If the art reflects the artist, then a lobster phone comes about as close to mirroring the debauched decadence and unyielding manic mayhem of Salvador Dalí as a pair of grey slacks comes to encapsulating the Sex Pistols. Dalí’s art may have been surreal, but if anything, it was a refinement of his berserk existence.
His unique brand of chaos, however, contained multitudes. Dalí was a living repository of more contradictions than a thousand of the ‘troubled cops’ that now besiege every single TV show on the air. This makes him a rather inscrutable figure to explore and sometimes the sheer enormity of the incongruous persona on display makes the man beneath it all immeasurable if indeed the two can be separated.
In recent years, this insurmountable surface and the commercialised waning of his clock-churning final pieces has reduced his legacy down to an interesting maverick who lived life as though it was a movie and he cast himself as the star. The truth is that it might take a scalpel, but there’s a myriad more to Dalí than the weirdness that meets the eye.
For all of his self-evident affrontery, nobody just becomes Dalí. His character was not one that you can turn on a dime, twizzle a moustache and brandish with manufactured bravura. You can’t just say “I don’t take drugs, I am drugs,” there has to be something to spawn it, there needs to be some substance behind the flippant debasement of normality, like a method actor drawing upon a fortnight as a carpenter. For Dalí, this troubled exuberance was seeded before he was even born.
Dalí had an older brother – also named Salvador – who died almost exactly nine months before the eponymous surrealist abseiled from the mother cave into chaotic existence on May 11th, 1904. The tragedy of his brother’s passing was profound, and the birth of Salvador II offered deliverance to his grieving parents. In the case of the Dalí family, however, the deliverance was imbued with a spiritual mysticism and owing to the coincidental dates between his brothers passing and his birth, he was raised in the ghostly shadow of his late predecessor as his mother and father informed him that he was a literal reincarnation. Dalí often spoke at length about the profound effects that this duality, embodying both life and death simultaneously, had on him from an early age. It was his belief that this was the genesis of his obsession with decay and putrefaction. Dalí would later paint a portrait of his brother and refer to him as, “The first version of myself but conceived too much in the absolute.”
When viewed in retrospect, the peculiarity of this upbringing should not detract from the inherent nettlesome trouble and strife that came in the undertow of his childhood. His existence was conflicted. To outsiders, he was an oddity. To his mother, he represented both grief and a gift thus he was emotionally doted on and wanted for nothing. And his wealthy father was by turns stoically stern and liberally supportive in equal measure.
Even still, his childhood behaviour was notably strange. From a young age, Dalí was prone to fits of bizarre sadism. On one occasion he pushed his friend from a six-metre bridge and watched on with a bowl of cherries as his friend’s mother tendered to her badly injured son. Moreover, when he was caring for a wounded bat, he saw one morning that it had been swarmed by ants, thus he unthinkingly picked it up and simply bit its head off. And to top off this strange collation of childhood brutalities, he also made the frank admission that he was drawn to necrophilia at a young age but was cured of such urges.
Aside from these sporadic miscreant peculiarities, Dalí exhibited artistic ability from an early age. By the age of 14, he was already transfiguring the otherworldliness of the pocked lunar landscape and creature laden rockpools that he revelled in alone on vacations in Cadaqués, Spain, as a boy, into impressionist pieces worthy of an exhibit.
While he was establishing his prodigious talents, tragedy struck once more and at the age of 16 as his mother passed away. Dalí described this as the “greatest blow” he had experienced in his life and wrote at the time, “I could not resign myself to the loss of a being on whom I counted to make invisible the unavoidable blemishes of my soul.” The trauma of this loss was no doubt exacerbated further still as his father ended up marrying his mother’s sister only a year on from her passing.
Dalí’s training would continue in Madrid despite the cataclysm of his grief and the intense political turmoil of the city at the time. Into this kaleidoscopic swirl of solemnity, surrealism and social unrest entered the poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The pair would fall platonically in love and Dalí would describe him as ‘the poetic phenomenon incarnate’ and the only person who ever made him jealous.
Lorca would go on to establish himself as a master of ‘duende’, which is roughly defined by Lorca himself as exalted emotion unearthed from within, “a mysterious force that everyone feels, and no philosopher has explained. The roots that cling to the mire from which comes the very substance of art.” The billowing fascism that dizzied the blossoming love affair of the two young artists into a state of almost comatose upheaval, would ultimately take Lorca’s life as he was murdered, aged 38, by Nationalists during the Spanish civil war.
