May 11, 1904 – Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, Marquis of Dalí de Púbol:
”Each morning when I awake, I experience again a supreme pleasure – that of being Salvador Dali.”
Salvador Dalí‘s frequent proclamations of his own genius make Kanye West seem like a complete amateur. He once announced his polymath qualities during a chaotic 1957 appearance on the television show What’s My Line, answering yes to nearly every question, professing to be an athlete, leading man, writer, and comic strip artist.
Dalí was one of the 20th century’s most important artists, a skilled draftsman, famous for the striking and bizarre images in Surrealist work which included film, sculpture, and photography, and collaborations with many kinds of artists in a variety of media.
Dalí was famous for his art, but even more so for his unusual and grandiose behavior. His manic expressions and famous moustache made him a cultural icon. His eccentric manner and attention-grabbing public antics brought dismay to those who held his work in high esteem, and the irritation of his critics.
As Dalí said of himself:
“The only difference between me and the surrealists is that I am a surrealist.”
He has been portrayed on film by Robert Pattinson in Little Ashes (2008), Adrien Brody in Midnight In Paris (2011), and on Sesame Street as the gold Muppet, “Salvador Dada”.
Little Ashes is about the love affair between Dalí and his fellow Spaniard Federico Garcia Lorca, the doomed playwright and poet. Lorca wrote the plays Blood Wedding and The House Of Bernarda Alba, and was murdered when he was 38-years-old by Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Little Ashes is set in the culturally and politically tumultuous 1920s in Madrid and follows the intense relationship of three revolutionary young artists: Dalí, Lorca and filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
Lorca is played by the Spanish actor Javier Beltran, and Buñuel by Matthew McNulty. Little Ashes is named after a noted Dalí painting.
In real life, Dalí denied his relationship with Lorca ever became physical:
”He was homosexual, as everyone knows, and madly in love with me. He tried to screw me twice… I was extremely annoyed, because I wasn’t homosexual, and I wasn’t interested in giving in. Besides, it hurts. So nothing came of it. But I felt awfully flattered vis-à-vis the prestige. Deep down I felt that he was a great poet and that I owe him a tiny bit of the Divine Dali’s asshole.”
Yet, it’s clear something happened between them. Their letters show that something sexual was going on. What started as a friendship, became more intimate and moved to a physical level, but Dalí found it difficult and couldn’t consummate it. Considering his many hang-ups, it’s not surprising.
During his childhood, Dalí’s father would force him to look at graphic images of advanced-stage untreated sexually transmitted diseases. Young Dalí developed a fear of and obsession with sex, decay, and castration. These became frequent themes in his work, most famously in his painting The Great Masturbator (1929).
Dalí admitted having sadomasochistic tendencies. As a child he enjoyed throwing himself down the stairs, explaining:
”The pain was insignificant; the pleasure was immense.”
Shockingly, he once pushed a childhood friend off a 15-foot bridge. As his friend lay injured, Dalí sat calmly eating cherries. Sadomasochism is featured frequently in his work, including Un Chien Andalou (1959), a film collaboration with Buñuel which features a woman’s eyeball being cut open.
In his later years, Dalí admitted to finding men sexually attractive, but only if they were androgynous and feminine.
Lorca slept with a female friend of theirs, which Dalí called ”the ultimate sacrifice”. Dalí watched and this was the start of his life of voyeurism. Dalí was haunted by Lorca for the rest of his life and talked about him more than his wife, Gala (born as Elena Ivanovna Diakonov). The depths of Dalí’s sexual ambiguity was matched by his wife’s sexual ambition. Famed even before they met for her long list of lovers of both sexes.
In 1929, when Dalí met Gala, he was said to still be a virgin because of his fear of female sex organs. He found sexual gratification from watching his wife have sex with others and the couple hosted orgies. Their open marriage gave Gala the freedom to have multiple affairs, but rumors continued to surround Dalí’s own sexual preferences. He regularly masturbated in front of a mirror, and had no other sex because of his fear of being touched, so Lorca probably never got very far.
Gala was a Russian-born former school teacher who left Dalí’s poet friend Paul Éluard for the artist. She served as Dalí’s muse until the end of his life. He once asked Gala, who was standing on the edge of a cliff, what she wanted from him. She answered: ‘‘I want you to kill me!’‘. Dalí credited this confession to curing him of the fits of hysteria that he had been experiencing his whole life. He bought her a castle in Púbol, Spain, which he transformed with his own artwork. However, he was only permitted to visit her with her written permission.
Dalí’s surrealism wasn’t just reflected in his art; his life was surreal. He had an obsession with Adolf Hitler, a crippling fear of grasshoppers and a very bizarre encounter with art historian Brian Sewell who claimed that Dalí asked him to lie naked in front of one of his sculptures and masturbate while he watched. Dalí’s list of seriously strange exploits are as endless as his creativity.
