The Spanish painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was one of the best-known and most flamboyant surrealist artists. Possessed with an enormous facility for drawing, he painted his dreams and bizarre moods in a precise illusionistic fashion.
Salvador Dali was born May 11, 1904, near Barcelona, Spain. According to his autobiography, his childhood was characterized by fits of anger against his parents and schoolmates and resultant acts of cruelty. He was a precocious child, producing highly sophisticated drawings at an early age. He studied painting in Madrid, responding to various influences, especially the metaphysical school of painting founded by Giorgio de Chirico, and at the same time dabbling in cubism.
Gradually, Dali began to evolve his own style, which was to execute in an extremely precise manner the strange subjects of his fantasy world. Each object was drawn with painstaking exactness, yet it existed in weird juxtaposition with other objects and was engulfed in an oppressive perspectival space which often appeared to recede too rapidly and tilt sharply upward. He used bright colors applied to small objects set off against large patches of dull color. His personal style was evolved from a combination of influences, but increasingly from his contact with surrealism. The contact was at first through paintings and then through personal acquaintance with the surrealists when he visited Paris in 1928. In 1929, Dali painted some of his finest canvases, when he was still young and excited over his surrealist ideas and had not yet developed so extensively his elaborate personal facade. He began to build up a whole repertoire of symbols, mainly drawn from handbooks of abnormal psychology, stressing sexual fantasies and fetishes.
The surrealists saw in Dali the promise of a break-through of the surrealist dilemma in 1930. Many of the surrealists had broken away from the movement, feeling that direct political action had to come before any mental revolutions. Dali put forth his "Paranoic-Critical method" as an alternative to having to politically conquer the world. He felt that his own vision could be imposed on and color the world to his liking so that it became unnecessary to change it objectively. Specifically, the Paranoic-Critical method meant that Dali had trained himself to possess the hallucinatory power to look at one object and "see" another. On the nonvisual level, it meant that Dali could take a myth which had a generally accepted interpretation and impose upon it his own personal and bizarre interpretation. For example, the story of William Tell is generally considered to symbolize filial trust, but Dali's version had it as a story of castration. This way he had of viewing the world began early when he was told in art school to copy a Gothic virgin and instead drew a pair of scales. It meant that although Dali assumed many of the attitudes of madness this was, at least in part, consciously done.
A key event in Dali's life was his meeting with his wife, Gala, who was at that time married to another surrealist. She became his deliberately cultivated main influence, both in his personal life and in many of his paintings.
Break with the Surrealists
Toward the end of the 1930s, Dali's romantic and flamboyant view of himself began to antagonize the surrealists. There was a final break on political grounds, and André Breton angrily excommunicated Dali from the surrealist movement. Dali continued to be extremely successful commercially, but his seriousness as an artist began to be questioned. He took a violent stand against abstract art, mixed with the fashionable world, and began to paint Catholic subjects in the same tight illusionistic style which had previously described his personal hallucinations.
In 1974, Dali broke with English business manager Peter Moore and had his copyrights sold out from under him by other business managers which gave him none of the profits. In 1980, A. Reynolds Morse of Cleveland, Ohio set up an organization called Friends to Save Dali. Dali was said to have been defrauded out of much of his wealth and the foundation was to put him back on solid financial ground.
In 1983, Dali exhibited a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid, Spain. This show made him immensely famous in Spain and brought him further into favor with the Spanish royal family and major collectors around the world. After 1984, Dali was confined to a wheel chair after suffering injuries as the result of a house fire.
Dali died on January 23, 1989, at Figueras Hospital in Figueras, Spain. Dali was remembered as the subject of controversy and substance, although in his last years, the controversy had more to do with his associates and their dealings then with Dali.
- Dali presents a fascinating though exaggerated vision of himself in his autobiographical writings, the best of which is The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942; rev. ed. 1961). A sober but admiring study is James Thrall Soby, Salvador Dali (1941; 2d rev. ed. 1946). Robert Descharnes, The World of Salvador Dali (trans. 1962), is lavishly illustrated. More recently is Ian Gibson, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali (1998). Biographical information on Dali is available in the 1940 and 1951 issues of Current Biography.
- Dali's obituary appears in the January 24, 1989, issue of the New York Times.