Their infatuation represents the first of many sexual ambiguities that were forever entwined with the life of Salvador Dalí. Despite rumours to the contrary, Dalí stated throughout his life that his affections for Lorca were never consummated. In later years, the late English art critic, Brian Sewell, would famously describe witnessing Dalí “engaging others in orgies of uninhibited sexual congregation, heterosexual, homosexual and both in combination, while he watched fully clothed, the voyeur fumbling in his trousers.” At the centre of this overture of sexual obscurity that has scored his legacy was his wife, muse and demonic dominatrix ‘Gala’ (born Elena Diakonova).
Dalí met Gala after he had left Madrid behind in a maelstrom of unresolved emotions for Lorca and a city in complete turmoil for the captivating milieu of café culture Paris. Therein, he began to establish his name as some sort of artistic incendiary presence akin to the primitive pop culture lovechild of a proto-punk, a turncoat clown and a seismically sui generis genius. He would also be expelled from his family by his father during this period after his disgust of his son’s picture of Jesus Christ entitled Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of my Mother.
Then, in the midst of a mental episode where he simply laughed hysterically for hours on end, he went back to his beloved Cadaqués where he met Gala, and not to besmirch the woman, but it’s hard to see what attracted the madman to her. She was married for a start, although that didn’t seem to matter much to either her or her husband, the surrealist poet Paul Éluard. She was also 34, and Dalí was a tender 24-year-old virgin. And then you can also take into account that the art dealer, John Richardson, once (apparently befittingly) described Gala with the following slew of poetic diatribe: an “ancient harridan”, an “authentically Sadean monster”, a “demonic dominatrix”, a “scarlet woman”, and as having “an appetizing little body, and the libido of an electric eel.”
The term “demonic dominatrix” perhaps comes closest to encapsulating the rest of her biographical reportage into a single couplet. Her crimes include putting a pet rabbit in the oven, extinguishing cigarettes on the arms of accomplices when she was tired of listening to them speak and engaging in forgery conspiracies by getting Dalí to sign several blank canvases as his work slowed in old age and having forgers fill in the rest. But aside from these almost avant-garde atrocities, her relationship with Dalí throws up perhaps the biggest contradiction in a life that was as dichotomous as the bewildering artwork it produced.
There is no doubting that Dalí was besotted with Gala, the fact that he built her a castle and regressed to a state of pure withdrawal and lost his will to live when she passed away in 1982, is testimony to this. But it is also true that he could not visit her castle – the castle of his wife that is – without written permission from her in advance. She also kept a harem of revolving young lovers well into her eighties. Although Dalí never seemed to care about any of this, perhaps because he was arriving at his own sexual gratification via an addiction to masturbating in front of a mirror, obsessing over Adolf Hitler, or insatiably attempting to make money from anywhere and everywhere to amass the most lavish fortune that he could.
Somewhere in this clustered cackle of mayhem and madness was a relationship that somehow got the best out of Dalí and allowed him to propagate art, and a persona for that matter, which irrevocably changed the cultural landscape forever. In the end, he enthused to his lover, “It is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures.” If ever it can be said that two people were made for each other then surely Dalí and Gala represent the world’s hardest two-piece jigsaw puzzle that somehow perfectly pair after a bit of cosmic alchemical jiggery-pokery.
Thus, with all this in mind, and every other berserk detail that squirrels off into unexplored rabbit holes beyond this short biography’s reach, we return to the first point of discussion, it is possible to surpass the surface with Salvador Dalí, or in other words, is artistic madness just mayhem all the same. Should any of this be lauded beyond the interest that it holds from a speculative point of view? Or is the increasingly touted legacy of Dalí as a skilled but churlish scoundrel amid the lumpen bourgeoisie a befitting one?
Well, in short, when the eccentricities and morally judicious elements of his life are tenuously removed from the canvas of his chaotic life, what you are left with is an undoubted genius of both exceptional skill and creative alchemy. If the art reflects the artist, then Salvador Dalí was a man delirious trying to impose some sort of order on the meaningless and in the process he joyously elucidated the fact that life is a little more surreal than we give it credit for.