Thirty-five people work at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. They spend all day surrounded by all things Dali. In the bathroom — Dali. In their offices — Dali. In the hallways — Dali. Walking up the stairs, they come face to face with Dali himself, in a Philippe Halsman photo, looking like a madman. Had Dali recorded music, that would be piped in, too.
Each year, more than 200,000 people join them at the museum. At a springtime party to celebrate the dead artist’s 100th birthday, guests ate birthday cake shaped like a melting clock. The megalomaniac would be thrilled.
Even more thrilling is that museums around the world are mounting lavish shows to celebrate the birth of the world’s most famous surrealist. The museum in Florida showed “Dali Centennial: An American Collection,” through September. Then in October it opened “Dali and Mass Culture,” an enormous show that started in Spain and includes paintings, film, photographs, advertisements … the full panoply of Dali’s work.
In February, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will open “Salvador Dali,” a show that first opened in Venice and includes 150 of his paintings, plus sculpture, drawings, photographs, and sketches.
In the midst of all of this Dali-mania, scholars — set free from Dali’s looming presence by his death in 1989 — are re-examining Dali’s later works, which are lesser known and less studied than his surrealist paintings. They’re looking at Dali as a performance artist and how his style of living sometimes overshadowed his skill as a visual artist.
Dali was buffoonish, even quasi-nuts in his efforts to unveil the unconscious, uncontrolled mind. He flaunted his long, pointy mustache, stared into cameras bug-eyed, made outlandish pronouncements, and did whacked-out things (he was allegedly dressed as a tango dancer and covered with goat droppings when he met his future wife, for example).
By his own admission, most of it was a ploy for attention. He vied for it from birth, after inheriting his name from an older brother who died as a toddler just months before Dali was born. Competing with a dead brother — a contest he never could win — made him a demanding, exhibitionist child. He wet the bed, deliberately misspelled words, even fell down stairs just to get noticed.
In his 20s he adopted a costume of cape and breeches, topped by a crushed-down fedora. Later he gave up the cape and breeches but kept a series of odd hats — including at one point a loaf of bread.
“I’ve rarely sunk to the level of wearing civilian clothes,” Dali once said. “I’ll always go in Dali uniform.”
Andy Warhol, no stranger to publicity, said being around Dali was like being with royalty or circus performers. People took photographs, they applauded, they called Dali’s name.
“He was always aware of how publicity aided sales, and the more outrageous he could be, the more paintings he could sell,” says Michael Taylor, the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “But he always knew that he had to make those paintings.”
And thus, behind the hype was a technically trained and gifted artist, and a hard worker. Dali produced about 2,000 paintings in his lifetime, and though he was rejected by established museums in the ’70s, now he’s back in demand.
The costumes and flamboyance belonged to the nighttime Dali. In the daytime he worked endlessly and painstakingly. He would stare for hours at a canvas, trying to will the images of his subconscious mind to move through him and into his hand. Facing that stark whiteness with a brush with three hairs, he’d squint through his eyepiece and paint, each stroke a work of precision, borrowing the cubist angles of Picasso, billowing trees from Cezanne, the impressionism of Renoir. From his youngest days he absorbed, copied, and juxtaposed the masters, painting what he saw in the world around him.
Dali is best known as a surrealist (although he was much more), so what is surrealism? It is about setting a tap into the unconscious mind and letting it spill out like foamy beer. What comes out of that tap doesn’t have to make sense; in fact, it can’t, because it isn’t run through the filter of right and wrong, real and fantasy. It just is. So instead of making an image of a house or tree, surrealists pour images onto the pages, letting loose their inner thoughts and fantasies.
In the 1920s, surrealism was particularly exciting because Sigmund Freud had only recently published Interpretation of Dreams. Until then, there was little acknowledgment of subconscious thoughts and motivations. People were (to impose today’s jargon on another time, which would please Dali) WYSIWYG — What You See Is What You Get. They were their behaviors, and only their behaviors. There was little consideration of hidden motivation, for the Oedipal urge or repressed memory.
Freud’s ideas and the symbols behind them — vessels equal the feminine, keys equal hidden desire — were part of the vocabulary of Dali and the people around him. And Dali used those symbols quite deliberately to create the messages of his paintings. Whether they all were his subconscious needs or wants, or whether he appropriated them to shock and sell is still in question.
