invitation from his wife-, the Teatre-Museu in Figueres is a stage setting in which his famous oil paintings are just a simple fragment of Dali’s intense mise-en-scène, both as artist and character. The Teatre-Museu is an amazing large-scale piece, part of that passion for surrealist objects that Gala and Dalí cultivated throughout the years.

In fact, one could argue that Dalí conceived the design of the Teatre-Museu as a collage, fragments of space and time which became intermingled within Dalí’s life and masquerade. One could even say that this museum/mausoleum shows his passion for collecting, recycling and reinventing; that very passion the Catalan artist shared with Breton’s entire group and more precisely with his wife Gala, former wife of poet Paul Eluard.

Gala was indeed much more than a muse for Dalí. She was Dalí’s “partner in crime”—so to speak—, an essential part of the rich creative process they revealed, as Dalí emphasized in a hand-written text preserved at the Fundació Gala Salvador Dalí’s Archives. In this document, which was written in Dalí’s calligraphy and his characteristically poor French, Dalí narrates the story of Púbol Castle, the courtly gift he offered his wife Gala.

The story if told with the novelesque wealth of details, so typical of his prose:

“After my surrealist period, I signed my best canvases: Gala-Salvador Dalí. There’s no need to be Sartre to state that the name is the person, but one must be Dalí to state that the superperson, the Nietzschean superman and the Dalinian superwoman, are their own castle.” Dalí explained.

But let’s tell the story from the very beginning in the year 1904, more precisely on May 11th, 1904, when Dalí was born in Figueres, the son of a typical bourgeois family in the early years of twentieth century Spain. His father was a notary, and he probably expected Dalí to be anything but an artist, although the young boy seemed immediately fascinated with the collections of the Pichot family during a summer visit to their country home. At their house near Figueres, Dalí discovered Impressionism. In other words, contemporary gaze.

In 1919 he participated in his first show and made a crucial decision: he would become an artist. In any case, his father was also quite clear about his son’s future. If he wanted to become an artist he would have to move to Madrid and study at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Arts, the place where one could become a professional painter in Spain during those years. That could enable him to become an art teacher, in his father’s bourgeois mentality a respectable way to make a living.

Shortly after his arrival and due to a protest at the Royal Academy against a older traditional painter, Dalí was expelled from the arts school –he would return soon after. But a much more exciting destiny was waiting for Dalí in Madrid. During those years the capital of Spain was a vibrant artistic and creative centre, due to the Residencia de Estudiantes.

The Residencia de Estudiantes—literally “Students’ Residence”—was created to provide lodging for students in town, following the Oxford and Cambridge example. In any case, the final result of this experiment was a cultural institution that fostered some of the most brilliant writers, intellectuals and artists from all over the country during the 1920s. Besides, relevant thinkers at the peak of their career, from Marie Curie to Albert Einstein or the Egyptologist Howard Carter—to name a few—who visited Madrid in those days lectured at the Residencia. Unfortunately, the Civil War and later autarchy in Spain closed down this rich international experiment and with it most modern dreams in Spain.

A number of excellent Spanish youngsters would meet there. The Residencia was the home for film makers like Luis Buñuel, poet Federico García Lorca, and Dalí himself. Soon the group became inseparable. Close to them was also painter Maruja Mallo, whose hilarious and radical stories about those days of ultimate modernity gave us a hint about the revolutionary attitude they all had against conservative positions in life.

At the time, young Dalí was painting “pseudocubist” still-lives—one of them is shown in a very famous picture taken of García Lorca in his room at the Residencia. And by the mid twenties Dalí’s career was progressing very fast. He participated in various shows in Madrid and Barcelona. He also and visited Paris for the first time, a family trip with his aunt and sister, Anna Maria, his recurrent model before meeting Gala. Slowly but surely, Dalí was becoming the extraordinary surrealist painter which history would acclaim shortly after.

He developed an intense passionate friendship with García Lorca and would continue writing on a regular basis, contributing to the vanguardist journal L’Amic de les Arts. There he published his amazing article “Saint Sebastian”, devoted to García Lorca and their tempestuous relationship. One tends to forget Dalí was not only a superb painter, but also a talented writer, as proven by many texts. Among them, The secret life, his fake-real autobiography, published in the early 1940s and to which I will return later.

In 1929 he travelled to Paris for the second time. What had been a mere surrealist intuition in a Spain which was eager for modernity but still provincial became an inspirational reality in the French capital. There, through Joan Miró, Dalí met André Breton, the head of the group, and directed, together with Buñuel, Un chien andalou, a film considered the masterpiece of surrealist cinema.

Indeed, Sigmund Freud and his theories were essential to the filmic production. In 1938 Dalí even visited Dr. Freud in London, but their encounter was a total fiasco. Dalí was expecting Freud to be fascinated by him but that was not the case. Dr. Freud was not impressed by the young enthusiast and slightly arrogant artist, as he wrote a in letter to his friend Stephan Zweig.

