Adorning college dorm room walls just about everywhere, Catalan artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was one of the most iconic artists of the 20th Century and a leading figure in the Surrealist movement. He still exerts a powerful influence on the world of art today. His creative works spanned the gamut from painting to film to sculpture, but all had his bizarre, psychosexual, dreamlike themes running through them. With his distinctive mustache, pet ocelot and velvet frock coats, Dali always demanded attention wherever he went and was unashamed of his eccentricity.
Sometimes even more well known for his hilarious publicity stunts and outrageous persona than his art, I read once that he dumped a load a rotting fish onto the steps of a gallery where he was having an art exhibition, as well as driving a Rolls Royce from Spain to France stuffed with 500 kilos of cauliflowers. He wrote in his diary at the age of 16: “I’ll be a genius, and the world will admire me. Perhaps I’ll be despised and misunderstood, but I’ll be a genius, a great genius, I’m certain of it.” Dude set his goals and executed the game plan, that’s for sure.
Born into a middle-class family in Figures, Spain, Dali seemed to be an oddball right out the gate. Even his parents believed him to be the reincarnation of his recently deceased younger brother. His mother encouraged his artistic tendencies, and by his late teens entered into a prestigious classical art school in Madrid. He soon became friends with other artists with whom he would later collaborate with: filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and the poet Federico García Lorca. I remember watching in film class the wacko short that he and Buñuel’s made together, Un Chein Andalou (An Andalusian Dog)- what a trip!
Dali eventually moved to Paris, and along with contemporaries Juan Miro and Max Ernst, became one of the most influential members of the Surrealist movement. Deeply obsessed with Freudian-influenced themes of the unconscious, sexuality and religion, the Surrealists often used illogical juxtaposition of imagery to blur the lines between our dreams and reality. Sometimes shocking, at other times hilarious and wondrous, the Surrealists for sure had a completely unique twist on how they viewed the tragicomedy of life. I wonder if Dali’s famous Lobster Telephone sculpture was ever inspired by the Bohemian Gerard Nerval‘s wandering in the park with his pet lobster 100 years earlier. Dali did in fact take his pet anteater for walks around town. Either way, I think it perfectly expresses my own phobias about picking up the phone and having to talk to people… I prefer texting.
In terms of this sexuality, Dali was another head scratcher. As a child, his conservative father would supposedly force Dali to look at photographs of sexual organs grotesquely affected by STDs- leading to a lifetime of conflicted ideas and a fear of human contact. Indeed, its understood that he “hated being touched” and was simply unable to have sexual relationships with any human being. During his art school years, there seemed to be a passionate friendship between himself and the poet Federico García Lorca, but despite a few emotional letters that they sent each other, no evidence exists that they ever had a physical relationship.
He was also deeply in love, even obsessed, with his wife, Gala. Although he considered her his muse, they seemed not to have a traditional marriage at all. Instead, they would throw weekly lavish orgies at their mansion and Dali would simply watch Gala as she cavorted with other men. When she died in 1982, Dali was heartbroken and only descended into a downward spiral of depression and failing health until his own death in 1989.
Besides his masterful art and hysterical, attention-grabbing antics, the best thing about Salvador Dali, to me, was his embrace of being an outsider. He didn’t just embrace it, he flaunted it it in a very public way. Though I do think, like Andy Warhol after him, he used his outrageous proclamations and stunts to self promote his works. However I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with that, an artist has to make a living after all. And let’s face it, most art openings are just full of people standing around drinking wine and eating cheese. I’d be far more entertained if a large truck dumped a load of rotting fish onto everybody. The point being: be yourself. Although you may not win in the kookiness competition against Dali (probably there’s not many who would), there’s nothing to lose by hiding who you are. Dress, act, think, write, paint, sing, walk how the fuck you like. People might just think you’re genius…