Dalí’s mother gave birth to her first son in 1901, a child that she named Salvador, who died at 22-months-old. Nine months later, the other Salvador was born, taking his dead brother’s name. When he was five-years-old, Dalí was told by his parents that he was the reincarnation of his brother, a belief he carried with him all his life.
Dalí wasn’t really into the whole poor, suffering artist thing. He enjoyed an extraordinarily lavish lifestyle. His lifestyle benefited from his fame, his famous friends and his lack of financial scruples. He would draw on the back of every check he wrote to pay for dinner, knowing that no restaurant would ever cash an original Dalí artwork.
Most of Dalí’s circle had Leftest political leanings, but he kept curiously quiet about politics during his career. He was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer, which he vehemently denied. Dalí addressed Herr Hitler in some of his art, including the paintings The Enigma Of Hitler and Hitler Masturbating, and confessed that he ”dreamed of Hitler as a woman” and that the Nazis turned him on sexually.
In Dalí’s youth, he embraced both Anarchism and Communism, though his writings tell anecdotes of making radical political statements more to shock listeners than from any deep conviction, keeping with Dalí’s allegiance to the Dada movement. He declared himself to be both an anarchist and monarchist.
In interviews, Dalí revealed he was into mysticism. While remaining a Roman Catholic, Dalí also claimed to be an agnostic. In his memoir The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), he sums up his life story with an impassioned defense of the Catholic Church and religion in general:
“I believe, above all, in the real and unfathomable force of the philosophic Catholicism of France and in that of the militant Catholicism of Spain.”
Dalí frequently traveled with his pet ocelot Babou, even bringing it aboard the luxury liner SS France. He sometimes appeared in public with an anteater, including on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970 when he carried a small anteater onstage and surprised fellow guest Lillian Gish by flinging the anteater onto her lap.
When they were just becoming famous, Cher and Sonny Bono were invited to an orgy at Dalí’s apartment in NYC’s Plaza Hotel. Cher said:
“I picked up a beautiful, painted rubber fish. Just fabulous. It has this little remote-control handset, and I’m playing with it, and the tail is going back and forth, and I’m thinking it’s a child’s toy. So, I said to Salvador: ‘This is really funny’. And he said: ‘It’s wonderful when you place it on your clitoris.'”
Besides visual puns, Dalí shared in the surrealist delight of verbal puns, obscure allusions, and word games. He often spoke in a bizarre combination of French, Spanish, Catalan, and English. His writings freely mixed words from different languages with terms entirely of his own devising. Dalí was a colorful and imposing presence with his long cape, walking stick, haughty expression, and large upturned waxed moustache.
When interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, Dalí kept referring to himself in the third person, as the “Divino Dalí”, and told the startled Wallace matter-of-factly that he did not believe in death.
Dalí decided to deliver his lecture at the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition dressed in an antique diving suit, representing him delving into the sea of his subconscious. When he began to suffocate inside the soundproof suit, the audience thought it was part of an elaborate performance.
He was not averse to indulging in some of the more frivolous aspects of pop culture, starring in commercials for Alka Selzer, Braniff Airlines, and Lanvin Chocolate. He even designed the logo for Supremos Chupa Chups Lollipops. He pitched a film to Walt Disney. The project, Destino, was never shown in Dalí’s lifetime, but in 2003 it was picked up by Disney’s nephew Roy Disney, who cut it into a six-minute short film.
Dalí produced over 1,500 paintings in his career, in addition to illustrations for books, lithographs, designs for theatre sets and costumes, drawings, and dozens of sculptures.
In early 1989, Dalí made his last public appearance. He was taken in a wheelchair to a room where newspaper and television reporters were waiting and made a brief statement, saying:
“When you are a genius, you do not have the right to die, because we are necessary for the progress of humanity.”
While his favorite recording of Tristan And Isolde played, Dalí died of heart failure. He was 84-years-old. He is buried in the crypt below the stage of his theatre and museum in Figueres, Catalonia, across the street from the church where he had his baptism, first communion, and funeral, and only three blocks from the house where he was born.
The largest collection of Dalí’s work is at his Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres, Catalonia. The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, holds over 1000 pieces. Other significant collections include the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid; the Salvador Dalí Gallery in San Juan Capistrano; the Dalí – Die Ausstellung am Potsdamer Platz in Berlin; Espace Dalí in Paris; and Dalí Universe in London.
The unlikeliest venue for Dalí’s work was the prison on Rikers Island in NYC. A sketch of the Crucifixion that he donated to the jail in 1965, hung in the inmate dining room for 16 years before it was moved to the prison lobby for safekeeping. Ironically, the drawing was stolen from that location in 2003 and has not been recovered.