Fully deserving of his visionary status, Salvador Dalí observed the 20th century through his own unique gaze, writes Alison Lee.
Born on May 11th 1904 in the Catalan town of Figueras, Dalí was the son of a rich upper-class lawyer. His family doted on him, but he thought of himself as a replacement for his older brother who died before Dalí was born. However, his talent for painting was encouraged from an early age.
The trauma of his mother’s premature death drove Dalí to paint in an increasingly unconventional style as he tried to express his turmoil of emotions. He felt impatient at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in San Fernando, Madrid, where his teachers encouraged students to paint in the impressionist style, instead of his beloved cubism painters such as Picasso and Juan Gris.
Freud’s infamous book, The Interpretation of Dreams, was the catalyst for the development of Dalí’s unique style. He began reading French surrealist literature and looking at the world through the eyes of a psychoanalyst, becoming more and more fascinated by dreams and the inner workings of the mind.
However, political tensions were growing in Spain and the government feared a Catalan uprising. Dalí, proud of his heritage, was a prime target for political oppression. He was suspended from the academy for inciting a student protest – despite evidence that he was innocent. He was also imprisoned for a month on a charge of political subversion.
Dalí was eventually expelled from the Academy for good- this had more to do with his ego than politics though. He refused to do his Theory of Art exam, arguing his teachers weren’t good enough to judge him.
Dalí developed his own surrealist style in Paris after his expulsion, influenced by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. His paintings were characterised by weird machines, fantastical landscapes, distorted animals and female figures. He also dabbled in film-making, shooting Un Chien Andalou with Luis Bunuel (this film inspired lyrics for the Pixies song ‘Debaser’.
He refused to do his Theory of Art exam, arguing his teachers weren’t good enough to judge him
In 1929 he painted his first real surrealist work, ‘Dismal Sport’, and officially exhibited as a surrealist for the first time. His works horrified the general public, as they often graphically alluded to such ‘sinful’ practises as sex and masturbation.
Dalí eventually began to turn a profit as more and more rich upper-class from around the world begin to settle in Paris. Several clever and bizarre publicity stunts caught their attention (such as arriving at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, 1936 dressed in a deep-sea diving suit) and Dalí’s rise to fame continued.
Although Dalí was apolitical, his views leaned more towards fascism than the communism advocated by his fellow surrealists. He was expelled from the surrealist movement for political reasons in 1935, but this didn’t diminish his popularity. However the outbreak of World War II forced him to flee to the USA where he spent the next eight years.
Dalí’s personal life was never simple. He idolised his wife Gala, despite her numerous infidelities and tyrannical behaviour towards him. Towards the end of his life, Dalí was widely regarded by his former surrealist friends as having ‘sold out’; (his new circle of celebrity companions, including Andy Warhol and John Lennon, didn’t help). These tensions caused Dalí’s health to deteriorate greatly and he died in 1989 in Catalonia, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, after a long period of living practically as an invalid.
Despite being one of the most intriguing and enigmatic artists of the 20th century, the works and life of Salvador Dalí are still surrounded by controversy. Some argue that he was too greedy, too narcissistic, and too eager for fame, yet what is almost unanimously true is that he was one of the most appealing painters of recent history.