“I am not strange. I am just not normal.”
Throughout the course of Salvador Dalí’s life and career it was increasingly hard to distinguish the artist from the showman-cum-self publicist and exhibitionist. Dalí was many things – artist, sculptor, photographer, clothing & object designer, film-maker, writer and poet … and in his later years a facilitator of fake copies of his own work!
Early on in his artistic apprenticeship Dalí began by taking the conventional path, studying the old masters (especially Raphael, Velázquez and Vermeer) which honed his ultra realistic technique. Dabbling initially in Fauvism (inspired by Matisse), he gravitated towards the iconoclastic Surrealists. The Surrealist movement’s insistence on the primacy of the unconscious as a precondition to creativity neatly fused with his own views which had been shaped by his readings of Freud. Typically though Dalí forged his own self-referential brand of Surrealism which he termed the paranoiac-critical method.
Dalí visited America (New York) for the first time in 1934 where he was enthusiastically embraced as “the embodiment of Surrealism”. After the Nazis invaded France in 1940 Dalí fled back to New York, where he sat out the war.
A mania for shock and outrage
The dandyish Dalí found America the ideal milieu in indulge in his predilection for shocking and scandalising the public. Numbered among the periodical, zany antics and pranks pulled by Dalí and his “collaborator-in-crime”, his much vilified Russian émigré wife Gala, were:
▹ attending a masquerade party with Gala dressed as the Lindbergh baby and he as the kidnapper (a grievous miscalculation by the Dalís as the heinous celebrity crime was still fresh in American minds, requiring the artist to afterwards beg forgiveness for the appalling taste of his stunt)
▹ attending a “Dalí Ball” in his honour wearing a glass case displaying a bra
▹ organising an event in a Manhattan bookshop in 1962 where he signed copies of his book in a hospital bed whilst he was wired up to a brain wave machine.
Dalí delighted in over-the-top, exhibitionist displays of eccentricity. As he got older his shtick included prancing round with exotic wild animals on a leash (exotic animals have long been the accessory du jour for celebrities). He was well known for taking his pet South American ocelot with him on luxury cruises and to swanky restaurants. Photos also show him walking a giant anteater around the streets of New York on a lead as if it was the family dog.
Dalí’s ‘oddball’ gimmicks were all part of the artist’s “carefully cultivated image of a madman”. The prevalence of photos of Dalí with chickens or other objects on his head, etc. points to the contrived nature of his eccentricity. Dalí’s appearances before the camera, unkempt hair, imperious piercing eyes and trademark extravagantly curled moustache, added to the image of an unhinged persona.
Dalí’s enfant terrible behaviour (a condition that persisted his whole life!), whilst good for keeping him in the public eye and boosting sales, nonetheless alienated many in the art world. The Surrealists eventually disowned the Catalan artist for his egomaniacal antics and his blatant and shameless exhibitionism and commercialism. In 1939, Andre Breton, the founder of the Surrealist movement, gave Dalí the nickname Avida Dollars (an anagram of “Salvador Dalí”) which can be translated as “eager for dollars”.
Some observers have noted that the Surrealists’ reasons for rejecting Dalí had also to do with his increasingly apolitical position in the wake of the rising tide of fascism in the 1930s (going so far as to suggest that Dalí was soft on Nazism). Breton and other left-wing members of the movement, by contrast to Dalí, had used their Surrealist writing and art to attack the direction taken by Hitler and Mussolini. Later when Dalí happily returned to live in post-war Spain under the uncompromising dictatorship of Franco, he was further howled down by the Leftist artists sympathetic to communism.
Spending long periods in America (and specifically Hollywood) from the late 1930s allowed Dalí to continue his interest and involvement in film. Even before first coming to America he was very much into cinema. In 2007 the Figueres-based Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, in conjunction with the Tate Modern, held an exhibition called ‘Dali and Film’ in London which details his long association with film. In the late 1920s-early 1930s he had made two polemically radical films with Luis Bunuel, a later master director of the screen (Un Chien andalou and L’Age d’or).
After coming in contact with Hollywood, Dalí, through his friendship with Harpo Marx, worked on writing of a screenplay for a Marx brothers movie to be called ‘Giraffes on Horseback Salad’ (planned scenes included gas mask-wearing giraffes and Chico in a deep-sea diving suit playing the piano bore the unmistakable Dalí touch). Plans for the movie were unfortunately scuttled after Groucho put the kibosh on it.
