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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.

New Statesman
(Photo credit: -/AFP/GettyImages)

 “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.