Biography of Salvador Dalí, Surrealist Artist

Portrait of artist Salvador Dali with large mustache, resting his head on a cane
Salvador Dali (1904-1989), Spanish Surrealist Painter Resting His Head on a Cane, ca. 1950s-1960s. Bettmann / Getty Images

Spanish Catalan artist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) became known for his surreal creations and his flamboyant life. Innovative and prolific, Dali produced paintings, sculpture, fashion, advertisements, books, and film. His outlandish, upturned mustache and bizarre antics made Dalí a cultural icon. Although shunned by members of the surrealism movement, Salvador Dali ranks among the world's most famous surrealist artists.

Childhood

Black and white photo of Salvador Dalí as a child in a ruffled shirt
Painter Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) as a Child c. 1906. Apic / Getty Images

Salvador Dalí was born in Figueres, Catalonia, Spain on May 11, 1904. Named Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, Marquis of Dalí de Púbol, the child lived in the shadow of another son, also named Salvador. The dead brother "was probably a first version of myself but conceived too much in the absolute," Dali wrote in his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. Dalí believed that he was his brother, reincarnated. Images of the brother often appeared in Dali’s paintings.

Dalí’s autobiography may have been fanciful, but his stories suggest a strange, haunted childhood filled with rage and disturbing behaviors. He claimed that he bit the head off a bat when he was five and that he was drawn to – but cured of – necrophilia.

Dalí lost his mother to breast cancer when he was sixteen. He wrote, “I could not resign myself to the loss of a being on whom I counted to make invisible the unavoidable blemishes of my soul."

Education

White floating shapes and a transparent torso with veins against a blue sky
Early Work by Salvador Dali: Inaugural Gooseflesh (Cropped Detail), 1928, Oil on Cardboard, 76 x 63,2 cm. Franco Origlia / Getty Images

Dalí’s middle-class parents encouraged his creativity. His mother had been a designer of decorative fans and boxes. She entertained the child with creative activities such as molding figurines out of candles. Dalí’s father, an attorney, was strict and believed in harsh punishments. However, he provided learning opportunities and arranged a private exhibition of Dali’s drawings in their home.

When Dali was still in his teens, he held his first public exhibition at the Municipal Theatre in Figueres. In 1922, he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art in Madrid. During this time, he dressed as a dandy and developed the flamboyant mannerisms that brought him fame in later life. Dalí also met progressive thinkers such as filmmaker Luis Buñuel,  poet Federico García Lorca, architect Le Corbusier, scientist Albert Einstein, and composer Igor Stravinsky.

Dalí's formal education ended abruptly in 1926. Faced with an oral exam in art history, he announced, "I am infinitely more intelligent than these three professors, and I therefore refuse to be examined by them." Dalí was promptly expelled.

Dalí's father had supported the young man's creative efforts, but he could not tolerate his son's disregard for social norms. Discord escalated in 1929 when the deliberately provocative Dalí exhibited The Sacred Heart, an ink drawing that contained the words “Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of My Mother." His father saw this quote in a Barcelona newspaper and expelled Dalí from the family home.

Marriage

Salvador Dalí and his wife embrace behind a bouquet of roses
Artist Salvador Dalí and His Wife Gala in 1939. Bettmann / Getty Images

Still in his mid-twenties, Dalí met and fell in love with Elena Dmitrievna Diakonova, wife of the surrealistic writer Paul Éluard. Diakonova, also known as "Gala," left Éluard for Dalí. The couple married in a civil ceremony in 1934 and renewed their vows in a Catholic ceremony in 1958. Gala was ten years older than Dalí. She handled his contracts and other business affairs and served as his muse and life-long companion.

Dali had flings with younger women and erotic attachments to men. Nevertheless, he painted romanticized, mystical portraits of Gala. Gala, in turn, appeared to accept Dalí's infidelities.

In 1971, after they'd been married for nearly forty years, Gala withdrew for weeks at a time, staying in an 11th century Gothic castle Dalí bought for her in Púbol, Spain. Dalí was permitted to visit only by invitation.

