Salvador Dali: perhaps the last person you’d expect to see an introverted biography about. As we frequently saw, Dali was a brilliant painter and artist whose eccentric personality often overshadowed his immense talent. Most notably, he was known for being vain, narcissistic and a megalomaniac. But was he really?
Salvador Dali was born in 1904 in Figueres, Cataluña, Spain. Named after his brother Salvador who had died 9 months before he was born, Dali’s parents believed he was his brother’s reincarnation. Dali learned of this unsettling and bizarre belief at the age of five, when they took him on a disturbing visit to the grave bearing his name and told him he was the original child’s reincarnation. At the age of 16, Dali was tremendously affected by the loss of his mother to breast cancer. Such constant dwelling on mortality influenced the artist heavily throughout his life. Soon after, his father married Dali’s Aunty, the sister of Dali’s mother.
In 1922, Dali moved to Madrid and began studying at the Academia de San Fernando. According to Dali’s most formidable biographer Ian Gibson (The Shameful Life Of Salvador Dali), he was described by his fellow students at the Madrid art academy as “morbidly shy and literally sick with timidity“. Not only was Dali terrified of blushing, but he also had profound sexual-identity confusion from his bisexuality (resulting in a love affair with poet Federico Garcia Lorca), and felt great sexual inadequacy (“…I discovered that my penis was small, pitiful and soft”) resulting in a life long celibacy with the exception of masturbation. All of these insecurities drove him into solitude. His paralyzing timidity didn’t however stop his ruthless self-image manipulation and self-aggrandizement that was already discernible in his youth. One diary entry he wrote at the age of 16 heralded: “I’ll be a genius, and the world will admire me. Perhaps I’ll be despised and misunderstood, but I’ll be a genius, a great genius, I’m certain of it.”
The eccentric and ostentatious Dali the world knows, was born after he received some wise advice from his uncle. To transcend his paralyzing shyness, his uncle told him to become an actor in his relations with the people around him, and to pretend he was an extrovert with every soul, including his closest friends. This single piece of advice was to change Dali’s world, and reputation, forever. Dali followed this advice to disguise his social mortification and eventually became the most notoriously self-promoting, fearless, uninhibited and gregarious extroverted-introvert personalities of all time. As the saying goes: he faked it, until he made it.
Even while creating all this charade around himself, Dali still required solitude and quiet introspection to channel his artistic genius. On one of these occasions Dali and his girlfriend Gala rented two large rooms in the Hotel du Chateau at Carry-le-Roulet; one was used as a bedroom and the other as Dali’s studio. During a two month period in the hotel, the blinds remained entirely shut and Dali didn’t venture even once outside. To inspire many of his paintings, Dali would sit on a couch with a spoon in
his hand while falling asleep. As soon as he was falling asleep, the spoon would slip from his hand, bang against the floor and wake him up. He declared that in those few seconds of the richly imaginative semi-dreaming state, he was flooded by the most amazing visual images.
In 1931, Dalí would paint the work that would later become his most celebrated, “la Persistencia de la memoria” (“Persistence of Memory”). The theme of the painting was his rejection of the belief that time is rigid – which would almost overnight immortalize him.
Dali’s work encompasses over 1500 paintings, furniture (among many, a hard boiled egg table) and sculptures, but his artwork wasn’t only limited to that. Christian Dior collaborated with him, to design costumes for plays. Alfred Hitchcock called upon his talents for the dream scene in Spellbound, as did Walt Disney in a planned collaboration named Destino for which Dali wrote a screenplay. Dali even contributed to the design of the modern day Chupa Chups lollipop design.
Critics often argue against the credibility of the outrageous anecdotes Dali claimed to do in his autobiography: The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. Whether they’re true or not nobody can say, but clearly Dali knew how to captivate his audiences attention. But here lies the greatest mystery. What would make a man act out all these scenes which would get him arrested, and expelled from the “surrealist group” for refusing to explicitly denounce Hitlerian fascism (Dali corresponded with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and painted a portrait of his granddaughter)? And what would lead him to fall in love with his dysfunctional lover Gala (who was a nymphomaniac, openly promiscuous and was a victim of child abuse)? Or to be an avant-garde exhibitionist? A criticized commercialist? What was Dali trying to overcompensate for? Perhaps a deep sense of shame and insecurity.