During the years he lived in America, Dalí worked with Hollywood luminaries of the calibre of Hitchcock and Disney. The Spanish artist, surprisingly for many in the US, became very good friends with Walt Disney. Walt and Sal collaborated on a short cartoon (Destino) but the project was not completed by them (possibly because Dalí’s ideas were “too explicit” for Disney). With Hitch, on Spellbound (a psychological crime thriller), Dalí created the artistic set for the dream sequence scene. He also later worked with director Vincente Minnelli on Father of the Bride creating some characteristic Dalí motifs.
At the Tate Modern exhibition back in 2007 one of the Dalí paintings that caught my attention for being somewhat incongruous was a rather conservative (for Dalí!) portrait of Hollywood movie mogul Jack L Warner*. I wasn’t aware at the time but apparently the powerful Warner Brothers studio head was also a friend of Dalí. A strange association I thought but his estranged, one-time friend Luis Bunuel in his autobiography opined that Dalí was always attracted to the company of multi-millionaires (so much so he became one! … Dalí left an estate worth around US$32m). Cecil B De Mille was another Hollywood establishment heavyweight that Dalí cultivated a friendship with.
A further surprise for me at the Tate ‘Dalí and Film’ exhibition was to see how small many of the Catalan’s artworks were. For example, Dalí’s Persistence of Memory (AKA ‘Melting Clocks’), one of his most famous and most referenced paintings, stands at a mere 10″ x 13″, virtually a miniature!
Dalí was praised for his avant-garde work in the thirties and universally admired for his artistic technical virtuosity. But by the fifties and sixties most of that distinctive originality had dried up. Influential art critic Robert Hughes summarised Dali’s later oeuvre as “kitschy repetition of old motifs or vulgarly pompous piety on a Cinemascope scale”. By this time Dalí’s unchecked commercialism had overshadowed all vestiges of his artistic integrity (he had stooped to doing TV ads for Lanvin Chocolates, designing logos for Chupa Chups, etc)
Controversy continued to dog Dalí into his seventies and eighties. As he got older and frailer he became embroiled in forgery scandals. He resorted to signing thousands of blank canvases (possibly he was coerced into this by the manipulative Gala and other ‘hangers-ons’ close to him in their haste to cash in on the famed Dalí name). To this day fakes and frauds of Dalí’s paintings and lithographs (some with real signatures) proliferate around the world with countless numbers of unsuspecting buyers finding themselves lumbered with inauthentic Dalís.
PostScript: The Dalí style
Dalí’s art is characteristically laden with ideography, much of it religious (eg, several on Gala as Madonna, one coupling her with Dalí as a monk, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus); often his landscapes are populated by bizarre animal symbols (eg, burning giraffes; elephants and horses with extremely long but thin (stilt-like) legs (The Temptation of St Anthony). Some works border on the pornographic (eg, a dismembered nude girl being sodomised by rhinoceros horns!?!) and there is a onanistic element to some of his paintings (eg, The Great Masturbator). Violent human dismemberment is another recurrent theme (eg, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans). He also enjoyed experimenting with optical effects in his works, like superimposing faces onto landscapes (eg, Paranoiac Visage.)
* Dalí also did a painting of Warner’s wife, although Mrs Jack Warner is a bit more edgy work than the portrait of her husband.
 Dalí & Film, An exhibition of the artist at the Tate Modern (London), 1 June – 9 September 2007 (text by Matthew Gale)
 S Meisler, ‘The Surrealist World of Salvador Dalí’, Smithsonian Magazine, Apr 2005
 Sara Cochran, quoted in G Goodale, ‘In Hollywood, Dalí’s films are reappraised”, Christian Science Monitor, 2 Nov 2007, www.csmonitor.com. Dalí seems to have possessed that Hamlet-like quality of ‘madness’ – “I am but mad north-north-west … I know a hawk from a handsaw”.
 M Vallen, ‘Salvador Dalí – Avida Dollars’, Feb 2005, www.art-for-a-change.com
 ‘Dali & Film’, op.cit.
 R Kennedy, ‘Mr Surrealist goes to Tinseltown’,New York Times, 29 June 2008, www.mobile.nytimes.com
 R Hughes, ‘Homage to Catalonia’, The Guardian, 13 Mar 2004