No mention of Spain’s greatest artists would be complete without at least a mention of Salvador Dalí, (1904 – 1989), who was born and died in Figueres, Spain. Dalí was certainly an extraordinary man who bestrode the art world during the 20th Century, although in a way that defies easy classification. He was a showman, surrealist, artist, sculptor, jewelry designer, photographer, film maker, writer and designer. He was prolific, a joker – and almost impossible to ignore.
In fact, an enduring image of Salvador Dalí must be that of him arriving in London in 1936 to give a lecture on surrealism – dressed in a deep sea diver’s suit with helmet, billiard cue and two accompanying wolfhounds! This action almost sums up Dalí and his ability to be outrageous, whilst undoubtedly thoroughly enjoying himself. To this end, he famously stated that “every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí”.
Of course, it is easy to dismiss Salvador Dalí as a ‘lightweight’ – as just a very successful international showman who was able to come up with some extraordinary (and often virtually incomprehensible) images. However, that would be a dangerous thing to do. Dalí was a serious artist (albeit in his own rather bizarre way), a leading surrealist and introduced some very novel and striking art to the world at large. Indeed, posters of his paintings can be found decorating bars and homes throughout the world, as well as being exhibited in major galleries. He influenced the pop art movement and is world renowned – no small thing for any artist and is certainly enough to warrant him a mention as one of Spain’s greatest artists.
Certainly, Salvador Dalí was nothing if not controversial. In 1944 George Orwell cuttingly wrote that that: “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.” Orwell probably said this because Salvador Dalí had no intention of being involved in the Second World War and had left Europe for the USA, with some alacrity, when the Second World War started.
Meanwhile, the surrealist movement also became disenchanted with Salvador Dalí and dismissed him (in 1934) from their ranks because Dalí had refused to back the extreme anarchist/communist views of the movement and its hardline Trotskyist leader André Breton. It is true that Dalí had initially supported the surrealist movement’s philosophy and had been avowedly non-religious. However, over time, he recovered his Catholicism and gradually refused to be categorized either as left or right wing, saying that surrealism could be apolitical.
Being removed from the surrealist movement troubled him not at all, not least because he felt that he was the living embodiment of surrealism. Few would argue the truth of this, given the way that he turned his life into a form of long term performance art.
Finally, Salvador Dali was accused of prostituting art for money. This, of course, was the worst possible thing he could do in the eyes of the surrealist movement and led to André Breton forming an anagram for Salvador Dalí of ‘Avida Dollars’ (Greedy for Dollars). This was apt, as Salvador Dali was certainly interested in making money and succeeded in accumulating a fortune during his lifetime. This he achieved by undertaking a wide range of activities including even endorsing products such as Alka-Seltzer, Veterano brandy and Corona beer.
Less palatable was Salvador Dali´s connection with, and approval of, General Franco and his dictatorial regime in Spain. Having spent the years between 1939 – 1948 in the USA, Salvador Dalí returned to Spain and, to the dismay of many of his fellow artists, he embraced Franco’s dictatorship. This must have been comforting to Franco, given that his regime was being treated as a pariah by the rest of Western Europe.
Salvador Dalí, of course, knew (and worked with) many of the great artists and intellectuals of the twentieth century including the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca (killed in the Spanish Civil War) Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Joan Miró, Pablo Piccasso and Sigmund Freud – most of whom must have thoroughly enjoyed the presence of one of the twentieth century’s great eccentrics.
Dalí’s impishness extended to always taking an autograph hunter’s pen, when asked to sign an autograph. He also cunningly avoided paying restaurant bills by sometimes drawing a picture on the cheque he had just made out to pay the bill – knowing that the management would consider the picture of greater value than the cost of the meal! Meanwhile, for many years, his favourite companion was an ocelot called Babou.
Interestingly and perhaps unexpectedly (given his public appearance), Salvador Dalí had a long and successful marriage to Gala, a woman some ten years old than himself. This seems to suggest that he needed some kind of reliable ‘anchor’, perhaps because of the strange nature of his early upbringing. This was notable in that his elder brother (Salvador) died before he was born. When his mother gave birth to him, his parents also named him Salvador and claimed that he was his brother’s reincarnation. This was surely enough to trouble (or derange!) anyone – and perhaps was the spark for his surrealism.
So, is Salvador Dali one of Spain’s greatest artists?
Probably – but it will be interesting to see what the verdict is in a hundred years’ time!