Artist Profile: Salvador Dali

Love him or hate him Salvador Dali is one of the most recognizable artists on the planet. For some reason this man’s art continues to fascinate millions. Whether images of his paintings are gracing the walls of a dorm room or used as desktop backgrounds there’s no debate that in terms of mass reproduction of imagery, no one tops Dali. I think it is also mandatory that every 14 year old boy interested in drawing go through a Dali phase. I must admit that my own relationship with Dali’s work seems to be one more of nostalgia. Nonetheless, Dali is an extremely easy entry point into painting. His work is highly modeled, and excellently crafted. Everyone who looks at Dali’s bread painting must agree, this guy could seriously paint. Then on top of that you have an explosive imagination. Long legged elephants on parade and clocks melting in barren landscapes.

One thing about Dali is that he isn’t really taken seriously in the art world. When people hear someone saying that “Dali” is their favorite artist they kind of classify them as naive romantics or they lose points for not being creative enough. If you want to sound cool when someone asks you your favorite painter it’s generally a good idea to say someone really obscure like Louis Wain. What? You don’t know Louis Wain? Ohmagawd. He’s only the most famous painter of cats who became schizophrenic and continued to paint these absolutely insane psychadelic cats. You see my point? I think the big reason people don’t like Dali is because he’s just too damn popular. But in secret everyone kind of loves him.

Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech was a Spanish Catalan born in Figueres Spain. He also had an older brother who was also named Salvador who died. When little salvador was 5 his parents took him to see the grave of his brother Salvador. So he stood there, looking at a gravestone, with his name on it, when he was 5. To top things off his parents decided to tell him that he was the reincarnation of his brother. I don’t know what kinds of messed up parents they had back then but I think it’s safe to say it’s generally not a good idea to do this. Believe it or not Vincent Van Gogh also had an older brother (named Vincent) who died before he was born. And we all know how that turned out.

Anyway, Dali spent a ton of time chillin on the beach drawing pictures while he was growing up. In the summer he got to go hang out with this landscape painter named Ramon Pichot. Remember that Salvador was only 12, but his enthusiasm towards drawing was so evident that his parents decided to nurture it. Just by looking at these cartoons he was drawing at age 12 and 13 you can see that Dali undoubtedly was the “kid who could draw”. By age 14 he had set up a studio in an unused washroom in his parents house, and he began to paint.

In “old man at twilight” we see one of Dali’s first paintings. He had probably messed around with paint a bit during his summer trips to the beach house, but now that he had a studio you can see someone who is determined to be a painter. There are a few technical things which spring to mind. First of all it is certain that Dali already has a good understanding of paint application, he is not afraid to get messy with it and is quite loose and free. He also connects the dark of the legs to the ground. This is something which was very popular with the post impressionists such as Degas. The idea being that the brain will fill in the extraneous information. This is also a rule of design, it’s called “Closure”. The composition isn’t the best and the figure is basically smack in the center of the painting, but hey, the guy’s 14, maybe we should give him a break. A bunch of attempts at realism continue on throughout the next few years.

So the years pass, and it comes time to go to college. It’s the same old story. The stern dad is scared his son will never make a penny from being a painter, and reluctantly sends his son to school with the exception that Salvador must obtain his teaching credentials so he can have a career. Salvador also wrote like mad, and kept a diary all throughout his teens. After he parents told him he would be allowed to study art he made this diary entry.

“The supreme and perhaps most important decision of my life, since it indicates the direction that I have to follow, is the following (which has been approved by my family): I shall quickly finish my remaining studies, doing the remaining two years in just one. Then I’ll go to Madrid to the Academia de bellas artes…There I intend to spend three years working like mad, anyway the Academia is a fine place. Then by sacrificing myself and submitting to truth I will win the prize to study for four years in Rome; and coming back from Rome I’ll be a genius, and the world will admire me. Perhaps I’ll be more despised and misunderstood, but I ll be a genius, a great genius, I am sure of it.

