Salvador Dali
Biography of Spanish Surrealist Artist.

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Salvador Dali (1904-89)


Early Life
Surrealist Painting: Dali's "Critical Paranoia"
Bizarre Dream-like Images
Expelled From Surrealism Movement
Mature Works
Reputation as an Artist
Retrospectives, Collections



Salvador Dali, the most eccentric and imaginative figure in Spanish painting, explored Cubism as well as Futurism and Metaphysical Painting, before finally turning to Surrealism. Academy-trained as an artist, with an extraordinary talent for self-publicity, and a huge waxed moustache, he quickly became one of the best known surrealist artists, being renowned for the vivid and bizarre content of his paintings. These are characterized by meticulous attention to detail, virtuoso technique, and highly creative content, along with symbolic Freudian dream imagery. He himself referred to them as "hand-painted dream photographs." In addition to his painting skills, which were strongly influenced by the Old Masters of the Italian Renaissance, his creative talents extended to film-making and photography, as well as jewellery art and theatrical design. He is regarded by most art critics as one of the top 20th century painters of the inter-war period, and many of his paintings are available as prints in the form of poster art. The word 'dali-esque' is now synonymous with the absurd. Dali's greatest paintings include: Seated Girl Seen from the Rear (1925, Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid); The Persistence of Memory (1931, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Giraffe in Flames (1935, Kunstmuseum, Basel); Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (1936, Philadelphia Museum of Art); The Temptation of St Anthony (1946, Musee Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels); Christ of Saint John the Cross (1951, Glasgow Art Gallery, Scotland); The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1952-4, Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida). Dali was also responsible for some innovative surrealist sculpture. His best known works of plastic art include: Mae West Lips Sofa (1937, private collection), and found objects like Lobster Telephone (1936, Tate Collection, London).


Mae West Lips Sofa (1938)

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Early Life

Salvador Dali was a versatile genius, from the same Catalan mould as Picasso (1881-1973) and Joan Miro (1893-1983). He learned his drawing skills at the Madrid Academy of Fine Arts where he studied (1921-4), and again (1925-6). By the time of he left he had already enjoyed a successful solo exhibition at the Dalmau Gallery in Barcelona in November 1925, which Picasso himself had admired. At that time he was painting works that already showed his obsession with the seashore scenes of his childhood, an obsession which he was never to give up (Woman in Front of Rocks, 1926, Milan, private collection). During this early phase he was intent on exploring several different styles of modern art, including analytical Cubism, Metaphysical Painting (pittura metafisica) and Futurism, as well as classical styles from the Spanish nd Dutch Baroque. He was also influenced by Max Klinger (1857-1920), the Leipzig-born symbolist/fantasy painter. During this early period Dali also produced designs for the Ballets Russes run by Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929).

Surrealist Painting: Dali's "Critical Paranoia"

His reading of Freud, however, inclined him towards an art of the unconscious, (see Automatism in Art) and he began to gravitate towards Surrealism. On his second visit to Paris in 1927 (he had met Picasso on his first trip, in 1926) and again in 1928, he met Picasso as well as the leading theorist of the Surrealism movement Andre Breton (1896-1966), previously a Dada activist. It was through them he met Gala Eluard who was to become his companion and a continuing source of inspiration. He actually joined the Surrealist movement in 1929, and later the same year enjoyed a sell-out one-man show at the Galerie Camille Goemans in Paris, for which Andre Breton wrote the catalogue introduction. Works shown included The Enigma of Desire (1929, Zurich, private collection) which illustrated his theory of 'critical paranoia', set out in his book La Femme Visible (1930). Dali's Surrealism involved inducing a hallucinatory state in himself in order to produce images from his subconscious mind, in a form of automatic painting. This process he called "critical paranoia".

Surrealist Films
Dali also collaborated with the avant-garde film-maker Luis Bunuel in the production of Un Chien Andalou (1929), whose notoriously sensational imagery made both men into icons of the surrealist absurd. This film along with his paintings, his eccentricity and his flamboyant exhibitionism, transformed Dali into the public face of Surrealism and one of the most famous modern artists of the 20th century. A second film, L' Age d'Or, was made in 1930.

Despite the promotional hype, Dali's automatic painting was not especially innovative: he was following in the footsteps of numerous artists including Leonardo da Vinci (who had formulated the idea in his Treatise on Painting), and Max Ernst (1891-1976) (who founded the techniques of frottage and decalcomania). Other influences on Dali included works by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) - see, for example, his Song of Love (1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York), and The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914, Private Collection) - and Yves Tanguy (1900-55).

Bizarre Dream-like Images

Even so, once Dali hit upon his signature figurative style of surrealism, his art matured with extraordinary rapidity, and from 1929 to 1937 he produced his greatest 20th century paintings - the ones that made him the world's best known Surrealist. His pictures portray a dream world in which commonplace objects are juxtaposed, deformed or otherwise metamorphosed in a bizarre and irrational fashion. Dali portrayed these images in meticulous detail and usually placed them within bleak sunlit landscapes that were reminiscent of his Catalonian homeland. His powerful oil painting Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War (1936) depicts a grimacing dismembered figure (symbolic of war-torn humanity) grasping upward at itself while holding itself down underfoot. The monstrous face recalls the mythological painting of Saturn devouring one of his children, as previously depicted by Goya. The boiled beans may represent the ancient Catalan offering to the gods. Dali described it as a 'premonition of civil war' and began painting it six months before the Spanish Civil War started.


Expelled From Surrealism Movement

In the late 1930s Dali switched to a more academic style of painting, under the influence of the Renaissance master Raphael, and as a result was heavily criticized (1934) and finally expelled from the Surrealistic movement by Andre Breton, in 1939. From 1940 to 1948 he lived in the United States, where he devoted himself to exhibitionism and making money. On his return to Spain he settled at Port Lligat, in Catalonia, dividing his time between there, Paris and New York, and in 1958 married Gala in a church ceremony.

For another great Catalan modernist, see: Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) the Art Nouveau architect, noted for La Sagrada Familia.

Mature Works

During the period 1950 to 1970, Salvador Dali painted many works with scientific, religious and mythological themes. In the process he experimented with numerous different painting styles - including Dutch Baroque, Surrealism (The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1952-4), Italian Baroque (Christ of St John of the Cross, 1951, Glasgow, Art Gallery), as well as Action Painting - in order to maintain his image as "Mr Surrealism". But these artworks are not as highly regarded as his earlier paintings. This negative reaction by art critics may have been influenced by political considerations (Dali returned to Spain to live under Franco) and also by the increasingly eccentric behaviour of Dali himself. Nevertheless, some paintings remain important, such as The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1952-4) which was Dalí's way of acknowledging the impact of the the new science of atomic physics.

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory is a re-creation of his famous 1931 work The Persistence of Memory, and measures a mere 9 inches by 13 inches. It shows his earlier image fragmented into smaller component elements - mainly blocks - with gaps between them, implying something beneath the surface of the first work. The new imagery represents the uncertain effects of the new atomic bomb on science and humanity.

Reputation As an Artist

Through flirtations with fashionable society, compromises with the powerful in religion and politics, and other forms of attention-seeking, Dali finally made the general public believe in him as the authentic representative of Surrealism (Tuna-Fishing, 1966-7, Marseilles, Paul Ricard Foundation). Thus, Dali's life and work became mingled in a general imposture that might well be considered in itself a work of art.

Despite the critics, Salvador Dali had a huge influence on avant-garde art of the 1930s. In his later years, young painters like Andy Warhol proclaimed Dalí an important influence on Pop art. While remaining a bizarre, elusive individual, Salvador Dali's paintings and sculptures continue to fascinate. He was a unique artist and remains a significant figure in the history of art.

Retrospectives, Collections

A large retrospective of his work was held at the Boymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam in 1970-1, and another in Paris and London in 1981. A Dali museum, promoted by Dali himself, was set up in 1974 in Figueras. He is represented in many of the best art museums in America and Europe, notably the Reina Sofia, Madrid, as well as those in Basel, London, Glasgow, Paris, Chicago, Cleveland, Hartford, New York (Metropolitan Museum and MoMA), Philadelphia and Washington.

Other Surrealist Painters
For biographies of other artists involved in the Surrealism school, please see: Rene Magritte (1888-1978), and Paul Delvaux (1897-1994).

• For more biographies of great Surrealist artists, see: Famous painters.
• For more about Spanish painting, see: Homepage.

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