Suffering dementia, Gala began to give Dali a non-prescription medication that damaged his nervous system and caused tremors that effectively ended his work as a painter. In 1982, she died at age 87 and was buried at the Púbol castle. Deeply depressed, Dalí lived there for the remaining seven years of his life.

Dalí and Gala never had children. Long after their deaths, a woman born in 1956 said that she was Dalí's biological daughter with legal rights to part of his estate. In 2017, Dalí's body (with mustache still intact) was exhumed. Samples were taken from his teeth and hair. DNA tests refuted the woman's claim.

Surrealism

Painting of melting watches in a barren landscape with distant cliffs and ocean.
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali,1931, Oil on Canvas, 24.1 x 33 cm. Getty Images

As a young student, Salvador Dali painted in many styles, from traditional realism to Cubism. The surrealistic style he became famous for emerged in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

After leaving the academy, Dali made several trips to Paris and met Joan Miró, René Magritte, Pablo Picasso, and other artists who experimented with symbolic imagery. Dalí also read Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories and began to paint images from his dreams. In 1927, Dalí completed Apparatus and Hand, which is considered his first major work in the surrealistic style.

A year later, Dalí worked with Luis Buñuel on the 16-minute silent film, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). The Parisian Surrealists expressed astonishment over the film's sexual and political imagery.  André Breton, poet and founder of the surrealism movement, invited Dalí to join their ranks.

Inspired by Breton's theories, Dalí explored ways to use his unconscious mind to tap into his creativity. He developed a "Paranoic Creative Method" in which he induced a paranoid state and painted "dream photographs." Dali's most famous paintings, including The Persistence of Memory (1931) and Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936), used this method.

As his reputation grew, so did the upturned mustache that became Salvador Dali's trademark.

Salvador Dalí and Adolf Hitler

Surreal painting of a melting telephone, a bat, and a torn photo of Hitler on a dinner plate
The Enigma of Hitler: Salvador Dali's Reaction to Munich Conference, 1939, Oil on Canvas, 95 x 141 cm. Original Caption: In the foreground of a beach scene at Monte Carlo, Dali painted a huge soup plate in which rests a miniature of Hitler, along with a number of beans. Dominating the picture is a telephone receiver, partly corroded. From a gnarled branch hangs a ghostly umbrella. Two bats are featured in the picture; one dangling beneath the telephone, another dragging an oyster from the plate. The whole represents Dali's reaction when he heard of the Munich conference, while staying at Monte Carlo. The umbrella and globule of water dripping from the mouthpiece indicate that it was a rainy day. The bat's are symbolical of the Dark Ages. Bettmann / Getty Images

In the years leading to World War II, Dalí feuded with André Breton and clashed with members of the surrealist movement. Unlike Luis Buñuel, Picasso, and Miró, Salvador Dalí did not publicly denounce the rise of fascism in Europe.

Dali claimed that he did not associate with Nazi beliefs, and yet he wrote that "Hitler turned me on in the highest." His indifference to politics and his provocative sexual behaviors stirred outrage. In 1934, his fellow surrealists held a "trial" and officially expelled Dalí from their group. 

Dalí declared, "I myself am Surrealism," and continued to pursue antics designed to attract attention and sell art.

The Enigma of Hitler, which Dali completed in 1939, expresses the dark mood of the era and suggests a preoccupation with the rising dictator. Psychoanalysts have offered various interpretations of the symbols Dali used. Dalí himself remained ambiguous.

Declining to take a stand on world events, Dali famously said, "Picasso is a communist. Neither am I."

Dalí in the USA

White free-form structure with sculptures of mermaids
Salvador Dalí’s "Dream of Venus" Pavillion at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Sherman Oaks Antique Mall / Getty Images

Expelled by the European surrealists, Dali and his wife Gala traveled to the United States, where their publicity stunts found a ready audience. When invited to design a pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, Dali proposed "genuine explosive giraffes." The giraffes were nixed, but Dali's “Dream of Venus” pavilion did include bare-breasted models and an enormous image of a naked woman posing as Botticelli’s Venus.

