The Life and Art of Salvador Dali, a Spanish Surrealist Painter

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Salvador Dali

It has been said that Salvador Dali is probably the most universally famous, and highly regarded artist of the twentieth century. Mostly credited for his talent as a surrealist painter, his efforts in the cinema and in photography are often overlooked. Intricate draftsmanship and realistic detail characterize his paintings, with brilliant color heightened by transparent glazes.

Secrets of perversion and battles of depression and paranoia haunt most of his paintings, creating a state of suspended grace all to familiar to his viewing public. Living along a classic artists time line, Dali successively alienated friends and family bringing the artist a solace environment leaving only his mildly schizophrenic mind as fodder for his intricate works of imagination.

Brief History

Salvador Dali was born on May 11, 1904 in Figure, Spain. He was a leader in the new movement of art in the early 20th century called Surrealism. In 1921 he entered the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid where he made friends with Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Bunuel, and Eugenio Montes. In June of 1923 Dali was suspended from the Academy for having inciting the students to rebel against the authorities of the school, but was let back in October of 1925.

Dali was expelled from the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in 1926 and moved to Paris where he frequented the Cafe Cyrano, which was the Headquarters of the Parisan surrealists. In 1929 Cafe Cyrano featured an exhibit of Dali’s own surrealist paintings. In 1924 he was imprisoned in Figures and Gerona for political reasons. The influence of metaphysical paintings and contact with Miro, caused Dali to join the Surrealists in 1929.

Dali held numerous one-man shows during his career and did many art forms from paintings to sculpture and even movies. He directed and was a part of many films including the first surrealist film “Un Chiea A Dalou A Andalusian Dog”, with the director Luis Bunuel. In 1945 he designed the memorable surrealistic dream sequence for Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and filmed Don Juan Tenorio, in 1951.

Italian futurists and the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico also influenced him. In his early works, however, Dali gave credit to his own Catalan sense of fantasy and his megalomania as being his true motivating forces. In 1929

Cafe Cyrano featured an exhibit of Dali’s own surrealist paintings. Dali was also fascinated with the writings of psychologist Sigmund Freud. He was so moved by Freud’s theory that he subsequently vowed to his life’s ambition to Systemize confusion. Dali is best known for his surrealist works. Surrealism is an art style in which imagery is based on fantasy and the world of dreams. It is thought have grown out of the French literary movement in the 19.


Salvador Dalis relationship with his family was crucial to the formation of his artistic personality. Childhood and adolescents had remained vividly important to him through out his career as an artist. Memories from this time, real or imaginary, are the grounds by which many of his most popular works were formed. His sister characterized their childhood as exceptionally rich and harmonious, a point of view rarely expressed by Dalis own accounts.

They lived in a house with no front door, where the chairs were mostly made of spoons, and there was a whole room dedicated to sculptures of the female genitalia which might have attributed to his difficulty to achieve an erection and his horror of the female genitalia. In his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, the artist claimed to have been profoundly affected by two traumatic childhood events.

The first concerns his father arriving home late form a business trip and dashing past the family to the bathroom with a vulgar announcement, Ive crapped in the second his father casually traumatizes young Dali by leaving a book containing photographs of venereal disease propped on the family piano. Perhaps this explains the role of the grand pianos, occasionally topped by rotting donkeys in some of his works.

It may be these incidents really did shape the future artist, but it is also true that he was an incurable liar and Freud freak. Heavily influenced by Freud’s book Interpretation of Dreams. He was awestruck by art’s ability to explore subconscious desires and led him to believe that the fact that subconscious impulses often appear extremely cruel to our consciousness is further reason for lovers of truth not to hide them. Only Gala his muse and wife understood his strangeness. She may have been even stranger.

One of Dalis earliest diary entries stated I am madly in love with myself. That love affair lasted throughout most of his life, resulting in lonely solitude. I believe that this lack of human intervention enabled Dali to use his fears as motivation, making his deepest most personal thoughts more easily expressed.

In Dalis painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1934) the artist refers to the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, in which a young man fell deeply in love with his own reflection and was transformed onto a beautiful flower. Similarly in Dali’s painting what at first looks like the body of a man can, seen another way, become an image of a hand holding an egg, sprouting a Narcissus flower.

Dali claimed not to have the slightest problem in making public my most shameful desires. Few are Dalis paintings that make no reference to masturbation, castration, father hatred, or homosexual instincts, which was strongly expressed in many of his paintings yet was never confessed. In later life he is known to take anti-depressants.


Surrealism explored the subconscious, the dream world, and irrational elements of the psyche in the belief that the discoveries to be made from such exploration would be of more fundamental importance to the human condition than any other form of social analysis. Dali grasped Surrealism with an instrument of primary importance; the paranoia-critical method. He found it was capable of being applied with equal success to all his works whether the work is painting, poetry, or cinema.

