Articles and Features

The Twisted Genius of Salvador Dalí

Dalí Atomicus, photo by Philippe Halsman, 1948
Dalí Atomicus, photo by Philippe Halsman, 1948

By Flora Szabo

“There is only one difference between a madman and me. The madman thinks he is sane. I know I am mad.”

Salvador Dalí

Who was Salvador Dalí?

Salvador Dalí (Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech) was one of the most notable artists of the 20th century, whose name still lives on to this very day. Uncontested master of Surrealism, he explored the fascinating world of the subconscious mind through his unique imagery. He became known for depicting bizarre and psychologically impactful themes, as well as creating striking visuals with precise craftsmanship.

An eccentric and multi-faceted figure, Dalí had a profound influence on the next generations of artists. To this day, he serves as an example of how to embrace a unique worldview, and not be afraid of being provocative. He created a dream world that is instantly recognizable by viewers and his surreal atmospheres and depiction of emotions are one of a kind. Besides traditional artistic media such as oil paint, pencil, ink and bronze, he used objects in an extraordinary way, often deformed and metamorphosed into one another and oozing ambiguity.

Dalí (child on the left center) and his family in 1910
Dalí (child on the left center) and his family in 1910

Biography of Salvador Dalí

Born in Figueres, Spain, in 1904, Salvador Dalí grew up in a prosperous Spanish family. His lawyer father, Salvador Dalí Cusí, and his mother, Felipa Domènech Ferrés, both took a great interest in their son’s artistic talent, which was apparent from an early age. During his childhood, Dalí navigated between Figueres, Catalonia, and the seaside community of Cadaqués. The town was influential for Dalí as he spent a lot of his time there painting the coastal landscape, which later on became a significant motif in his art. Ramón Pichot, an impressionist and a good friend of the family, became his mentor when Dalí was merely 10 years old and set him on the path of his artistic career.

Dalí went on to pursue his studies in Madrid, where he stood out from the crowd with his display of unique painting methods. In his school years, he was influenced by metaphysics and discovered art movements such as Cubism and Dada, integrating avant-garde practices into his early works.

The late 1920s turned out to be a turning point in his career. During these years, in fact, Dalí spent a lot of time in Paris, where he was greatly inspired by other influential artists, most notably Picasso. Other painters, such as Joan Miró, Magritte and poet Paul Élard introduced Dalí to the Surrealist movement, whose principles he would enthusiastically adopt for the rest of his life. He further developed his surrealistic style by utilising Freud’s themes, such as the subconscious and sexuality.

When it came to his integration into the art scene, he found his very own community, a group of artists who would become known as the Parisian Surrealists. Starkly going against the flow, they chased the so-called “greater reality” of the human psyche with unconventional methods. To this purpose, Dalí developed his own process known as the “Paranoiac Critical Method” to inspire hallucinations: as a result of awakening from the paranoid state, he would produce hand-painted sequences of his dreams – realistically depicted random objects, accentuated by optical illusions. Considering the subconscious as a universal language spoken by everyone, his illustrations explore unspoken anxiety and paranoia over impotence, past traumas, and fear over the passing of time, which is also seen in his famous work, The Persistence of Memory (1931). 

Portrait of Salvador Dalí, Paris, 16 June 1934
Portrait of Salvador Dalí, Paris, 16 June 1934

Salvador Dalí’s persona was always eccentric, and he did not miss opportunities to stand out, whether that meant showcasing his bizarre work, or himself. For example, his art piece Rainy Taxi, presented in 1938 at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris, displayed an automobile with two mannequins in it, soaked from the rain and covered in rotting vegetables and live snails. His public appearances were ‘Dalí-esque’ as well: in 1936, he presented a lecture wearing a deep-sea diving suit, gasping for air as he was rescued out of his helmet. He was also carrying a billiard cue and had Russian wolfhounds by his side to complete the look. According to him, he was just “plunging deeply into the human mind.”

His style began to change around the late 1930s as he shifted towards a more academic painting style, inspired by the Renaissance masters. The current times also had an impact on his political views, as the rise of fascism created conflict within his community, and steered him away from his Surrealist colleagues, resulting in his departure from the group. He took refuge from the Second World War in the United States, where he lived until the 1950s, navigating between New York and California. During this time, Dalí expanded his interests beyond visual arts and started to explore other ways of making art, such as designing interiors, theatre sets and creating jewellery. 

In the 1960s, Dalí started to experiment with different methods and mediums. He began to use negative space, maximizing effects, optical illusion through the employment of trompe l’oeil techniques, and produced over five-feet-long art pieces. He also delved further into religious themes and the supernatural world. Nonetheless, he still continued to explore erotic themes as well as childhood memories through his artworks.
Gala, his lifelong wife, muse, and essentially his business manager, had become a focal inspiration for his art throughout their marriage; however, the couple’s happiness came to a halt in the 1970s, when fear of abandonment and mental health problems caused distress between them. After her death in 1982, Dalí moved into her castle in Pubol, where she had spent her last years. He eventually passed away from heart failure in 1989 and was buried in Figueres, where he had built the Dalí Theatre-Museum (Teatro Museo Dali). The museum, which he designed himself in the last decade of his life, stands as a culmination of his legacy. It showcases Dalí’s works from all phases of his career, from his sculptures, handcrafted devices, and three-dimensional collages to his most sacred paintings and illustrations.

Best known works of Salvador Dalí

The Persistence of Memory (1931)

Dalí’s most well-known art piece is The Persistence of Memory (1931). In this work of art, melting clocks symbolize the liquidity of time, an image often interpreted as a reference to Einstein’s theory of special relativity. The objects are projected onto a beautiful, sunlit Mediterranean landscape oozing a still, calming atmosphere. 

Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937)

In this painting Dalí illustrated his own interpretation of the legend of Narcissus. The Greek myth explores Narcissus’ obsession with his own figure. His divine punishment resulted in him falling in love with his own reflection, dying in his frustration, and ultimately turning into a narcissus (daffodil). Dalí’s take on the tale followed his very own Paranoiac Critical Method, in which he played with ‘double images’, a hallucinatory effect to depict Narcissus’ transformation. As a result, the viewer sees both a kneeling Narcissus and a hand clutching an egg, from which the flower sprouts.

Lobster Telephone (1938)

This piece of art classifies as the perfect depiction of a Surrealist object, as it combines items that are in no direct association with one another. As the artist explained, “I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone (…).”
The thought process behind this art follows Dalí’s quest to reveal the secret desires of the unconscious. In this case, both the lobster and the telephone have sexual undertones, according to the artist.

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944)

The central subject of this work is Dalí’s wife, Gala, her naked body levitating slightly above a floating rock surface. The woman’s body is surrounded by symbolic objects such as a pomegranate, a fish, a bee, two attacking tigers, and an elephant with flamingo legs. These seemingly random objects represent fertility, resurrection and Freud’s concept of dreamscape, related to Freud’s book: The Interpretation of Dreams (1899).

An Andalusian Dog (1929)

Dalí is not only known for his paintings but also for his collection of cinema projects. He collaborated with the also well-known Spanish director Luis Buñuel, on two influential surrealist films. Un Chien Andalou (1929) – ‘An Andalusian Dog’ – is a film about abject obsession filled with highly grotesque and erotic images. The narrative of the film follows a dream logic, the so-called Freudian free association. It was received as politically shocking by the general public at the time, but it also made Dalí a household name.

Where to find Dalí’s work?

Dalí’s legacy lives on vividly to this day. His fans and art admirers have the chance to see his masterpieces in person across the globe in museums such as Dalí Paris in Montmarte, Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London. Furthermore, you can find them in the Reina Sofia National Museum in Madrid, and the Morohashi Museum of Modern Art in Kitashiobara, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.

Among the other cultural institutions, the Teatro Museo Dalí in his hometown, Figueres, holds the value of the artist’s own design with its purposefully deformed structure, contrasting red walls, and golden ornaments; not to mention the enormous dome surrounded by the giant eggs on its rooftop, which makes the visitor feel like they just stepped into a Dalí painting.

Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres
Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres 

Relevant sources to learn more

Les Dîners de Gala: Surrealism on the menu with Salvador Dalí’s cookbook
The Other Salvador Dalí: How the King of Surrealism Made his Mark on Cinema
Artistic Collaborations: Elsa Schiaparelli & the Early 20th Century Avant-garde