Salvador Dali was born May 11, 1904, in Figueras, Spain, a small town on the Ampurdan Plain in northern Catalonia. His father, a notary, had a summer house in nearby Cadaques, a village where the painter, Dali, always kept a studio.
In his early work, he absorbed and integrated and styles of Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. He later steeped himself in the Renaissance masters, particularly Vermeer and Leonardo, whose techniques and imagery appear constantly in Dali's paintings. But Surrealism allowed him to ally the finish associated with academic painting with the macabre evocations of the dream world of the unconscious.
In Madrid of the early '20s, Dali was well aware of the turmoil in European art, the advent of Dada in Paris, the Futurists in Italy, and the metaphysical painting of de Chirico.
Dali's only companions at school were, needless to say, the radicals: Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet, and Luis Bunuel, who later, in 1928 and in Paris, collaborated with Dali on The Andalusian Dog, the first classic of Surrealist film and The Golden Age in 1931.
Dali held nothing back in his own exploration of the subconscious. He embraced his own obsessions and analyzed them, mode of his paranoiac visions a deliberate system of interpretation and brought into the open the worst nightmares of the twentieth century.
No matter what the pathology involved (here was a man of brilliant intellect and talent who became obsessed with psychoanalytic theories, case histories and psychotic imagery), Dali forged this chaotic and infantile psychic material, the "stuff of dreams", into an art filled with Mediterranean light, strange beauty, liberating influence and, ultimately, spiritual inspiration.
Dali's painting came under the influence of Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, but like his fellow Catalan, Miro, Dali pursued his own ideal and became a hero, later a celebrity, among the Surrealists. Finally in 1928 Dali joined Miro, who introduced him to Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and other Surrealists.
The Surrealists sought to unleash the subconscious, to break away from the limitations of ordinary thinking and seeing, to penetrate the essence of reality by penetrating the inner world of the psyche. They acknowledged the discoveries of Freud and sought to extend the science of the subconscious through all forms of art.
The Surrealists' main tools were non-rational approaches to creation: automatic writing and drawing, cultivating delirium and trance states, seeking the inner reality in ordinary surroundings and events, as described at length in Breton's classic novel, Nadja.
Dali officially joined the group in 1929. When Paul Eluard brought his wife, Elena or Gala known as "the surrealist muse", to visit Dali at Cadaques, the two immediately fell in love and Gala became Dali's constant companion, model and inspiration until her death.
From 1940 to 1955 Dali lived in North America, being the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941. He published his autobiography in 1942 and designed a number of sets and costumes for the theatre. After his return to Spain, he produced religious and historical paintings.
His genius for self-publicity has made him the authentic representative of Surrealism for many people.
"THE ONLY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MADMAN AND ME IS THAT I AM NOT MAD."
- Salvador Dali
In 1933-34 Dali produced a masterpiece series of etchings to illustrate this key Surrealist book. Little is known of its author, the Count of Lautreamont, except that he achieved the Surrealist ideal of creating in 1868 a work of art in waking dream state, completely unfettered by any standard of style or content, much less propriety or "good taste". Filled with contorted imagery and graphic violence, the book was a natural for Dali's artistic delirium.
Dali used the figures and themes of his Angelus interpretation for many of the etchings. For instance, the two figures, a couple, reduced to bones, particularly ribs, hip bones, leg bones, with traces of flesh and viscera, is one spin-off from the man and wife pair in Millet's painting.
The thin ghostly lines of the forty-two different images which comprise the set evoke powerful emotions in the viewer. Note that the suspension in space of the "atomized" parts became a dominant theme in the monumental religious paintings of the post-World War II Dali. These two etchings graphically portray Dali's favorite Maldororean and Freudian psychic emblems. Dali constantly blended the images of food-eating-oral gratification with sensuality-sex romantic coupling.
Although these contortions seem revolting and shocking to us, Dali found them liberating. To a journalist who expressed surprise that Dali painted Gala with lamb chops on her shoulder, he said, "I like chops and I like my wife; I see no reason why I should not paint them together."
This important etching is a study for the famous 1934 painting of the same title. This piece is a classic of surreal juxtaposition and Dali's anti-romanticism. With this desiccated body, propped by crutches, sporting drumsticks for feet, a large wrapped sausage for breasts, Dali flaunts the images of decay and delirium in the face of both classical and romantic thematic painting.