He defined this method as a form of irrational knowledge based on the delirium of interpretations. Put simply, the ability of an artist to perceive different images within a single configuration. Analysis and interpretation. A lot of his artwork has some kind of connection to other artwork of his, like the melting clock, his symbol of death, and most of all are Dali’s anamorphic self-portrait mask that appears in a lot of his paintings.

The shape of the face, usually presented resting on its nose, is strongly reminiscent of one of the rock formations of the coastline near Dali’s home. A large portion of his studies was drawing on his interest in psychoanalysis, and demonstrating in a more general way the relationship between perception and mental states.

Brenton describes Dali’s painting or any other medium as a means of escaping repressive constraints, which would otherwise lead to psychosis. Basically his own type of therapy. Dali experimented off and on with his paranoia-critical method through the thirties, perfecting the technique of multiple figurations by about 1938.

Two early examples where he used this very effectively, yet not exclusively, are The Phantom Chariot (1933), where two figures in a cart can also be read as the towers of the town they are approaching in the distance across the plain, and Suburb of the Paranoiac (1936). In this painting there are several different sets of paranoiac phenomena, not all of which function as double images, but explore various ways of visually interlocking objects unexpectedly or irrationally linked.

The first set concerns the architecture. Three separate architectural spaces are ranged horizontally across the landscape, but in separate planes, almost like three different stage sets. Each represents a place well known to Dali. The second set of paranoia phenomena is contained in the middle of the canvas, left free of architecture, link a bunch of grapes in Galas (his wife’s) hand, the skull on the table beside her, and the back end of a horse, isolated on a pedestal.

A page of sketches shows Dali trying to fuse these objects together, this is only hinted at in the final painting. The third set is scattered over the entire canvas and consists of several small figures scattered about, including the imprint of an absent figure in the chair next to the vanity. His method is not as boldly presented in this painting as in his later works but it does provide a good introduction to the understanding of the way he works.

Somewhat like solving a puzzle, he provokes a genuine hallucinatory perceptual confusion and gives the spectator a license of interpretation indifferent by one’s own thoughts. Salvador Dali was very fascinated by the fleeting state of the mind between sleep and consciousness, dream and reality, sanity and insanity, as one in which the mind functioned purely, free from the constraints of logic and social behavior. He read psychological case histories, hoping to represent neuroses in an ultra-realistic style, objectifying the irrational with photographic accuracy. He was a strange, strange man.

Critical Analysis & Classroom Applications

This one of Dali’s most distinguished works. It was painted in 1931. Dali uses many types of media in this painting to portray the imagery he was looking for. The First media I recognized was chiaroscuro. The artwork starts from a bright white and blue in the top left-hand corner and ends up fading into darkness.

There is a large figure with a cloak draped over it right before the fade to darkness which may symbolize a time in the artist’s life in which he was feeling that his memories were fading and falling into blackness. The Second media I noticed was Trompe loeil. This was most noticed with the seemingly melted watches representing time or memory draping off a table and a tree. It is really a barren landscape with 4 clocks, a table, a fake tree, a blue rectangular mass, and some mountains in the background.

I suppose he is trying to symbolize his thoughts and memories and how he was feeling about them at that moment. This artwork consists of a mostly cool color scheme with one instance of warmth. There is a red clock in the bottom left-hand corner that does seem to stick out with the effect of red and black it uses. That also is covered with ants that look like they are eating which may symbolize some type of eating away at a memory he had. The cool colors are the sky and 3 of the clocks while the warm is 1 clock and the base of the mountain.

The rest of the landscape is a very neutral brown and black. also exhibits a kind of atmospheric/linear perspective. The objects in the front of the piece, the tree, clocks, table, figure, are most noticeable with detail and it seems like those are the objects the artist wants you to be most familiar with relative to the mountains, sky, and ocean in the distance which really are not that symbolic in this picture. They are of less focus than the melted clocks.

Leda Atomica is somewhat connected to The Madonna of Port Lligat as if Dali is showing a symbolic story of his relationship with Gala, (wife). In the painting of Leda Atomica, Dali shows Leda played by Gala, the mother of semi-divine children, whose birth is indicated by the broken eggshell out of which they were hatched. Gala is presented as a mother, and furthermore, with the swan’s beak hardly touching her.

She seems to represent a kind of miraculous and quiet spiritualized form of impregnation. Gala appears in many of his paintings including The Madonna of Port Lligat, and that she plays a very important role for Dali, not just modeling but yet also some kind of hope and inspiration to Dali himself.