The first thing I have to say about this diary entry is “who is he writing this for?” He has already made up his mind that he is going to be famous, so at this point it is almost as if he is leaving an easy rode for future historians to follow. At the same time it retains a certain teenage naivitee. he basically starts off saying (My Parents said it’s ok!) and then go on to talk about how he will now be a genius. Glad his parents let him;)

And then it’s 1921, Dali makes this self portrait of himself. I think it’s fair to say that if Dali were alive today, at this point he’d probably be pretty damn emo. Wearing a large hat, smoking a pipe, and casually glancing at the viewer. The darkness surrounds him with mystery. Needless to say I imagine he didn’t have much of a problem picking up the ladies with this image. And it is this same image that still kind of irks a lot of critics to this day. He seems to embody a very stereotypical artistic personality. He’s wild, hard working, eccentric, but also intelligent and flamboyantly dressed. The question many have is whether or not it was all an act or not to which I say “who cares?” I mean really, who cares how he marketed himself or developed his personal brand. He also left like a zillion paintings all over the place, and they’re great paintings.

So Dali is going through art school kicking ass. He’s painting all the time and he even begins to show and sell his works. It’s also important to remember that Spain during this time was a political firestorm. There were numerous anarchist, fascist, and communist rallies and the monarchy which had ruled spain for so long had become unstable. Sometimes the governments reprisals against the anarchists were bloody. By 1923 Salvador was the star pupil in the school. He and many students really wanted their favorite teacher to become the Professor of Open Air painting. Well, after someone less qualified was given the position the students became very angry. And salvador actually led a protest against the school. For this he was expelled for one year. He then goes to another school in madrid and does figure drawing. During this same time the Dictatorship of Rivera comes to power in Spain. Dali is active in many protests against the dictator and because of this he is imprisoned for a month, he was then released because there was no evidence against him. Just his ideas.

By 1925 Dali is back in school but he’s becoming increasingly difficult to teach. During one of his assesments he tells the school board that they aren’t competent enough to judge him. He gets expelled again. Even though his technical skills seem to be at a very high level as is evident in his painting “bread” . By this time he has many close artistic and intellectual friendships which he feels very close to. We can see by his paintings that even though he abandoned his school he continues to paint very traditional female nudes. This should be an example to all you aspiring surrealist painters out there. If you want to learn how to paint, paint the figure.

Dali then has a cubist phase which is offensive to even look at. And then he starts making these landscapes. I believe they come from Joan Miro who was also an upcoming Catalan star, and someone Dali undoubtedly admired. Compare Miro’s “the tilled field” in 1923 with Dalis early experiments with these types of landscapes. The similarities are strikingly apparent. Then in 1928 Dali paints Little Ashes which seems to be a breakthrough painting for Dali. He begins to create these dreamlike landscapes filled with various creatures, optical illusions, animals, and naked people. But this is already 1928. Dali is 24 and the surrealist manifesto was written back in 1924 by Andre Breton. So it seems that instead of pioneering the surrealist movement as many believe, he actually came in pretty late in the game. But these barren landscapes full of sexually charged imagery would become his home. And this is what we all know Dali for today. One can look at either Miro, or even De Chirico who was making similar barren landscapes full of disparate imagery back in 1913. It is important to note that surrealism at this point was a very social movement. Many times they would meet in cafes together and create large colloborative drawings. As a rule surrealists would state that the art was a byproduct of a philosophy, so the idea that “someone stole an idea” from someone else didn’t really exist. It is also no mistake that while Freud was writing “The ego and the Id”(1923), in which he developed it as an alternative to the conscious, unconscious, and preconscious. The ideas of Freud and the surrealist leader Andre Breton are the heart of surrealism. In many ways this is the closest relationship that art and science have occupied since the Rennaissance.

This collaborative nature led Dali to investigate film, and in 1929 he worked with Luis Benel to create Un Chien Andalou.

Dali was continually pushing the boundaries of conventional morality and this caused his family to further distance themselves from him. He was becoming increasingly provacative and it was in 1931 that he created his most famous work. “The Persistence of Memory” In this painting we see a barren landscape inhibatied by various soft clocks which are draping themselves on various objects. In the bottom right we see what appears to be some sort of nebulous sleeping mass. It is apparent that it is that of a human. But we can’t quite make out the correct form. Dali is trying to convey the fogginess of the dream state here and the clocks can symbolise a few things. It could be that while dreaming our sense of time becomes muddied, or it also could be in reference to another great thinker of that time, which was Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity. Nonetheless this painting has become iconic and strikes a cord with millions of people to this day. The thing that really shocked me whenh I first saw it is it’s size. It’s a really little painting measuring only 24cm× 33cm (9.5in× 13in). Which in my opinion makes the brushwork all the more amazing. Overall the works from this period of time reflected what Dali said was his “Freudian Period”

