Title: How does Salvador Dali’s perspective on life influence his art?
Perhaps one of the most prominent modern artists to this day, Salvador Dali still remains an enigma. And yet, one is drawn to his alternate universe, which seems to follow some rules of physics and perspective, whilst simultaneously being incomprehensible and disquieting. Here, we will focus on ‘how Salvador Dali’s (Dali) perspective on life has influenced his art’. This will be considered by exploring the life and artwork by the great surrealist and demonstrating how they intertwine. It is people like Dali who indicated to me the significance of the artists’ philosophy on their work – an aspect of art that is rarely revealed. The intent of this paper is to analyze how Dali’s perspective on life developed by concentrating on the impact Surrealism had on him and the impact he had on Surrealism. Furthermore, I will by focusing on his early life behaviour and upbringing leading to his art journey and experimentation. Finally, I will examine his life in adulthood with his wife Gala. I will display deep analysis on his artworks that I feel connects the most with each topic to be able to link his perspective on life to his art. Through examining these different aspects of his life we’ll be able to get a sense of what drove eccentric artists. The goal of his art was to cause confusion which would help to completely destroy confidence in the world of reality. It is noted that Dali painted his obsessions in order to remain sane as he stated “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs” evoking the idea of art to be his therapy. I am to take in concern the circumstances that Dali’s life brought, how he changed by still remained the same in his artistic style, always being recognized.
Whilst exploring Salvador Dali’s exhibition at Erarta Museum of contemporary art, I was able expand my understanding of Surrealism. Surrealism was a twentieth century literary, philosophical art movement that explored the workings of the mind, championing the irrational, the poetic and revolutionary. Surrealism borrowed a number of themes and musings from French poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Comte de Lautreamont and Guillaume Apollinaire as well as the writings of Sigmund Freud. Freud’s investigation into the unconscious mind and its ability to dictate ordinary actions as well the potential destructive nature of it was a great interests to the Surrealist. Surrealism aimed to escape the constrains of the rational mind that had led to WW1 by producing objects and images with an erotic dimension. For example, though the explorations of the human figure had a long tradition of art, Surrealists went further, breaking taboos and shocking viewers in their depiction of mutilated, dismembered or distorted bodies. There are two broad types of Surrealism: oneiric (dream like imagery) and automatism (Freudians’ technique of unleashing the unconscious mind).
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Alongside Max Ernest, Rene Magritte and Joan Miro, Dali was initially one of the focal figures in Surrealism, as witnessed by a lecture that he gave at the London International Surrealists exhibition between 11th June and 4th July 1936. Dali was known for his wild art and a public personality to match, these two elements allowed his to rise above the rest of the Surrealists. He believed that the “difference between me and the Surrealists is that i am a surrealist”. This is evident as he spent the entire day before the opening of his art exhibition wearing an old-fashioned deep-sea diving suit, whilst holding two dogs on leads in one hand, and a billiard cue in the other. This demonstrates how Surrealism was so significant and provoking to Dali that he also wanted to evoke Surrealism through his fashion. Dali said that the diving suit represented his existence at the bottom of the sea of his sub-consciousness. However, as was only revealed later, the glass bowl part of the suit was sound proofed, so Dali was in fact suffocating and gesticulating uncontrollably; although the audience took this as part of the act, the poet David Gascoyne had to dismantle the helmet with the billiard cue. These types of episodes as well as the global recognition of Dali led to the inevitable resentment within the Surrealist group.