- Diving suit stroll: For a lecture he delivered in London, Dali appeared carrying a billiard cue and lead a pair of Russian wolfhounds. This was all while wearing a deep-sea diving suit that resulted in Dali’s near demise from asphyxia. When finally he was assisted in removing the helmet, he stated: “I just wanted to show that I was ‘plunging deeply’ into the human mind.”
- Bedbugs Bite: Dali claimed to have tried to remove a birthmark from his back thinking that it was a bedbug – even having seen it countless times before. Upon seeing his birthmark in the mirror, he grabbed a razor blade and “removed” it, spilling blood all over the hotel room where he was staying, leaving him almost unconscious from blood loss.
- Artistic license: Bonwit-Teller, a shop in New York employed Dali’s services to create piece of artwork using the mannequins in the display window. His creation featured a mannequin stepping into a “hairy bathtub” lined with astrakhan (fleece from lambs) and filled up with water. The other mannequin portrayed a woman with a buffalo head carrying a bloody pigeon in its mouth. In horror, the manager of the store changed the display without telling Dali. Dali coincidentally saw the display and asked that his name be taken off it. The manager refused, so Dali charged towards the display, picked up the bathtub, and dumped it through the window, sending shards of glass and water into the sidewalk. He was later arrested. The judge made him pay for the window, even after Dali stated that: “every artist has the right to defend his ‘work’ to the limit.“
- Anteater, Cauliflowers and Anarchist Bread: Dali had a pet anteater which he often took out in public for walks. He also once filled a Rolls Royce with cauliflowers, and was once approached by the leader of an anarchist faction who asked him if he would be willing to give a speech at their next meeting. Dali agreed. During his speech he arranged for a giant loaf of bread to be brought to him and tied to his head while he continued as if nothing had happened.
- Masquerade Party & Blood Coctail: It is said that Dalí and Gala once attended a costume party dressed as the Lindbergh baby and his kidnapper. Also, one night as he sat in the bar of Ritz in Madrid, he made cocktails out of his own blood.
- Oedipus fatherly relation: Dali on one occasion exhibited a piece in which he had written “Sometimes, I spit for fun on my mother’s portrait.” When asked to apologize publicly by his father, he declined. Later on, Dali mailed a condom filled with his own semen to his father and a note reading; “This is all I owe you.“
- Eau de Dali: Interestingly, Dali created a “cologne” of his very own… although the ingredients he used were boiled water, fish glue, goat manure and aspic oil. This concoction had to gelatinate before he would rub it all over his whole body. When asked why he created soul a foul scent, Dali said that he wanted to create a cologne that smelled like a ram that walked by his house every morning. Dali would also paint his whole body blue at times.
Dalí health began to deteriorate in 1980 when he and Gala drank a mixture of prescription medication. Two years later, Gala died and Dali began to lose his will to live. It is speculated that he tried to commit suicide twice, once through dehydration (he claimed it was a method of entering into a suspended state of animation like certain animals do), and another in 1984, when a fire begun in his bedroom suspiciously. In 1988, Dalí finally suffered from a heart attack, and after many years of suffering, he died the following year at the age of 84.
From the disruptive youthful genius to the pretentious, whorish, old putrid and cretinous fanatic (as he would say of himself), Dali was a shameless self-promoter but one of the most interesting showmen in history. When you dig beyond the crazy escapades and outlandish facade to expose the very personal and vulnerable side of this controversial performer, you’re left with the retort he gave his artistic comrades as they expelled him from the surrealistic movement: “I myself am surrealism“.
Throughout his life, Dali sculpted, painted and designed his greatest work of art to the joy and shock of everybody else: Himself.
Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali? ~ Salvador Dali