The next work we will be looking at is the Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937). Dali completed this work after returning from a very successful stay in the US. It was created using what Dali called the Paranoic-Critical method. This basically meant putting to similarly shaped objects near each other, and suggesting that one form is something else. So in this case we see Narcissus who is gazing into his reflective pool. And on the right we see a finger with an egg on it. The idea was to have completely disparate elements, and make them work together. It also plays with our ideas of perception and how we create our own symbolism in our minds. The overall idea is to create links between things which rationally are not linked. Nonetheless, Dali’s symbolism still seeps into everything he does: so in a sense it isn’t all exactly random. If we further investigate what we believe to be random, we discover that all of the random stuff that happens to us also makes our personalities.

In the next few years civil war broke out in Spain which preceded World War II. Dali got out of Europe as fast as he could and refused to take sides in the battle. This caused a lot to label him as a wimp most notably George Orwell who were beginning to despise the cult of personality surrounding Dali, and the way that Dali seemed to have a mutually parasitic relation. But the underlying question was whether or not Dali was playing a joke on everyone. In his former years he called himself a Monarchist Anarchist, and after the war finished he started a very strange close relationship with the authoritarian Franco regime, even painting Franco’s daughter. He converted to catholicism, and did another super realistic bread painting (this time the bread representing the eucharist) . He made statements about how the state should wipe out the anarchists, yet he still loved and spoke about the work of Federico García Lorca who was a firend of Dali’s who was most likely killed by nationalists, and his work had become banned in Spain at the time.

In 1953 Dali returns to repaint his most famous work the persistence of memory. As I stated previously one could assume that the original painting could be linked to Einstein’s idas of Space/Time . In that sense this work is a continuation of that theme. Except now what we know about physics has changed and this painting has a lot more to do with quantum mechanics and the idea that everything can be endlessly broken down into smaller components.

During the 50s and 60s Dali creates many christian based paintings. He also began to work closely with celebreties in the mainstream. He made the dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcocks film spellbound. He also worked with fashion designers, furniture designers, and even produced a cartoon with Walt Disney called Destino. It would be this close relationship with the giants of media which many would begin to see as off putting.

In 1967 Dali creates what many regard as his final masterpiece. Tuna Fishing. In this painting we see the entrails of tuna being ripped open and scattered about the painting. They morph themselves into other imagery ala Dalis Paranoic Critical method. The one part of the painting I find to be atypical of Dali’s work is the black figure at the center bottom of the work. It is appears to look like a silkscreen and almost reminiscent of another man who knew how to work the media at the same time. Andy Warhol. In keeping with Dali’s aloof nature when commenting on his paintings he claimed that the work was inspired by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier. He also started working commercially and created the Chupa Chups logo among other things.

In 1977 Dali completes (this is the title coming) “Dalí’s Hand Drawing Back the Golden Fleece in the Form of a Cloud to Show Gala Completely Nude, Very Far Away Behind the Sun ” In this painting Dali actually created a stereoscopic image, which means that if looked at correctly, (or with the aid of a special mirrored viewer) they fuse into a single 3-D image.

In 1980 his wife started going mad and began feeding him cocktails of drugs mixed into his drinks. It is believed that she was senile and was not doing anything out of malice. However the drugs took a toll on Dali’s body and his hand shook so badly that he could no longer paint. The last years of his life proved to be chaotic and after his wifes death in 1982 he pretty much lost it completely. He moved into a castle, and threw himself out of the window. He also refused to drink water, and intentionally dehydrated his body. Whether these were suicide attempts is unknown, however it would be difficult to fully understand anymore what is show, what is simply Dali, and what is reality. Or perhaps, Dali is Reality 🙂 In 1983 he would create his last painting. The swallows Tail. At this point Dali was brought back to Figueres by a group of concerned friends and artists, and they made sure he was taken care of until his dying day. Then, on January 23, 1989 Dali’s heart stopped beating while he listened to one of his favorite Operas Tristen and Isolde. He was 84 years old.

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