In 1929 he entered the Parisian art scene, initially being welcomed by the Surrealists, who were founded by the French poet and writer, Andre Breton. Within Breton’s book “Surrealist Manifesto of 1924”, Breton coined the term and noted that Surrealism aims to merge the conscious and the unconscious experience; the realms of dreams, fantasy and reality, creating an “absolute reality, a surreality” (‘sur’ meaning ‘on top of’ in French, hence a reality on top of the current reality; a superimposition on the present. Breton stated that “pure psychic automatism is…the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns”. Breton expelled Dali from the Surrealists although the motivation behind this is still debated amongst art historians. Some uphold that as the rest of the Surrealists, although were exhibiting left-wing tendencies, they expected Dali not only to be part of the political debate, but also to publically denounce fascism. Others argue that it was Dali’s insatiable appetite for money and fame that led to his expulsion from the group. This alludes to the idea that Dali’s perspective on life was only focused on rising up in fame, revealing a selfish and rather arrogant side to Dali. However, Breton had probably been jealous of Dali’s success in America, where they referred to Dali as the creator and father of Surrealism. One Surrealist painting that Dali did near this time was ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus in 1937’ that I was able to witness at Tate Modern. This painting is Dali’s interpretation of the Greek Myth of Narcissus. Narcissus was a youth of great beauty who loved only himself and broke the hearts of many lovers. He fell in love with it but discovered he was unable to embrace the watery image, he pinned away and the God’s immortalised him as a flower. Dali shows this metamorphosis by doubling a crouching figure by the Lake with a hand clutching an egg, from which the Narcissus flower sprouts. The play with ‘double images’ sprang from Dali’s fascination with hallucination and delusion. When his painting was first exhibited it was accompanied by a long poem by Dali. Together, the words and the image suggest a range of emotions triggered by the theme of metamorphosis, including anxiety, disgust and desire. Robert Descharnes noted that this painting meant a great deal to Dali, as it was his first Surrealist work to offer a consistent interpretation of an irrational subject. With this painting and the context Dali was in, there is a sense that this was a time in his life where he was developing surrealism views and seeing glimpses of what he wanted himself to be in the future which perhaps led him to feel a lot of pressure and anxiety which the painting connotes.
The ‘Salvador Dali biography’ has given me an insight into Dali’s early life as it establishes that Salvador Dali was born on May 11th 1904, in Figueres in the Catalonian region of Spain. His father Salvador Dali y Cusi was a middle class lawyer and notary. He had a strict disciplinary approach to raising children contrary to his mother, Felipa Domenech Ferres who encouraged young Salvador in his art and early eccentricities. Dali was intelligent but prone to fits of anger against his parents and schoolmates. Consequently, the more dominant students and his father wouldn’t tolerate his outbursts and eccentricities, and punished him severely. Dali’s relationship with his father was heightened by competition for Felipa’s affection. Dali had a sister, Anna Marie who was three years younger and an older brother who died nine months before him at just 22 months old of gastroenteterites, also named Salvador. Later in life, Dali often connected the story that when he was five years old, his parents took him to the grave of his older brother and told him he was his brother’s reincarnation. Dali recalled “(we) resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections”. He was “probably a first version of myself, but conceived too much in the absolute”. This upbringing evokes the idea that Dali was brought up with many perspectives on what is expected of him. Furthermore, being told that he is the reincarnation of his brother must have forced an identity on Dali to be just like his brother, this evidently must have been psychologically damaging for Dali. Hence we can see from an early age that Dali’s pressures to be his brother had a huge influence on his art as much of his later work would contain allusions to the dead child he believed was the best part of him.
Dali, along with Anna and his parents, often spent time at their summer home in the coastal village of Cadaques. At an early age, Dali was producing highly sophisticated drawings, and both of his parents strongly supported his artistic talent. It was here that his parents built him an art studio before he entered art school. Upon recognizing his immense talent, Dali’s parents sent him to drawing school at the Colegio de Hermanos Maristas and the Instituto in Figueres, Spain in 1912. That same year Dali’s mother, Felipa, died of breast cancer. Dali was sixteen years old at the time, and was devastated by the loss. His father then married Felipa’s sister, which did not attract Dali any closer to his father though he respected his aunt. Looking at the national gallery of Victoria education website, it was highlighted that Anna Maria was Dali’s only female model until he met his future wife. Anna is featured in numerous works including ‘Girl at the window 1925’, one of his most famous and reproduced painting. However, Dali became infuriated by Anna’s book ‘Salvador Dali as seen by his sister’ 1949 because he felt betrayed by her description of his childhood as normal and happy, a direct contradiction of the fantastical, bizarre memories he had recounted in his own biography ‘The Secret Life of Salvador Dali’ 1942, this led to a collapse of their relationship. Throughout his life, Dali found a source of inspiration from the summers spent in Cadaques. The frame depicted here can be seen from one of the windows of the house that the family had on the Es Llana beach. The houses reflected in the glass of the window can still be identified today as part of the Cadaques landscape. It is evident that this painting was done before Dali identified himself with surrealism because it captures a simple everyday moment such as looking out to sea and the technical skill demonstrated in Dali’s brushwork. We can see how Dali was already communicating his own language and combining perfect brushwork with his scenic composition. This painting alludes to the idea of Dali to have a peaceful and calm perspective on life contrary to his later Surrealist work where he demonstrates the horrors of the war.