In any case, dreams, androgyny, the unconscious, the superego, ego and it, transgression, and so forth are often visually present in Dalí’s and Buñuel’s work. One could even stress how those persistent quotes from psychoanalysis—clearly related to Surrealism itself—would always be present in Dali’s paintings, sculptures and filmic collaborations. He even invented the paranoiac-critical method, a creative process which imitates paranoiac states and aims to disintegrate the self a unitary entity.

That is the basic idea underlying Dalí’s autobiography mentioned above. That could be the reason why questions regarding The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí as an autobiographical project immediately spring to mind. And not only because, as argued by numerous authors, from Paul de Man to Roland Barthes, it is impossible to ascertain the “truth” in any autobiographical project, since the subject is split into two characters who have never shared time or space.

To begin with, Dalí’s book is an interplay of fictions in the form of deliberately fake memories. The author of the text, Dalí decided, would renounce his past and be reborn anew, without traumas, through a method that reproduced techniques of psychoanalysis and included the return to preconscious states—“intrauterine memories”, Dalí called them.

One could even say that The secret life imitates the structure of a session of psychoanalytical therapy, with slips of the tongue included. The book’s confessional tone might corroborate this. It is also an attempt to “kill the father”, in psychoanalytical terms. Or in other words, to free oneself from authority.

Besides, his father had disowned him after learning from a Barcelona newspaper his son had gravely insulted the family. The November 1929 exhibition at the Galerie Camille Goemans featured a lithograph of the Sacred Heart on which Dalí had written:

“Sometimes I love to spit on my mother’s portrait.”

This comment about his mother—she passed away in 1921—was received like a poisoned dart at home. Dalí refused to retract, so his father expelled him from the family circle.

But Dalí was not alone after the expulsion from his family. Gala, his wife, partner and co-author of the Dalinian creative project—as Dalí wrote—was already in his life.

The summer of 1929 a group of friends from Paris, the painter Magritte and his wife Georgette, the Eluards—Paul and Gala—and the Belgian Goemans, owner of an art gallery, decided to visit Cadaqués and the young Spaniard they had met in Paris through the gallery-owner, who would exhibit his works. They were fascinated by his unusual aspect and manners. It looked like a true Surrealist and besides he carried the charisma of old wild Spain. For this sophisticated group, Dalí must have looked very exotic.

At that time, Dalí was an attractive young man of somewhat outlandish ways who dazzled the bourgeois group when they reached that bizarre place on the shores of the Mediterranean. Not so long before, his intimate friend Federico García Lorca had adopted a somewhat distant stance from him. And, despite the fact that everyone, even Dalí himself, repeatedly claimed that he had been a virgin before he met Gala, in that summer of 1929 he must have had experience in games of doubles and exchanges of identities. A game which would become essential to his own artistic performance.

Federico García Lorca and Anna Maria and Salvador Dalí had played these ambiguous games, even innocently, while their relationship lasted before Gala’s arrival in Cadaqués. Eluard’s wife observed Dalí. He intrigued her. She was the only one who could bear his bouts of hysterical laughter and his eccentric behavior. The rest of the pleasant and highly bourgeois company was exasperated by Dalí.

Gala Eluard saw in this rather absurd character her own particular Nadja, the irrational and possible inspiration for the creative task that lay ahead of her. After all, Gala was a brilliant writer, as her letters and memories show that. Gala was the one who choose Dalí, and not the other way around.

Shorty after that encounter, they started a long-term relationship. They remained together until Gala’s death in 1982. It was not only a story of love and fascination. They were partners in business. There is no doubt that practical and perceptive Gala helped—and even ruled—Dalí’s international career.

Yet, in retrospect, just by reading Dalí’s pages it is clear that Gala was much more than a manager or a model for Dalí: she was his mirror. They were both part of a character that was a combination of Gala and Dalí. Of course, that character would not paint the canvases—Dalí did. But he/she would devise the entire creative project: Gala Salvador Dalí.

In fact, Dalí was not only an amazing painter: he was a uniquely talented character. A painter, a performer, writer, filmmaker, actor… In this amazing and slippery territory there was a place of honor for Gala’s inspired ideas. Together they were unbeatable.

If a relevant part of Dalí’s ideas flourished due to his stays in the United States, one could not stress enough the importance Gala had in Dalí’s North-American adventure.

In the mid 1930s Mrs and Mrs. Dalí began spending longer periods at the United States. The Saint Regis hotel in New York city would become a frequent destination for the couple. By then, Dalí’s was an acclaimed surrealist painter, the most surrealist of Surrealism. And Surrealism was then the most acclaimed avant-garde movement in the East Coast.

Even though Breton had expelled Dalí from the group in 1934, accusing him of having a spirit that was too conservative, in political terms. Dalí responded promptly to the expulsion with his well-known “Le Surrealism c’est moi”. Surrealism is me.

