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Portilligat: Exploring Salvador Dalí's eccentric Catalonian party-pad


Salvador Dalí needs no introduction. As one of the defining artists of the surrealist movement, his films, sculptures, and paintings are etched into the very fabric of modern art – just as his pieces themselves were hewn from that well of unspoken dreams and desires, the unconscious. It’s no wonder, then, that stepping inside his incredible home in Portilliga, Catalonia, is much like being invited into the Escher-like blueprints of his mind. This labyrinthine sprawl of studies, studios and gardens, all framed by the bay of Portlligat, allows us insight not only into his daily rituals and decadent parties but also into the most bizarre corners of Salvador Dalí’s subconscious.

After spending what had felt like a lifetime in the bohemian quarters of Monmarte, Dalí – now an established name in the art world – returned to his native Spain to find a property where he and his wife Gala could live and work in peace. It was 1930 when the couple arrived in Portilligat, and it wasn’t long before they fell in love with its curved cerulean bay, gnarled olive groves, and ivory white fishing huts. Keen to make this sun-baked landscape his home, Dalí purchased one of the huts from Lídia Noguer. It was really more of a shack, and with its dilapidated roof, it was clearly in need of some renovation.

Dalí forked out 20,000 francs – a sum given to him as an advance on a painting he owed the Viscount of Noailles – to secure the property. The only problem was how to get all of his and Gala’s belongings from their dingy apartment in Paris to Portilligat. To keep themselves occupied during the long journey, Salvador and Gala discussed their dreams for the house, a discussion he later recalled in his memoirs: “Our little house was to consist of a room of about four square metres that was to serve as a dining room, bedroom, studio and an entrance hall. You go up some steps and as you land, three doors open out, taking you to a shower, a toilet and a kitchen of very tight dimensions that you can hardly squeeze in. I wanted it all good and small — the smaller the more womblike”.

The renovation of their home in Portilligat would take 40 years. In many ways, it was conceived less as a building project with a strict deadline and more as an ongoing, immersive art installation, with which Salvador and Gala attempted to build an estate that perfectly reflected the many facets of their complex personalities. Like the human brain, the house is divided into distinct sections imbued with specific atmospheres. The ground floor, which features a towering stuffed polar bear, was designed to be the most private space in the house, where Dalí and Gala could live in privacy.

Rooms seven to 12 – where his studio is located – were dedicated to Dalí’s artistic practice, as were rooms five and six, where, today, you can find a variety of personal objects related to his work as an artist. The armchair in his studio, for example, was where Dalí would engage in what he called “The slumber with a key”, a daily ritual that saw him fall asleep with a china plate by his feet and a heavy metal key in his hand, the logic being that, when he started to fall asleep, the key would fall from his grasp and the noise of it dashing against the plate would rouse him instantly. For surrealist artists, the moment between sleep and wakefulness was regarded as the point where the brain was the most steeped in subconscious thought and thus the most creatively charged. The armchair exercise was therefore used to inspire creativity throughout the day.

Salvador Dalí House Museum, Portilligat. (Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)

Then there are the patio and garden sections, where landscaped paths weave between olive groves, penis-shaped swimming pools, and bizarre art installations. It was here that Salvador and Gala would host their extravagant parties and where Dalí’s taste for whimsy was given room to shine. Walk from the private aromatic gardens, along the Via Làctia” (Milky Way) – a white chalk path that runs parallel to the sea – and you’ll come across the entrance to the soiree area. Adorning the left-hand wall flanking this rabbit-hole passage is a sculpture carved into the white rock. Designed to represent the abandonment of adult inhibitions, this half-warrior half-child sculpture was created to remind party guests that, once inside, they would be required to throw off any sense of formality and embrace their childlike selves.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that it is here we find a swimming pool shaped like a gigantic phallus. Everyone from Coco Chanel to Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has taken a dip in this pool. Indeed, the parties the Dalí’s threw in Portilligat were attended by many of the most prominent figures in the world of art and fashion. As Slavador’s fame grew so did the notoriety of his guests, with the likes of Rene Magritte, Andy Warhol, the Marx brothers, Laurence Olivier and the Windsor’s (yes, Queenie could well have plunged into the penis pool) all making the trip to Portilligat to soak up the Spanish sunlight. As Warhol once said, attending one of the Dalís’ parties was like spending an evening with “with royalty or circus people”.

By the early ’70s, the patio area in which the pool sits had become the site of Dalí’s ‘Court of Miracles’, a sexual pantomime involving hermaphrodite dwarves, twins (with whom Dali was intensely fascinated), transgender models such as Amanda Lear, and a whole contingent of hippies who heeded Dali’s every back and call. Whether they were playing in the penis-shaped pool or putting on erotic cabarets, Dalí always observed from a distance, the arch-overlord of his own twisted Eden.

Following Gala’s death in 1982, Salvador left Portilligat for Púbol, the surrealist castle he had designed for his wife, and from where she had been entertaining her younger lover since the 1970s, only receiving Salvador by written invitation. “I limited myself to the pleasure of decorating her ceilings so that when she raised her eyes, she would always find me in her sky,” Dali said of his and Gala’s fractured relationship. In 1997, Dali’s house in Portilligat was turned into a museum, which is open to the public today. Wondering around this dreamlike realm is truly like entering another world; one speckled with ancient greek gardens, giant egg sculptures, and pretty much everything you’d expect to find at the mad hatter’s tea party. If you’d like to experience it for yourself, the journey is easily made from Barcelona. Visit The Dali Foundation website for more details.