The child evidently represents a young Dali, perhaps guilty or fearful of the woman's attraction. The piece demonstrates the aim of critical paranoia to manifest with utmost clarity the mental processes of association and transformation of reality, nor use innuendo or concealed references.
This etching links several of Dali's favorite obsessive symbols in a trick double image of a face: roses replace cheeks, meat chops are lips, spoons are eyes and so on. Visual and literary puns are involved, since "cheeks red as roses" is a poetic and folkloric cliché.
Dali experimented from this time throughout his career with convertible images, another feature of the "paranoiac-critical" method. He perfected the technique so that some of his large canvases "read" as having two entirely unrelated images, a larger pattern made of smaller objects in the painting.
After Dali broke with the Surrealists, Breton commented in print in 1939 regarding this technique that Dali's critical-paranoiac method had reduced the painter "to concocting entertainments on the level of crossword puzzles".
Dali's illustrations for The Maze by Maurice Sandoz published in 1945 show his versatility in literary modes, collaborating with the author to portray fanciful scenes and plot elements. Note the perspectives, faceless characters, sinuous bodies, and deft line drawing in the pieces.
An ancestral Scottish castle, an 18th century maze, locked rooms at night, torchlight processions - all the paraphernalia of a rousing Gothic ghost story.
One characteristic of Dali's art is his love of the miniature which he produced again and again with masterly ease. The illustrations Dali developed for The Maze are typical in this sense. The fact that they were published in 1945 places them relatively early in his career which is considered by some to be his more important phase.
These illustrations mark a middle ground between the raw, provocative etchings for Les Chants de Maldoror and the illustration masterpiece of Dali's later career, his Divine Comedy by Dante.
This great Italian poem gave Dali the opportunity to exercise imagination (to match both Dante's Hell and his Paradise) and his passion for system and order.
The final portrait reads as another image - the double or transformation of the portrait - when shown upside down, a technique that dates back to Dali's surrealist preoccupation with the "paranoiac face".
It is safe to say that from any point of view Dali was not ordinary or normal. On that account we can all agree. Why Dali himself would insist upon it!
But was he a charlatan? A fraud? A courageous and individualistic documentor of uncharted realms of the subconscious mind, or a gifted theorist of Freud's ideas, which he rendered in excruciatingly exquisite detail, the more to annoy our deepest sensibilities?
Dali and his fellow Surrealists in Paris felt that theirs ws an aesthetically bankrupt age, that artists were deaf, dumb and blind robots and that corruption and decomposition abounded in every field.
But why images of carnality, putrefaction and cannibalism, objects covered with creepy crawly bugs? What could possess someone to think such a thing, never mind paint it, let alone soar to the top of the artistic charts? Let's face it, Salvador Dali was responsible for wrenching the guts of this century in a way that they had hitherto not been wrenched.
The horde of black ants, which one frequently finds clustering upon one object or another in many of Dali's paintings, are a reminder of the inexorable force of putrefaction and decay, of being eaten and transformed. Dali insisted that one must not be revolted by fragmented details, but strive to see the larger picture.
Behind every so-called act of destruction is a resurrection, a transformation, and although we perceive decay or the piercing of flesh with horror, on a deeper, subconscious level, another truth entirely is conveyed, a truth which only our polite, conscious minds find revolting.
During the later years of his life, Dali became increasingly interested in more traditional and classic western themes, especially those which dealt with religious and revelatory experience, Pictures of Chris on the cross, and of the Madonna and Child feature often. His interest in sagging, amorphous shapes seems to divert to crisper, more solidly defined themes.
Shall we thank Dali for his contributions to our nightmares? Perhaps. Nightmares confronted oftentimes lose their terror and are tamed, revealing themselves to be simply aspects of something more benign.
Even if Dali were to be regarded through the clinical lens of Freudian analysis and found to be wildly insecure, impotent - as evidenced by the abundance of flaccid objects populating a pessimistic and atmosphereless landscape - and, above all, found to be sadomasochistic, one can still admire this creative genius who cut an unequivocal swath through all that is deemed sacrosanct, while simultaneously earning for himself medals of honor and recognition of achievement from the countries of France and Spain.
Lastly, in the face of such a self-created caricature of blatant egoism and apparent charlatanism, can one confidently trust that the artist will lead us down an objective path, and not enmire us in the seductive intricacies of his own pathological constructs? We are left with the artist's final and most galling enigma: Salvador Dali himself.
This 1976 lithograph presents the metaphysical plain so common in Dali's paintings and so essential to his outlook. It also carries the themes of suspension in space, the transformability of content (a robed figure transforming into a tree, as in Greek myths; rocks and waterfall that form a face), and the isolated surreal object, the rose.
