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23 November 2012updated 07 Sep 2021 11:44am

Five things you didn’t know about Salvador Dali

Just in time for the major new retrospective opening in Paris, we decode Dali's iconic life through five of his most iconic images

By Kamila Kocialkowska

 “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 self-professed ‘inimitable’ genius of modernist art is going to be commemorated tomorrow with the Pompidou Centre in Paris opening the biggest retrospective of the artists in over three decades.

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 still 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? Separating the man from the myth, here is your essential guide to five things you didn’t 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 hyper-dandyish personal appearance, his propensity to declare himself a genius and his bizarre ideas which amounted to delivering lectures while dressed in diving suits.

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Psychoanalysts, however, have suggested that this 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 tells of the fear he felt when looking at the lace-covered photo of his sibling in his parent’s house, and the invisible spectre he posed to him – always providing an impossibly perfected standard to live up to. Coincidentally – another iconic master of twentieth century art had encountered exactly the same situation – Vincent Van Gogh, also had had an older brother who died at birth and who he was named after.

This image epitomises Dali’s personality cult. It demonstrates how the artist was  a canny manipulator of the media for his own publicity – never averse to selling out when he needed to (as well as creating several classics of twentieth century art, he worked for Vogue, advertised Ford and designer sweet wrappers).

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This photograph is a masterpiece of self propaganda – eccentric, dramatic, iconic, it is a precursor to contemporary times – one of the first examples of an artist transforming themselves into a brand. Damien Hirst and Takashi Harukami would never exist were it not for works like this.

2  – Advanced Physics was one of his biggest artistic inspirations

This image – The Persistence of Memory, belongs to a unique category of the iconic which, along with Munch’s scream and Klimt’s Kiss, has transcended the walls of museum and regularly reappears in posters in teenager’s bedrooms, ceramic mugs and eBay merchandise. Its incomparable 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. What is the meaning? Many have commented on the influence of Einstein and his theory of relativity on the image of the melting clock. Is this inspired by the physicists reconfiguration of the Universe and the dismissal of the notion that time is a static invariable? 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 several of his works in the new genre of ‘nuclear mysticism’.

3 – He was slightly obsessed with Hitler

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Dali told Andre Painaud “I often dreamed of Hitler as a woman”, before continuing to describe his obsession with the Fuhrer in dreamlike, homoerotic terms. Later, in his autobiography, The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, he was quoted as saying ‘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 for his questionable morals and politcs.

This painting, The Enigma of Hitler, is one of three Dali imags 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 heavily advised not to. The dying tree branch has been seen as an olive branch – symbolising the death of peace, and the black umbrella is often read as representing Neville Chamberlain, who had spectacularly misjudged Hitler’s character and political intentions following their meeting. The teardrop hanging from the branch reflects a common motif found in Dali – drooping, melting shapes widely seen to reflect his fear of impotence.

Psychoanalysts have attributed much of Dali’s behaviour to his self-professed, extensive, debilitating fear of his domineering father. Hitler, it has been noted, was the ultimate, tyrannical ‘father-figure’ of a nation.

4 –Sigmund Freud actually disapproved of Surrealism, claiming the artists were ‘incurable nutcases’

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.

The painting has many of Dali’s favourite tropes, a dreamscape replete with melting objets, crawling ants (regularly used to symbolise death and decay) and eggs – which Dali felt were such a profound symbol that, in later life, he festooned the roof of his house with large models of them. This is the ultimate image of all-consuming paranoia; shapes appear to diaper into 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.

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

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 – prior to that point, he was a groundbreaking, genre-redefining genius. For the following fifty years, however, he broke from the Surrealists, moved from Paris to New York, and the canvas’s he began to produce became that dreaded 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 this 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 its kitschy is undeniable. But, as any postmodernist will tell you, not all kitsch is bad. Recently, certain critics have started to re-assess Dali’s late works, wondering if his increasingly cartoonish works could, in fact, be considered precursors of the tongue-in-cheek pop art?

If this is the case, Dali’s influence on art history could, in fact, be deemed to be even greater than previously acknowledged. The fascination with the man, it seems, just keeps growing.