If all the world’s a stage, then one of the greatest performers to walk its boards must be Salvador Dalí. We call Dalí a Surrealist, but perhaps a better description would be performance artist, the first ever. Everything Dalí did was calculated to amaze, astonish, and amuse. Even his appearance was more costume than clothing. Take his mustache, which he grew to a remarkable length and waxed into sharp tips, or his suits, which were made of brilliantly colored velvets encrusted with golden embroidery.

Was there a real man behind the mask? Maybe. Occasionally we get a glimpse of a vulnerable figure clinging for support to his domineering wife and expressing a longing for genuine spirituality. But the world loved the crazy Dalí, the man of the mustache and the embroidered waistcoats, and so that’s what he gave them.

The great tragedy of his life took place before his birth. In 1901, the Dalí family of Figueres, Spain, had a son named Salvador, after his father, but he died at twenty-one months. Nine months and ten days later, the family had another son, whom they also named Salvador, who survived. But the parents never really recovered from the first loss. They talked nonstop about the dead baby, convincing the new Salvador he was only second-best. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the boy developed a horrific temper and preferred to leave excrement in the hallway than to use the bathroom. School, too, was an unmitigated disaster.

As a boy Dalí took drawing classes and, showing promise, had his first public exhibition at his local hometown theater in 1919. The talented young artist moved to Madrid in 1922 to enroll at the School of Fine Arts. After a few years of quarrelling with his professors, Dalí was expelled for refusing to take a final exam, claiming that none of the faculty were competent to judge him.

He longed for greener pastures: Paris and the Surrealists. Surrealism was the hip new art movement that preached the nonsense of Dada, the psychoanalysis of Freud, and the politics of Marx. Dalí was particularly fascinated by its emphasis on the subconscious and wanted to use his meticulous drawing skills to create absurd and irrational images. In 1929, he boarded a train for France, but, to his dismay, instead of welcoming him as the conquering hero, the Surrealists didn’t even notice he’d arrived. He made only one friend, the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, whom he invited to visit him that summer in Cadaqués, the village on the Catalan coast where the Dalí family spent their holidays.

Dalí returned to Spain in a deep depression, but not long afterward Éluard arrived with his wife, Gala. Born Elena Ivanova Diakonova in Russia, Gala Éluard was some ten years older than Dalí (she lied about her age); she was also dynamic, imperious, and insatiable. Éluard and Gala had met as teenagers at a tuberculosis sanitarium in Switzerland, and she later crossed Europe during the chaos of World War I to marry him. After the war, Éluard became a leader in the Dada movement, and Gala reveled in the role of muse and mistress, although by 1929 she was growing frustrated at her husband’s limited financial prospects.


Initially Gala dismissed Dalí (she said he looked like a professional Argentine tango dancer), but then she saw his paintings. That’s when she locked onto him like a laser-guided missile. She was one of the first to realize the extent of his talent and to appreciate that talent could produce incredible wealth. Meanwhile, Dalí was so smitten with her that he paraded about with a geranium behind his ear, concocted a bizarre perfume from dung, and for some reason shaved his armpits until they bled. Their sexual tendencies seemed to be at odds; close friends described Gala as a nymphomaniac, whereas Dalí abhorred being touched and seemed to have homosexual leanings. And yet, the two functioned well together: Dalí liked watching, and Gala loved being watched. Éluard accepted her defection with remarkable grace; of course, it helped that she still liked to have sex with him. In 1932, Gala and Éluard divorced so that he could remarry, and two years later Dalí and Gala were wed in a civil ceremony.

Henceforth Gala devoted all her energies to promoting Dalí. She became an expert bargain shopper, for the pair lived in incredible poverty, subsisting on Dalí’s rare sales and a few checks from Éluard. In summers they returned to Spain, staying in a tiny fisherman’s hut in Port Lligat across the harbor from Cadaqués. Dalí completed some of his most significant works during those early summers, including The Persistence of Memory. The eerie, ominous work is straight of out Dalí’s subconscious. On a dark plain, a lump of flesh that might be a face lies next to a table or block from which a barren tree thrusts. Over the face, tree, and table droop pocket watches that seem to have softened and melted into jelly. The idea for the watches came to the artist while looking at a wheel of Camembert cheese softening after dinner. After he painted the work, he asked Gala if it was an image she would remember; she replied that no one could ever forget it. And so Dalí gave the work its title, for the persistence of his own creation in the viewer’s mind.