There are also the dreamlike tree within a tree, the shadows that suggest time passing, the mysterious white-gowned girl with her jump rope on the empty plain . . . Even the title refers to paintings of Magritte and de Chirico, those premier metaphysical painters.
Here the monk or friar holds Dali's ever-present crutch-wand and a lantern with butterflies, which suggest beauty that is fleeting, short-lived. The face is replaced by a soft clock face, like those in the famous painting The Persistence of Memory, painted in 1931 during Dali's surrealist period and destined to become his trademark.
The jeweled and flowered halo may be a symbol of illumination - in sleep, dreams or spiritual delirium. Perhaps in Dali's lucid dream state, the free-floating friar rises with lucidity above the grey smoke of ordinary sleep, oblivion, ignorance.
Here is yet another portrayal of Dali's wife by the Bay of Cadaques, now as a Roman or French divinity, with sceptre and globe as symbols of majesty. Grasses and wheat in the foreground suggest on earth mother, also, goddess of fertility.
The pencil drawing in the sky, which appears to be a try-out of another posture, might also be an angelic figure of annunciation. Gala's pose is reminiscent of that in the famous painting Atomic Leda, in which she floats above a classical stone pedestal and greets a swan, against the sweeping backdrop of the Bay.
These pastel-colored prints present Dali's versions from his later work of traditional literary themes and favorite mythological images. The unicorn for Dali was associated with virginity and chastity, as in the Medieval allegory of the Unicorn Tapestries. In "The Lance of Chivalry", Dali returns to a favorite legendary theme of the knight errant Roger, rescuing the maiden, Angelica, here with his beloved Mediterranean rocks in the landscape.
Wisdom may be no more than a drawer to open in a philosopher's head, though it may be a path open to performers and circus people - jokers like Dali himself.
This subtly-colored lithograph is a fine example of Dali's synthesis of visual techniques from the old masters with the mysteries of surrealist and metaphysical painting. The animals, plants and landscape are portrayed with complete naturalism, with a suggestion of Audubon-style nature painting.
Other dream-like oddities, in the paranoiac vein, are the negative-space figure formed by the rock arch, the apparently-unrelated, Medieval-like figures in the background, and the pencil drawing of a mounted figure, floating across the plain as a shadowless phantom.
This print fulfills the Surrealist program stated by Andre Breton in the 1930s: "I believe in the future resolution of two states (in appearance so contradictory), dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, 'surrealite'."
Always returning to the transformable image, the double or multiple entendre, Dali here works in the medium of cast silver bas-relief. The composition of his painting Gala Looking at the Mediterranean Sea, painted at Cadaques, transforms into an elegant sculptural piece. The image of Christ on the Cross is taken from another monumental work, Dali's canvas of the vision of St. John of the Cross.
Typically, not satisfied with this transformation of media, Dali further adds the "paranoiac" phantom image of Abe Lincoln. What, we might ask, is the relationship between Gala, the Crucifixion and Honest Abe? Is Dali series about this?
"THE DAY WHEN PEOPLE TAKE MY WORK SERIOUSLY, THEY WILL REALIZE THAT MY PAINTING IS LIKE AN ICEBERG, WHICH ONLY SHOWS A TENTH OF ITSELF ABOVE WATER."
- Salvador Dali
Here in platinum cast is the classic figure of satire and illusionism in Spanish literature. Dali must have had an interest in the character who wished to believe in the great principles of knighthood and who was famous for jousting against windmills.
After all, when Quixote was asked whether he really thought all windmills were giants, he answered approximately, "No, I do not believe all windmills are giants. But I know that they might be giants, and so I am always on my guard."
Likewise, Dali felt himself to be worlds away from ordinary perception, and even beyond the reach of most modern artists and philosophers with his highly cultivated, conscious and deliberate delirium of inner perceptions.
In this magnificent, colorful work of collaborative art and craft, Dali jokes with the style of Picasso and Braque. His Mediterranean still life has all the standard elements - dead fish, a vase, guitar, cubist table with drapery, dissociated walls and windows.
This large tapestry was produced from a painting Dali created in 1927. However, it was transposed into tapestry form using wool more than fifty years later.
To see the Dalinian element, viewers should stand back from the tapestry, and let the eyes go slightly out of focus. One can thus look for the vague, double image figure, constructed from the still life objects.