The Salvador Dali biography is further noted to see that in Art school he was not a serious student preferring to daydream in class and stand out as the class eccentric, wearing odd clothing and long hair. After the first year at art school he discovered modern painting in Cadaques while vacationing with his family. The following year his father organized an exhibition of Dali’s charcoal drawings in the family home by 1919, the young artists had his first public exhibition at the Municipal Theatre of Figueres. During his time at art school he was influenced by several different artistic style including metaphysics (The Tate gallery defines metaphysics as an art movement typified by dream-like views of eerie arcaded squares with unexpected juxtapositions of objects) and cubism (The Tate gallery describes Cubism as a new revolutionary approach to representing reality, often appearing fragmented and abstracted). Furthermore, Dali explored classical painters such as Raphael, Bronzino and Diego Velaquez (from whom he adopted his signature moustache). From 1912 to 1919, we can see that Dali developed his art swiftly; already having is first public exhibition. Being at art school allowed Dali’s environment to be filled with influential artists and new techniques which demonstrates how the Art school was the place where he was able to find his own art style. The 2008 Spanish-British drama movie ‘Little Ashes’ illustrates his time at Art School in the midst of repression and political unrest of Pre Spanish Civil War. The young actor playing Dali was able to demonstrate the innocence and vulnerability of Dali and his youthful mistakes and experimentation at Art school. It also gives an insight into the relationship between Dali and poet Federico Garcia Lorca that has been the subject of speculation among historians and biographers.
In between 1926 and 1929, Dali made several trips to Paris, where he met with influential painters and intellectuals such as Pablo Picasso, whom he admired. During his time, Dali painted a number of works that displayed Picasso’s influence. He also met Joan Miro, the Spanish painter and sculpture, who along with poet Paul Eluard and painter Rene Magritte, introduced Dali to Surrealism. By this time Dali was working with styles of Impressionism (main impressionists subjects were landscapes and scenes of everyday life), Futurism (art movement that tried to capture dynamism and energy of the modern world) and Cubism. Dali’s paintings became associated with three general themes: man’s universe and sensations, sexual symbolism and ideographic imagery. All of this experimentation led to Dali’s first Surrealistic period in 1929. These oil paintings were small collages of his dream images. His work employed a particular classical technique, influenced by Renaissance artists that contradicted the “real dream” space that he created with strange hallucinatory characters. The Dada philosophy was an art movement formed after the First World War in Zurich as a negative reaction to the horrors of the war. The poetry, art and performance produced by Dada artists are often mocking and nonsensical to nature which influenced Dali’s art throughout his life. Even before this period, the world of psychology and art were interweaving and Dali was a devoted reader of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. The Lumen Learning website displays that Freud’s psychoanalytical theories of personality development argue that personality is formed by conflicts among three fundamental structures of the human mind: the id, ego and superego. The id, the most primitive of the three structures, is concerned with instant gratification of basic physical needs and urges. It operates entirely unconsciously. The superego is concerned with social rules and morals- similar to what many people call their “moral compass” and “conscious”. It develops as a child learns what their culture considers right and wrong. In contrast to the instinctual id, and moral superego, the ego is the rational pragmatic part of our personality. It’s what Freud considered to be the “self”, and its job is to balance the demands of the id and the superego in the practical context of reality. We can see how this influenced Dali as ‘The Salvador Dali biography’ shows that his major contribution to the Surrealist movement was what he called the “paranoic critical method”, a mental exercise of assessing the subconscious to enhance artistic creativity. Dali would use this method to create a reality from his dreams and subconscious thoughts, thus mentally changing reality to what he wanted it to be and not necessarily what it was. For Dali, it became a way of life. One of Dali’s most famous paintings is ‘The Persistence of Memory’, The Tate gallery described it as a simple figure: a limp watch draped over the branch of a dead tree. ‘Dalinean’ time is not rigid it is one with space… fluid. The unexpected softness of the watch also represents the psychological fact that the speed of time, while precise in scientific use, is widely variable in human perception. The melting clock represents the omnipresence of time and it’s dominion over humans, as well as the inevitability of time moving in one direction. It can also suggest that the limp watch no longer ‘keeps’ time; it does not measure its passage. Thus, the speed of our time depends only on us but still reigns highest over both art and reality.