Dalí’s “Dream of Venus” pavilion represented surrealism and Dada art at its most outrageous. By combining images from revered Renaissance art with crude sexual and animal images, the pavilion challenged convention and mocked the established art world.

Dalí and Gala lived in the United States for eight years, stirring scandals on both coasts. Dali's work appeared in major exhibitions, including the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also designed dresses, ties, jewelry, stage sets, store window displays, magazine covers, and advertising images. In Hollywood, Dali created the creepy dream scene for Hitchcock's 1945 psychoanalytic thriller, Spellbound.

Later Years

Black and white photograph of artist Salvador Dali clutching a clock
Spanish Surrealist Artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) Poses With a Clock at his Home in Spain, 1955. Charles Hewitt / Getty Images

Dalí and Gala returned to Spain in 1948. They lived at Dali's studio home in Port Lligat in Catalonia, traveling to New York or Paris in the winter.

For the next thirty years, Dali experimented with a variety of mediums and techniques. He painted mystical crucifixion scenes with images of his wife, Gala, as the Madonna. He also explored optical illusions, trompe l'oeil, and holograms.

Rising young artists like Andy Warhol praised Dali. They said that his use of photographic effects foretold the Pop Art movement. Dalí's paintings The Sistine Madonna (1958) and Portrait of My Dead Brother (1963) look like enlarged photographs with seemingly abstract arrays of shaded dots.The images take form when viewed from a distance.

However, many critics and fellow artists dismissed Dali's later work.They said that he squandered his mature years on kitschy, repetitive, and commercial projects. Salvador Dali was widely viewed as a popular culture personality rather than a serious artist.

Renewed appreciation for Dali's art surfaced during the centennial of his birth in 2004. An exhibition titled “Dalí and Mass Culture” toured major cities in Europe and the United States. Dali's endless showmanship and his work in film, fashion design, and commercial art were presented in the context of an eccentric genius reinterpreting the modern world.

Dalí Theatre and Museum

Round tower and low building topped with egg shapes
The Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres, Catalunya, Spain. Luca Quadrio / Getty Images

Salvador Dalí died of heart failure on January 23, 1989. He is buried in a crypt below the stage of the Dalí Theatre-Museum (Teatro-Museo Dalí) in Figueres, Catalona, Spain. The building, which is based on a Dalí design, was constructed on the site of the Municipal Theatre where he exhibited as a teenager. 

The Dalí Theatre-Museum contains works that span the artist's career and includes items that Dalí created especially for the space. The building itself is a masterpiece, said to be the world's largest example of surrealist architecture.

Visitors to Spain can also tour the Gala-Dalí Castle of Púbol and Dalí's studio home in Portlligat, two of many painterly places around the world.

Sources

  • Dalí, Salvador. Maniac Eyeball: The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dalí. Edited by Parinaud André, Solar, 2009.
  • Dalí, Salvador. The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. Translated by Haakon M. Chevalier, Dover Publications; Reprint edition, 1993.
  • Jones, Jonathan. "Dali's enigma, Picasso's protest: the most important artworks of the 1930s." The Guardian, 4 March 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/04/dali-enigma-picasso-protest-most-important-artworks-1930s.
  • Jones, Jonathan. "Salvador Dalí's surreal dalliance with Nazism." The Guardian, 23 Sept. 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/sep/23/salvador-dali-nazism-wallis-simpson.
  • Meisler, Stanley. “The Surreal World of Salvador Dalí.” Smithsonian Magazine, Apr. 2005, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-surreal-world-of-salvador-dali-78993324/.
  • Ridingsept, Alan. “Unmasking a Surreal Egotist.” The New York Times, 28 Sept. 2004, www.nytimes.com/2004/09/28/arts/design/unmasking-a-surreal-egotist.html?_r=0.
  • Stolz, George. “The Great Late Salvador Dalí.” Art News, 5 Feb. 2005, www.artnews.com/2005/02/01/the-great-late-salvador-dal/.