The answer from the group did not take long, in particular from Breton. During one of Dalí’ stays in New York he was called AVIDA DOLLARS –the anagram of Salvador Dalí. The word is that Breton was after the invention.

By 1938 Dalí had earned his fame as notorious ex-member of the group though a recalcitrant surrealist around the world, always a rebel. He was invited to the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris, that very year, to which he contributed his famous “environment” Rainy Taxi , exhibited at the entrance of the gallery.

Dalí was a star in the USA but not known only as a painter. He returned to his early passion for film. He met the Marx Brothers and, more importantly, his passion for cinema crystallized in his very well-known collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock in the film Spellbound, whose dreamlike sequences were created by the surrealist painter.

To a certain extent those settings were related to the scenography he had experimented with in the Dream of Venus , a pavilion presented in New York’s World’s Fair of 1939. That same year Dalí had his solo show at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York and created the libretto, costumes and sets for Bacchanale at The Metropolitan Opera House of the same city. Léonide Massine was in charge of choreography for the occasion.

In the work Dream of Venus Dalí returned to his personal terrors exemplified though lobsters, which become part of the models’ anatomy right on the pelvic zone. Dr. Freud would again occupy the backstage of this mise-en-scene. The use of the lobster in the installation for the pavilion at the New York fair would occupy a physical place charged with sexual connotations. Gala played an important role but not as a model.

By 1939 pictures of the installation Gala in shown as part of the team and of the decision-making process. Indeed, while in some of the snapshots she is seen carrying out manual work—sewing, arranging drapes and giving them form–, in others she appears alongside Dalí observing, giving her opinions—this is how the true artists of Modernity work.

Looking at Eric Schaal’s photographs it becomes clear that by the end of 1930s Gala was more than a muse or a model. Nevertheless, she was a main character in late Dalí canvases, where she appears as a heroine or even like a Virgin by Zurbarán, in his famous Crucifixion painted in 1954 and held at the Metropolitan Museum. Maybe Gala was just performing her own autobiography, which Dalí wrote in his canvases when painting Gala.

In his late years, Dalí turned to a kind of religious realism in his canvases, although he kept his amazing skills as a painter. But he was—and had been—much more than a painter. Like Andy Warhol, before Andy Warhol, Dalí was a “multitask” artist: a painter, a writer, a set designer, an actor, a performer, a publicist, etc.

Like an unexpected Leonardo, Dalí was interested in science. He often lectured on Spanish and French television during the 1960s and 1970s discussing issues that sounded like a Surrealist invention then. Now we know Dalí was discussing an issue that would be more than popular forty years later: DNA.

After Gala’s death in 1982 in Port Lligat, King Juan Carlos I appointed Dalí Marquis of Púbol and he moved to Gala’s Castle.

His museum at Figueres had been inaugurates eight year before her passing away- on September 28th, 1974. Following a fire at Púbol Castle, Dalí moved for good to Figueres, where he died on 23rd January, 1989. He was buried there in his museum mausoleum, the most exquisite surrealist objet of Gala Salvador Dalí’s production.

Estrella de Diego is an essayist, Professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and full member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. She has been a Fulbright fellow at New York University (NYU) and held the King Juan Carlos I Chair (NYU) and the XIII Luis Ángel Arango International Art Chair. She has been awarded the Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorship for 2017–2018. She is the author of numerous books and curator of numerous exhibitions and is — or has been — a member of the board of trustees of the Academia de España in Rome, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the Museo Nacional del Prado and the Instituto Cervantes, among others, and a advisory council member of the Norman Foster Foundation and the Real Colegio Complutense at Harvard. Among other texts related to Gala and Dalí, she is the author of Querida Gala (2003) and curator of the exhibition Gala Salvador Dalí. A Room of One’s Own in Púbol (Fundació Gala Salvador Dalí and MNAC) and has written the introduction to Gala Dalí. The secret life. Unpublished diary, published in Spanish, French and Italian.

Further reading

  • Aguer, Montse, Dalí’s World, London, Goodman, 2009.
  • Dalí, Salvador (1942), The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, New York, Dover Fine Art, 1993.
  • Salvador Dalí: an Illustrated Life, London / Figueres / Madrid, Tate Publishing / Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones Culturales-Ministerio de Cultura, 2007.

Exhibition catalogues about Salvador Dalí

  • Salvador Dalí, the early years, London, South Bank Centre, 1994.
  • Dalí. Mass Culture, Barcelona / Figueres, Fundació La Caixa / Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, 2004.
  • De Diego, Estrella, Gala Salvador Dalí. A Room of One’s Own in Púbol, Barcelona, MNAC-Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, 2018.

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Fundación Juan March

La Fundación Juan March se fundó en 1955 con la misión de fomentar la cultura en España. Más información en march.es