Dali’s life and Gala
By examining the national gallery of Victoria education website further, it is distinguished that in the Spring of 1929, Dali began displaying concerning traits associated with mental illness. He suffered from uncontrollable fits of hysterical laughter and indulged in attention seeking activities, such as painting his armpits blue, rubbing his body with goat dung and fish glue which concerned those close to him. Dali was infamous for his love of money and his focus on being as commercial as possible, the Surrealist called him ‘Avida Dollars’ which is both an anagram of Salvador Dali and a phonetic rendering of the French ‘avida dollars’ translated ‘eager for dollars’. It was in this context that Dali first encountered Gala, a charismatic Russian immigrant who is said to have captivated and inspired many of the Surrealists. Returning to the information from the Erarta museum it stated that upon marrying Gala in 1934 in a civil ceremony, Dali found his rational counterbalance. However, Dali’s father, who was a very authoritarian person, did not approve of this relationship that he changed his will immediately in which Dali received an absolute minimum required by the law. This demonstrates how Dali’s father continued to be obstructive causing Dali to fear him all his life. Gala had a decisive influence on his future career, which she guided to international success, as she took on diverse and multiple roles in their partnership, as his model, wife and business manager. The artists noted that “she was destined to be my Gradiva, the one who moves forward, my victory, my wife”. Dali started to sign his paintings with his and her name as “it is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures”. Nevertheless, even with the stabilizing influence of his new wife, Dali was still very divisive and causing arguments within the art world and specifically within the Surrealists group.
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The Spanish War started in 1936 ensuring that Dali and Gala had to stay in Paris; although once WW11 broke out three years later they moved to the USA. As America was becoming a prominent centre for fashion and the arts, Dali saw his reputation and notoriety grow, which peaked in his 1942 autobiography ‘The Secret Life of Salvador Dali’ which was a public success. Dali was becoming very commercially successful, by having solo and group exhibitions across the country. He began moving outside of the medium of oil on canvas and began the exploration of design jeweller, film, fashion, writing, printmaking and sculpture. Limited to what he saw as the boundaries of two-dimensional canvas, Dali turned to sculpture in order to reveal his surrealist visions during the war. Moreover, 1943 marked an important year for the artists because he met Eleanor and Reynolds Morse who became major supporters of Dali. The Morses gathered such an extensive collection of Dali’s work that they opened the Dali Museum in Florida, 1971. After such an intense couple of years in the USA concentrating on his career, Dali and Gala returned to Europe in 1948, the couple decided to move to Dali’s home town of Figueres. Whilst Dali settled in a large place that eventually became the Dali theatre and museum, he built a separate castle just for Gala, it was rumoured that the artist could only visit Gala with her written permission which gives us a sense of her controlling nature. Upon her death in 1982 Dali was so devastated that he isolated himself in her old room at the castle for two years. Gala was certainly the main factor in Dali’s life, even though she was maybe a dictator over both his career and life, that it was a great shock and unimaginable not having her in his life. In 1984, a fire broke out in Dali’s bedroom causing first and second degree burns to his right leg although it is debated whether this was an accident or a suicide attempt. However, Dali never fully recovered from the accident and was in a wheelchair for the next five years till his death in 1989. This topic of Dali and Gala displays how Dali believed Gala to be his everything and therefore inspired everything Dali had created. The last ten years of Dali’s creation had merely been the improvement of his science and holographic. Designing perfume bottles was another of Dali’s talents when designing the first ‘Salvador Dali’ fragrance, he designed the bottle inspired by one of his paintings ‘Apparition of the Face of Aphrodite of Knidos’ by taking the nose and lips of Aphrodite and perhaps with it demonstrated the central position in his life and art, Gala. He believed that “of the five senses, the sense of smell in incontestably the one that best conveys a sense of immortality”. This hints of Dali’s obsession with death; he depicted his fear of death multiple times. One could argue that Dali died several times: he had died a few years before he was born through his brother. He died as a young artist when he broke from the Surrealist movement, who’s members, like Breton, began to refer to Dali in the past tense as if he had died. He died when Gala died in 1982. Ultimately, he died of heart failure in 1989. This almost summarises the stages of his life that were life changing and turned his perspective of life upside down.