The 1931 exhibition featuring The Persistence of Memory was a huge hit. Gala and Dalí became the darlings of the smart set, who adopted the artist’s bizarre mode of talking (a society grande dame might say of a concert by Stravinsky, “It was beautiful, it was gluey! It was ignominious!”). But not everyone appreciated Dalí’s growing fame. Other Surrealists felt he had hijacked their movement. Then Dalí started making outrageous statements about, of all people, Adolf Hitler, claiming there was nothing more Surreal than the dictator. (Hitler didn’t return the compliment, stating that Surrealists should be sterilized or executed.)

The Communist Surrealists insisted that Dalí retract his statements, but he protested that if Surrealism was about exploring dreams and taboos without censorship, then he had every right to dream about Hitler.

If Dalí dreamed of Hitler, he certainly didn’t want to live under his rule. When German forces marched toward Paris at the start of World War II, he high-tailed it as far from the Nazis as possible. In August 1940, he, Gala, and an astounding amount of luggage sailed from Lisbon for New York.

The couple split their time between New York and Pebble Beach, California, with U.S. magazines breathlessly following their every move. Yet, even as Hollywood celebrities and New York socialites embraced him, Dalí began to change his style. He painted Gala in a realistic, even beautiful portrait, with nary a melting watch, pork chop, or flying elephant to be seen. He painted religious themes—a crucifixion, a Madonna (modeled, however improbably, by Gala), a Last Supper. Friends were baffled. Dalí, spiritual? Dalí, serious? The thought of Dalí in prayer was ridiculous.

What Gala found ridiculous was the thought of Dalí pursuing anything other than his incredibly lucrative work. Long gone were the days when she scoured Paris markets for the cheapest bread; now she dined only at the finest restaurants and dressed in Chanel couture. She could always persuade Dalí to take on even the most outlandish (and well-paid) commissions. He designed the dream sequences for the Alfred Hitchcock movie Spellbound (although they were later reshot) and partnered with Walt Disney on a short animated film (although Disney later canned the project). He designed jewelry (a melted watch), furnishings (the “lobster phone”), and furniture (a sofa modeled after Mae West’s lips). His fame soared. No matter what stunt he pulled—arriving at a lecture in a white Rolls Royce filled with cauliflower, entering the rhinoceros cage at a zoo with a painting of a rhinoceros—reporters covered it and readers ate it up.

If Dalí’s greatest fans in the 1930s had been Parisian high society, in the ’60s he was adored by hippies who flocked to Port Lligat with plentiful supplies of marijuana and LSD. Dalí labeled his entourage the Court of Miracles and fawned over what one biographer calls “a fluctuating cast of dwarf hermaphrodites, cross-eyed models, twins, nymphets, and transvestites.”

And then the sex really got out of hand. Gala, now in her seventies, adored having access to so many fresh young men, and Dalí arranged “erotic Masses,” orgies in which rooms were devoted to different groupings. All this decadence was enormously expensive, and Gala, who didn’t hesitate to lock Dalí in his studio when commissions came due, had to invent increasingly elaborate ways to make money. She had her husband sign hundreds of blank sheets of paper that could later be printed with “limited edition” lithographs.

Old age finally caught up with Gala and Dalí. Her skin started erupting with horrible lesions along the sutures left from her multiple facelifts. She died in June 1982 of heart failure. Dalí spent the next six years waiting to join her. He refused to eat, wept constantly, and spent his days lying alone in the dark. A bell was mounted by his bed to summon a nurse always on duty, and at night he would ring it incessantly. The annoyed nurses finally had the bell replaced with a light, and one night he pressed the button so many times it short-circuited and set his bed on fire. The staff found him crawling in a haze of smoke and flames with burns on nearly 20 percent of his body. Everyone assumed the burns would kill him, but he survived, recovering enough to give an interview to Vanity Fair in 1986. It was his last rally, though he hung on three more years, dying on January 23, 1989.

What, today, can we make of Salvador Dalí? Many art historians dismiss his post–World War II work as self-indulgent kitsch; some go further and deride his entire oeuvre. A recent critic described him as a “puerile pervert whose ability to generate undeserved fascination in the convoluted workings of his misanthropic mind continues to astonish.” (Ow.) What no one can deny is his influence: Dalí invented the idea of life as art.




Secret Lives of Great Artists

Elizabeth Lunday



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