Salvador Dalí was one of the greatest Spanish painters of all time, and one of the most important figures in the history of the modern art movement. Both Dalí’s extraordinary talent and odd personality helped him to rise above the rest of the twentieth century surrealists.
At the age of ten, Dalí was already learning to paint under prestigious teachers in renowned art schools. Much of Dalí’s work and life was affected by his personality which was regarded as paranoid on one hand, but arrogant and greedy on the other. This was clearly evident upon his second expulsion from the Royal Academy of Art in Madrid, caused by his own assertion that he held greater knowledge of his subject than those who taught him. As a result, he never took his final examinations, yet his achievements show that this was hardly a hindrance to his career in art.
Amongst Dalí’s most famous friends were Pablo Picasso and Sigmund Freud. In the early stages of his career he was greatly inspired by the theories of Freud on the subconscious and the meaning of dreams. Indeed much of the surrealist movement can be paralleled with the work of Freud at that time. The foundation of the surrealist movement was based upon the explanation and interpretation of dreams and the hidden unconscious desires. To bring up images from his subconscious mind, Dalí began to induce hallucinatory states upon himself by a process he described as ‘paranoiac critical’. Once Dalí perfected this method, his painting style matured very quickly and he began to produce the paintings that made him the world’s best known surrealist artist. In 1929 Dalí joined the surrealist movement which consisted of a group of writers and artists led by André Breton. Through this group he met famous poet Paul Eluard and his wife Gala; the woman with whom Dali eventually had an affair and later married. Arguably Dalí’s greatest inspiration and influence came from Gala. She became not only his life partner but also his muse, the focus of much of his work, and his business manager. It has also been said that Gala provided Dalí with stability, which due to his eccentric personality; he was in much need of.
He soon became one of the leading figures of the Surrealist Movement. His painting, Persistence of Memory, 1931, with its iconic melting watches, is still one of the best known surrealist works to date. During this time Dalí began to explore the medium of sculpture creating his famous Lobster Telephone in 1936, which featured a lobster as a receiver. He eventually collaborated with jewellery and clothing designers, including Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel.
By the mid-1930s, Dalí’s relationship with the Surrealists and Breton in particular became strained. In part, this had to do with Breton’s idea that Surrealism should align itself with the Marxist revolution, but more distressing to the Surrealists was Dalí’s fascination with power, specifically his unabashed early admiration for Adolf Hitler. His unwillingness to choose sides in the Spanish Civil War alienated him even more from his former friends. Dismayed by Dalí’s political fence-sitting and embrace of brazen consumption, the Surrealists formally dropped him in 1938. He did, however, exhibit works in international surrealist exhibitions throughout the decade.
Dalí and Gala escaped from Europe to America during World War II, spending 1940-1948 in New York. In 1941 the Museum of Modern Art gave him his first major retrospective exhibition. This was followed in 1942 by the publication of Dalí’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. During his time in America Dalí moved into a new style which eventually became known as his ‘classic’ period, demonstrating a preoccupation with science and religion.
After numerous successful years in America Dalí opened his own museum (Teatro Museo Dalí) in 1974 in his home town of Figueres, Spain. This was followed by retrospectives in Paris and London at the end of the decade.
Dalí’s beloved wife Gala died in 1982 which made him severely depressed and after being burned in a fire in his home in Pubol in 1984 his health began to deteriorate even further. Much of his life at this point was spent in seclusion, first in Pubol and later in the Torre Galatea, a castle in Figueres adjacent to the Teatro Museo. Dalí was nursed twenty-four hours a day here until his death on 23rd January 1989 from heart failure. He left his hefty estate to the Catalan government, the Spanish state, and the Dalí Museum. Dalí was laid to rest in a crypt he had specially built in the basement of the Teatro Museo and his remains, entombed under a glass dome, were embalmed to last 300 years.
Dalí expressed surrealism in everything he said and did. He was not just unconventional and dramatic; he was fantastic, shocking and outrageous! He was an artist who loved to stir up controversy and instigate scandal and upheaval. Like Picasso, Matisse, Miro and Chagall, his place at the pinnacle of modern art history is assured.
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