Examining the Dali paintings website, it is evident that the ‘Swallow’s Tail’ was Dali’s last painting. It was completed in May 1983 in Gala’s castle, as the final part of the series based on the mathematical catastrophe theory of Rene Thom. Dali described Thom’s theory of catastrophe as “the most beautiful aesthetic theory in the world”. Thom’s theory suggests that in four-dimensional space there are seven equilibrium surfaces: swallowtail, butterfly, fold, cusp, elliptic umbilic, parabolic umbilic and hyperbolic umbilic. Dali incorporated each of these surfaces into his painting alongside the gentle and elegant curves of the cello, set against a calm blue background, the painting is more than just a series of shapes and curves; it is a precise representation of Dali’s understanding and interest of a mathematical theory that he undertook successfully by representing this relatively indefinable four-dimensional theory on a two-dimensional canvas. The shape of the Swallow’s tail at the bottom of the painting is copied from Thom’s graph of the same name and the f-holes of the cello in the painting describe the integral symbol in the calculus. Similarly, the S curve represents Thom’s second catastrophe graph. Given the considerable differences in thinking between artist and mathematician the relationship between Dali and Thom is extraordinary. His last painting demonstrates that even at 79 years old, his artistic abilities showed no sign of fading. The fact that Thom used his theory to study and make predictions of processes involving sudden changes could perhaps evoke the idea that Dali wanted to welcome sudden changes in society and not to be afraid of them.
Throughout this essay I have been answering the question: ‘How does Salvador Dali’s perspective on life influence his art?’ I have hopefully depicted that to analyze his paintings one must seek the answers and inspiration in his life. Dali mixed all of his beliefs, theories and obsessions in his art which we have seen shift as his perspective on life has. It is evident that Dali always had the need to change and improve himself due to the lack of self-confidence and his appetite for publication and adoration. There are points in Dali’s life where fame controlled his perspective on life and what his priorities were as Surrealism and his love for Spain were replaced by America and his love for fame and fortune. I think Dali demonstrates how your perspectives in life are always altering but its how we move forward from those mistakes and develop them into something beautiful and inspiring that I think Dali’s art is. Ultimately, we can see how in Dali’s hectic life he achieved his desires of admiration, attention and perpetuity in his artwork. Dali, with both his art and life, left an impact on the art world; intriguing the mind of the viewer in such ways that one could not be apathetic towards it. During this project, I have gained the knowledge of how much Dali is still living in the art world today and I hope people will continue to explore the life and art of Salvador Dali.
- www.parfumes-salvadordali.com, 25.11.2011.
- Salvador Dali: sculptures (2018) [Exhibition]. Erarta Museum, St Petersburg. 25/05/18-23/09/18
- Dali at the Modern (2018) [exhibition]. Tate Modern, London. 01/06/18-09/09/18
- Authors: Biography.com editors. 2014 published date, Salvador Dali biography,
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