He paints the appearance of the swan Zeus to the naked Gala, as an annunciation scene, the winged carrier of the women’s destiny whispers her future in her ear, a memory perhaps of the legend that the conception of Jesus in the Virgin Mary was achieved by the introduction to her ear of the breath of the Holy Ghost.

Leda Atomica is Dali’s way of interpreting the Annunciation, Leda plays a mortal woman visited by a metamorphosis god in order that she might bear his child, acts thereafter as a conduit through which her son’s mortal counterparts may regain access to the god that gave them birth.

“A figure of intercession, an agent of mediation between rational man and state beyond the rational, she is both child-women and women-with-child”, because she is a virgin, based on the Christian-Catholic divinity belief. Gala in a sense is a god’s muse, and is close to those incarnations of the surrealist muse “Gala is being the supreme example” according to Dali, who owe their pictorial and literary identity to the activity of their men. The muse is the object of “desire, of love, and God is, famously, love itself”, according to Dali’s philosophy. Dali’s transformation of Mary is the result of love as if he created his love to Gala, like God to Mary.

Dali paints Gala’s wedding ring, a picture of a mystic marriage, which results in the “Twin immortalization” of Dali and Gala. Dali shows his thought of seducing Gala in his painting of Leda Atomica, in a way of dreams, symbolism, and combining religious and Greek mythology in his own personal taste. The suspension in space of objects and architecture of the Leda Atomica painting symbolizes the demonstration that is the equivalent in physics, in the atomic age, of divine gravitation, as if it’s a free-roaming over modern science.

Every object in the painting is carefully painted to be motionless in space, a state of suspended grace, even though nothing in the painting is connected whatsoever. Even Leda (Gala) is not touching anything, she barely tries to touch the large swan bottom head, but she never touches it in the painting.

Her right hand suggests her feeling of the urge of something that is yet unclear to even herself. It might be the symbolism of the process of her impregnation and the love and mystery of the swan. Leda looks straight into the bird’s eyes with an understanding expression of what is happening to her and what will happen in the future to her and to her unsure reality.

The Madonna of Port Lligat has the Virgin Mary “Gala” and has the egg falling on top of her head from a seashell that hangs motionless in space. Unlike Leda in the Leda Atomica that has a broken egg on the bottom of the painting, and hangs motionless in space.

Both backgrounds contain water and Dali’s mysterious mountains, but The Madonna of Port Lligat painting has objects that are from the sea like shells and a fish on a broken plate, while the Leda Atomica painting contains a large muse and a red small book. But why is the broken eggshell in Leda’s painting and the new egg is in Madonna’s painting? That still lies unclear.

I watched a film by Dali – “A Soft self-portrait”, that was narrated by Orson Welles and filmed in Spain in 1969, that explains a little about Dali himself and his work but wasn’t much help. It was a little “weird” at first, but yet I got used to him making the film, and his way of speaking, which he called “Dalian English”, which was very hard to understand what exactly was he saying.

In the video, he said that he never fully understood his own artwork, “I never understand my work”, as he explains “Never Dali understands one painting of Dali”, and then he concluded, “Because Dali only creates enigmas.” Mystification is his way of life, and Gala will always be a part of it.

Leda Atomica’s composition is fairly complex and there are many different other explanations to the painting and its composition of its objects and figures, which was one of the goals that Dali had in mind as he painted. As Dali creates an artwork, one of his goals is do something that is strange that comes from the deep thoughts of his mind that yet people can relate to it just by looking at it and keep looking at it. These thoughts might come from his dreams, beliefs, and/or reality.

Salvador Dali uses history, literature, religion, mythology, politics, contemporary science and psychology to construct a series of personae within which he could create his work, and in the context of which he could manipulate its reception. A lot of people refer to Dali as crazy painter that has mental problems, but the real truth is, Dali is a genius on an artists plane. Just because he thinks different from everyone else, does not mean he has mental problems. Leda that represents Gala is not only his lover, but yet she is his best and personal follower, Dali suggests it as “the love of the Gods.”

In Conclusion

Salvador Dali was a man of great intrigue. His life and art were dominated by an almost unquenchable craving for sex, money, and in the end, fame. Not to mention his morbid fascination with death. He thrived on the acquisition of knowledge, absorbing influences both from other artists and from contemporary philosophy and science.

His extraordinary gift for artistic expression found an outlet in numerous media, none as versatile as his late paintings. Haunted by a brain I couldn’t explain, he evaluated the realm in which he lived and best interpreted it in a way that even he didn’t understand. He once said, “Never Dali understand one painting of Dali Because Dali only creates enigmas.”

Mystification was his way of life. Some critics say genius, others say mad man. I think his mind was a delicate balance between the both, that touches everyone in a relatively unique manner. Whether his escapades were intended to shock or amuse, never once has any critic classified him as normal. Perhaps he never was.

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