Salvador Dalí is one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century. Over the course of his long career, beginning in the 1920s, Dalí explored numerous mediums including painting, drawing, set design, film, photography and graphic art. His fascination with the subconscious, religion and science put him at the forefront of the avant-garde for over five decades.
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Angel (L’ange), 1947
Combat Épique (Epic Combat), c. 1976
Composition Surrealiste (Surrealist Composition), 1947
Croquis de Personnages (Sketch of Characters), c. 1938
Etude a l’Architecture, Chevalier et Personnages (Study in Architecture, Knight and Characters), 1939
Etude de Mode, Phallus sur Béquilles, Dessin de Femme pour la Mode (Fashion Study, Penis on Crutches, Fashion Study of Woman), 1937
Etude pour ‘Couples aux Têtes Pleines de Nuages’ (Study for ‘Couples with Their Heads Full of Clouds’), c. 1936
Nouvelle Silhouette du Sex-Appeal; Lampadaires aux Béquilles (New Silhouette of Sex Appeal; Street Lights on Crutches), c. 1937
Paysage avec Temple et Arc de Triomphe (Landscape with Temple and Triumphal Arch), 1939
Sans Titre (Untitled), 1930
Salvador Dalí was born on 11th May 1904 in Figueres, Spain. His father was a celebrated notary, whom he would have a troubled relationship with throughout his life, while his mother, who was a devout Catholic devoted her time to her children, and whose death would have a profound effect on the artist. His parents indulged his extrovert behaviour and acknowledged his talent as an artist from an early age. Dalí attended drawing classes at the Municipal Drawing School in Figueres and his father enrolled him in a private school when he was six years old. Here, Dalí first began learning French, which he would use extensively in his later artistic life.
The family had a holiday home in the small town of Cadaqués on the Catalan coast, where Dalí would spend every summer growing up. It was an important place for the artist, who would go on to buy his own home nearby at Port Lligat later in life. While there Dalí met his earliest mentor Ramon Pichot and began painting the seaside landscape.
Upon leaving school, Dalí was accepted into the San Fernando Academy of Art in Madrid. While a student at the Academy he became friends with several future leading intellectual and artistic figures, such as the playwright Federico García Lorca and filmmaker, Luis Buñuel. In these early years Dalí engaged with numerous artistic movements including Futurism, Impressionism and Cubism. His time at the Academy was cut short when he was expelled from the school in 1923 after refusing to be examined in the theory of art.
After leaving the Academy, Dalí returned to Catalonia, where his art became increasingly abstract and dream-like. Two years later, Dalí had his first solo exhibition in Barcelona, which gained him early recognition.
Over the next few years, Dalí made several trips to Paris, where he was introduced to artists associated with the Surrealist movement, through Spanish artist Joan Miró. Inspired by the movement’s leader André Breton, Dalí began working in the Surrealist style. This aesthetic would remain at the forefront of his work for the rest of his career and across his multi-faceted artistic output, in which he explored film, photography, drawing, painting and theatre design. Dalí described his process as the ‘paranoic-critical method’ in which he used the subconscious to achieve greater artistic creativity. His approach was heavily influenced by the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, who he met in 1938, and who would be the overwhelming influence on his art over the first half of his career. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Dalí produced some of the most important works of Surrealism including The Persistence of Memory (1931) and his collaborations with Luis Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Âge d’Or (1930).
As his fame and renown as an artist increased in the early 1930s, his public outbursts and flamboyant behaviour increased. This caused tension amongst members of the Surrealist group that continued to escalate throughout the decade. While most members of the movement associated themselves with Leftist politics, in the face of the rise in Fascism in Spain and Germany, Dalí remained apolitical, refusing to denounce the actions of both Hitler and General Franco.
By 1936, Dalí’s career was well established both in Europe and America. In the same year he participated in the International Surrealist Exhibition, held at the New Burlington Galleries in London and was featured on the cover of TIME magazine, photographed by celebrated Surrealist, Man Ray. Dalí was in part supported by the poet Edward James, a keen collector of Surrealist art for whom Dalí made two of his most important works Lobster Telephone (1936) and Mae West Lips Sofa (1937).
1939 marked a turning point in Dali’s career. Having designed the Dream of Venus pavilion, which was presented at the World’s Fair in New York, he was expelled from the Surrealist group by Breton, who believed his work had become too commercialised and who was deeply critical of Dalí’s apolitical stance. Dalí and his wife, Gala, finally fled Paris in the midst of the Second World War, bound for America. They remained in America for most of the 1940s, where he received his first retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. During this time, Dalí produced a number of new film works and collaborated with both Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney Studios.
Returning to Catalonia in the late 1940s, Dalí rejoined the Catholic faith, which would heavily influence the subject matter and approach to his work over the next decades. At the same time, Dalí gained an interest in science and mathematics. Working on a larger scale than before Dalí produced meticulously detailed images of religious, historical and scientific themes, in particular nuclear physics. Inspired by the shock of Hiroshima and the advent of the atomic age, Dalí sought to synthesize Christian iconography with images of material disintegration.
Dalí’s deepening interest in science increased throughout the 1950s and 1960s; he became obsessed with geometry and space, striving to explore and challenge the possibilities of the third dimension. Combining scientific concepts with ideas about divinity and immortality, Dalí’s work became increasingly fractured and multi-faceted. He relied heavily on visual illusions often employing visual puns, trompe l’oeil and negative space in his work to great effect. His best-known works from this period include the paintings Le Gare de Perpignan (1965) and The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1968-1970).
While exploring these themes in his drawings and paintings, Dalí continued to examine the extent of visual possibilities in a number of mediums. He was particularly fascinated by the camera’s ability to depict the facts of the world at the same time as representing things in its uniquely mechanical way. By this time an internationally renowned artist, in 1960, Dalí, in collaboration with the Mayor of Figueres, began to build the Teatro-Museo Dalí in his hometown. The museum was rebuilt on the site of the old theatre in Figueres, which had been destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. The space was devised to reflect Dalí’s artistic and aesthetic beliefs. The museum, which holds the largest collection of Dalí’s artistic output, eventually opened in 1974.
Following the death of Gala in 1982, Dalí’s health began to fail and his artistic output dramatically lessened. After a fire broke out in his home in 1984, in which he was severely injured, Dalí was confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. He died of heart failure on January 23rd 1989, aged 84. He is buried in the crypt of the Teatro-Museo Dalí.
Exhibitions and Awards
Dalí’s prolific artistic output throughout his career, including over 1,500 paintings as well as illustrations, drawings, theatre sets, costumes, sculptures and films, have made him one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century. His work is held in many major international cultural institutions including Tate, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.