“He knew the language of psychoanalysis and incorporated symbols of memories throughout his paintings during that period,” says Hank Hine, director of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, “although they weren’t necessarily his own.”
If they were, then he was afraid of his father and adored his mother. The images bubbling up from his unconscious — or at least the ones that he conveyed to canvas — were often of sex and decay and death, which are all standard fare in Freudian theory.
In the late 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War, Dali’s support of General Franco angered Andre Breton, the theoretical “schoolmaster” of surrealism in Paris. On the heels of their break, Dali moved to New York. It was 1940, and he quickly became a U.S. sensation: designing jewelry, advertisements, furniture, and perfume bottles. He did an album cover for Jackie Gleason, cover art for Vogue, commercials for chocolate. He came to the United States poor, and he left nine years later rich.
Soon after came his “paranoiac-critical period,” during which he continued to interpret Freud’s symbols, often interspersing them with religious icons. He painted double images into much of his work, so that if you unfocused slightly or tilted your head the right way you would see the head of the toreador hidden in the bust of Venus (The Hallucinogenic Toreador), or the French philosopher Voltaire’s head disguised in a painting of a slave market (The Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire).
As talk in the world of science turned from Freudian theory to atomic energy, so did Dali’s attention. “In the surrealist period I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world — the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud. I succeeded in doing it,” Dali said in 1958. “Today the exterior world — that of physics — has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr. Heisenberg.”
Carl Werner Heisenberg is the German physicist who is considered the architect of the quantum theory. It was a theory Dali barely understood, but soon after it became common talk, Dali’s paintings started to explode. His famous watches from the 1931 painting Persistence of Memory — the one with the melting clocks that you see on T-shirts and mugs — reappeared as The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory. Now the clocks were breaking apart and the land and steps and trees were fractured into pieces.
Dali called this period “nuclear mysticism,” during which he combined the idea that matter is made of particles with Catholic symbolism in an effort to combine the physical and metaphysical. It is these works that have begun to fascinate scholars in the 15 years since Dali’s death, now that they can get beyond the buffoonish façade of the man and into the art. Long overshadowed by his more haunting surrealist paintings, this period is noteworthy in part for its fusion of baroque technique with modern symbolism. His massive 13-by-10-foot painting The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, for example, which he painted in the late ’50s, bristles with crucifixes and crosses and Catholic icons. His wife, Gala, the model for most of the women in his work, leads the way as the face of the Virgin Mary on the banner the young Columbus carries ashore.
The Catholic symbolism is particularly significant because in his autobiography, Secret Life, which Dali wrote when he was 35, he expresses being bereft that he has no faith. Years later he returned to the Catholic Church with all the fanfare of Columbus setting foot in the New World. He populated his paintings with icons, remarried his wife within the church, and arranged an audience with the pope.
At all times, though, Dali painted with techniques learned from arduous study. He painted quite consciously, and in more than one style at a time. At any one time an easel on one side of his room might have a surrealist nightmare, while one on the other held a carefully constructed and visually easy still life. Often, he used old painting techniques to convey his new ideas.
“People tend to have this one image of Dali, but really he changed his style more often than his necktie,” Taylor says. “He had an academic training; most modern artists tended to unlearn every piece of technique they ever picked up, but Dali had a brilliant way of synthesizing what he learned with the most modern means.”
The trick with Dali, though, is to look beyond the surface image, to peel back your initial response and find the visceral, the gut in his art. The same could be said of the man. The mustache, the posturing, the hats, the loaves of bread were just the tip of the man; the great heft and weight of him lay just beyond sight.
Or as Dali himself said, “My painting is like an iceberg, where only a tenth of its volume is visible.”
“Dali and Mass Culture” Through January 30 at Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL, www.salvadordalimuseum.org
March 5-June 12, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, www.boijmans.rotterdam.nl/
“Salvador Dali, an Anthological Exhibition”
Through January 9 at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, www.palazzograssi.it
February 6-May 15, Philadelphia Museum of Art, www.philamuseum.org
For a complete listing of Dali Centennial events, visit www.salvador-dali.org (dates are listed in European format).
Originally published in American Way, 11/15/04