Five things you didn't know about Salvador Dali

As his biggest-ever retrospective exhibition opens in Paris, we decode Dali's iconic life through five of his most famous images.

 “Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí.”

Modesty, it’s safe to say, was not a trait which troubled Dali. The above statement, written in 1953, was typical of the self-professed ‘inimitable’ genius of the modernist art. He continues to be comemorated today, with his biggest retrospective in over three decades opening in the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

The show looks set to break records – indeed, the last time the Pompidou hosted a Dali retrospective, in 1979, it attracted such high visitor numbers that it remains unsurpassed as their most popular show of all time.

What exactly is it about the moustachioed Spaniard that still so captivates the public imagination? From his strange life to his even stranger canvases, here’s five things you may not know about Salvador Dali:

1. He was named after his dead brother

No one knew how to create a personality cult quite like Dali. Every aspect of his eccentricity was carefully cultivated, from his waxed moustache to his deliberately provocative statements.

Psychoanalysts, however, have suggested that these over-compensatory measures to assert his identity could stem from the fact that nine months before his birth his elder brother, also named Salvador, had died. Dali’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, tells of the fear he felt as a child whenever he saw the framed photo of his sibling in his parent’s room. Coincidentally, another iconic master of twentieth century art Vincent Van Gogh encountered the same situation - an older brother who died at birth and who's name he inherited.

This photograph is a masterpiece of self propaganda – eccentric, dramatic, iconic, an early example of an artist transforming himself into a brand. From his deliberate publicity stunts (he once delivered a lecture dressed in a wetsuit for no apparent reason), to his willingness to work commercially when he needed to (he guest-edited Vogue, advertised Ford and designed sweet wrappers), Dali was one of the first artists to cannily manipulate the media for his own publicity. Damien Hirst has a lot to answer to.


2.  Much of his artistic inspiration came from advancements in science

The Persistence of Memory, (1931)

This painting – The Persistence of Memory - belongs to a unique category of the iconic which, along with Munch’s Scream and Klimt’s Kiss, is more likely to be viewed as posters in teenager’s bedrooms or on ceramic mugs than on wall of a museum. Its enormous fame belies its tiny size – in reality, this painting is merely as big as two postcards.

Like the best Dali images, it hovers between the sublime and the ridiculous. Many have commented on the influence of Einstein and his theory of relativity on the image of the melting clock. Is the image of a melting clock inspired by the physicist’s reconfigured understanding of the nature of time? Or is it, as Dali himself claimed, inspired by a piece of melting Camembert? Which is it? Groundbreaking scientific theory or a cheese on a picnic tray?

There have been encyclopaedic attempts to explain the meaning behind this particular image. Cutting-edge scientific theory, however, was always a huge influence on Dali. Later in life he became fasincated by quantum physics and the Uncertainty Principle developed by Heisenberg, which inspired him to write a manifesto for a new genre of work called ‘nuclear mysticism’, inspired by the splitting of the atom.


3. He was slightly obsessed with Hitler

The Enigma of Hitler, (1939)

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Dali was quoted sayingI often dreamed of Hitler as a woman” before continuing to describe his obsession with the dictator in mystical, homoerotic terms. Later, in his autobiography, The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, he noted ‘Hitler turned me on in the highest’.

The Surrealists (the Parisian artistic group with which Dali had been affiliated since 1929), had no time for such statements. Andre Breton, one of their leading members, accused Dali of glorifying Hitler, and he was promptly expelled from the group.

This painting, The Enigma of Hitler, is one of three Dali images which deal with the dictator. Originally, he wanted to paint a swastika armband on the arm of the nurse-figure in his painting, but was dissuaded. Psychoanalysts have suggested that his preoccupation with Hitler may stem from his lifelong fear of his domineering father. Additionally, the teardrop hanging from the branch reflects a common motif found in Dali – drooping, melting shapes in a landscape. Psychoanalytically speaking, this trope is widely seen to reflect his fear of impotence, and certain commentators have noted that Hitler’s enthusiastic promotion of nationalistic breeding can further explain the innuendo present in this image.


4 –Sigmund Freud actually disapproved of Surrealism

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, (1937)

Dali and Freud have become emblematic for representing twentieth century psychoanalysis, dream interpretation and explorations of the unconscious. Contrary to popular belief, however, Freud never approved of the Surrealists or their work. He lamented the fact that they adopted him as a ‘patron saint’ and declared them ‘incurable nutcases’.

The one exception to this rule was Dali. When the famous psychologist met the artist in 1938 Dali took along this image, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, and Freud agreed it would make an excellent study for psychoanalysis. This is a painting of all-consuming paranoia; shapes seem to disappear into the edges of your peripheral vision the longer you gaze at it, whilst other, shadowy figures emerge. Few other artworks so embody the notion of starting into the Freudian unconscious.

The painting has many of Dali’s favourite tropes; a dreamscape replete with melting objects and crawling ants – often seen as reflecting death. The presence of the eggs is also typical – Dali was so obsessed with the symbolic value of the intrauterine that later in life he built a house and festooned the roof with huge, white eggs as an alternative balustrade. 


5 – Critics consider everything he painted after the age of 40 to be worthless

The Madonna of Port Ligat, (1949)

Although he remains one of the most widely appreciated artists of all time, the critical consensus on the value of Dali’s work almost invariably comes down to works he created in his twenties and thirties. After that, the rest of his oeuvre has been routinely dismissed as banal kitsch.

The year 1939 is the key for Dali’s career –this was when he broke from the Surrealist movement and moved from Paris to New York. Prior to that point, almost all his works are considered groundbreaking. For the fifty years following, however, the canvas’s he began to produce became repetitive, almost formulaic, and worst of all: commercial.

His later works reflect a chronic need to represent his wife, Gala, as a sort of demi-goddess. This 1949 work is typical – Gala is the model for a religious scene which elevates her to the status of a deity and recycles classic Christian motifs. The geometric holes cut into her body imply a transcendental status.

That it’s kitschy is undeniable. But, as any postmodernist will tell you, not all kitsch is without merit. Recently, certain critics have started to re-assess Dali’s late works, considering that his increasingly cartoonish style could in fact be considered a precursor to 1960’s pop art.

With this in mind, Dali’s influence on art history could perhaps be deemed even greater than previously acknowledged. The fascination with the artist, it seems, just keeps growing.

(Photo credit: -/AFP/GettyImages)

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.



Show Hide image

Why do games do revolutionary politics so badly?

Too often, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, but not why.

It is one of the ironies of videogames that they often embrace some of the most radically political situations in the most noncommittal ways possible. After all, just because a game features a violent revolution or a war, that doesn’t mean the developers want to be seen to take sides. The results of this can be unintentionally funny, creepy, or just leave you wondering if you should disconnect your brain before playing, as if the intended audiences are shop window mannequins and crash test dummies.

A recent example of a game falling over itself to be apolitical is Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, an open world game about stabbing people set in London around 1886. The game has you embarking on an extended campaign against a secret organisation which controls London, and by implied extension the British Empire as a whole. You fight against them by murdering assorted senior personnel (as well as hundreds of affiliated henchmen), sabotaging their various endeavours and generally unleashing all manner of mayhem against the group.

Why do we do this? Well, because we’re reliably informed that the people we are killing are members of the Templars or are working for them, which is apparently a group of Very Bad People, and not like the Assassins, who are much better, apparently. London under Templar control is bad, apparently, and under Assassin control we are told it will be better for everyone, though we never really find out why.

Your credentials for being on the side of righteousness seem to stem from the fact that when you meet famous historical figures like Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale they seem to like you and let you help them out in various ways (usually but not exclusively related to stabbing people). The rationale presumably being that since Charles Darwin is a great man slashing throats at his behest reflects well on our heroes.

Even in these interactions however the game is painfully noncommittal, for example your characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will happily to kill police officers for Karl Marx, but they don’t actually join the Worker’s Party, because heaven help us if it turned out that either of our heroes did anything that might suggest an underlying ideology.

It feels very much that when a developer is so timid in attaching defining ideological or political qualities to the characters or groups in the game then Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what you end up with. There is no sense that your characters stand for anything, at least not intentionally. Instead your hero or heroine wanders around a genuinely beautiful rendition of Victorian London trying their absolute level best to not offend the sensibilities of anybody (while stabbing people).

By contrast something like Saints Row 3 handles this sort of system altogether better. Saints Row 3 works along a set of almost identical mechanics for how the struggle for control of the city plays out; do an activity, claim an area then watch your minions move in. However what Saints Row 3 does is cast you as an anti-hero. The design is self-aware enough to know that you can’t treat somebody as a regular hero if their most common form of interaction with other people is to kill them in cold blood. Your character is motivated by revenge and by greed, which is probably terrible karma but at least it gives you a sense of your characters purpose.

Another approach is to have the antagonists of the story carry the political weight and let the motivations of the heroes become ennobled by the contrast. The best example of this is a game called The Saboteur. By setting the game in occupied Paris during World War Two, ensuring that everybody you kill is a Nazi or Nazi collaborator, everything is good clean fun. We know that Nazis are bad and the game doesn’t need to go to great lengths to explain why, it’s accepted ideological shorthand. Another example of this is Blazkowicz, the hero in the Wolfenstein games; here the character is not engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering people, he is engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering Nazis.

When it comes to games set in World War Two it is still possible to mess things up when trying to be even handed. For example Company of Heroes 2, a strategy game set on the Russian Front, takes such pains to remind us of the ruthlessness of the Soviets that it ends up accidentally making the fascists look like the heroes. The trick would seem to be when approaching a historical situation with a clear villain then you don’t need to be even handed. It’s a videogame where tanks have health bars after all, not a history book.

Of course it can be argued that none of this ideological and political emptiness in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate makes it any less fun, and to a point this is true. The mechanical elements of the game are not affected by the motivations of the character but the connection between player and character is. As such the motivation to keep playing over hours and hours of repetitive activities suffers badly. This is a problem that past Assassin’s Creed games have not been too troubled by, for instance in Black Flag, the hero was a pirate and his ideology based around the consumption of rum, accumulation of doubloons and shooting cannonballs at the Spanish navy made complete sense.

If a game is going to base itself around important events in the lives of its characters it has to make those characters stand for something. It may not be something every player or potential player agrees with, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching somebody sit on a fence (and stab people).

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture