By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
In the book, Salvador Dali, by Robert and Nicholas Descharnes (Edita – Lausanne, 1993), Dali is quoted thusly: “At the age of 25 I wanted to become the world’s most sensational painter, and I did.”
It’s interesting that Dali didn’t say he wanted to become the world’s “best” painter. He said he wanted to become the most sensational painter. This is a telling comment about how he viewed himself and his destiny.
Some people say Salvador Dali’s greatest work was himself! That he was a genius at creating and cultivating a persona that was impossible not to notice – even if, alternately, it charmed some and enraged others. Dali himself admitted he loved “being Dali.” He loved creating scandals. He loved being a “cloon” (clown) like his idol, Charlie Chaplain.
“Let them speak of Dali,” he quipped, always referring to himself in the third-person, “even if they speak well of him!”
Sensational Dali began developing at an early age. Anecdotes abound about him kicking friends in the head; biting into a dead bat; jumping from dangerous, precarious heights just to shock onlookers; even intentionally leaving his own feces around the house, like an untrained dog. Yeah, disgusting, I know.
His insubordinate behavior at the San Fernando School of Fine Arts in Madrid got him expelled. His “too surrealist” politics got him ousted from the formal Surrealist group, over which Andre Breton lorded.
Dali’s antics sprang from two key motivations: (1) to aggressively if not intrusively establish his own identity – free from being the reflection of his dead brother before him; and (2) the desire to market his life’s work by being a publicity agent’s dream; i.e., someone who had a real genius for getting noticed by the press.
All the while, however, Dali’s talent broke through the mire of megalomania like burning giraffes and weightless elephants that simply couldn’t help being noticed. His early one-man exhibitions in Paris and Barcelona pretty much sold out.
No doubt his eccentric behavior as well as his undeniable gifts as a painter landed him commissions from people such as the Vicomtesse de Noailles – money that helped him and Gala purchase a small fisherman’s hut at Port Lligat. Dali went on to paint the Vicomtesse’s portrait.
And, of course, to greatly expand that little hut into a remarkable sprawling villa, which is now a museum that’s part of the Dali Triangle (the Port Lligat villa, the Teatro-Museo Dali in Figueres, and the Castle at Pubol).
At one point, Dali’s sensationally flamboyant behavior was viewed as a liability. Author Paul H. Walton once wrote, “The reputation of Salvador Dali has been so aggressively established through self-promotion that it forms a barrier to the calm assessment of his art.”
Walton was referring to things like:
- Dali arriving for a lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris in a Rolls Royce filled with cauliflowers.
- Dali delivering a lecture in London dressed in a deep sea diving suit, in whose helmet he nearly suffocated when he and others struggled to get it off his head.
- Dali beginning an interpretation of Vermeer’s Lacemaker by seating himself on a wheelbarrow in the rhinoceros pen at a Paris zoo.
- Dali holding a press conference with shock-rocker Alice Cooper, announcing his intention to create a cylindrical hologram of Cooper’s brain – topped with ants and a chocolate éclair.
Such a list could continue endlessly. And author Walton’s observation was no doubt true at the time. But today it seems clear it was Dali’s very “craziness” (crazy like a fox!) that helped make him world famous and, indeed, an international sensation.
The capes…the walking sticks…the bulging eyes…the surreal entourage…and of course the iconic Velazquez-inspired mustache — it was all carefully cultivated and calculated to get attention and create the spectacle Dali knew would help bring him fame and fortune.
Had that alone been his act – just a brilliant knack for performance art and headline-making, with incidental, mediocre artistic talent – Dali might well have been a flash in the pan. A forgotten footnote in the history of art and pop culture. But we know the rest of the story.
Today, Salvador Dali’s comment, quoted in the previously referenced book, must be modified: “At the age of 25, Dali wanted to become the world’s most sensational artist. He succeeded. Along the way, he also became the world’s best artist.”
(Images used under Fair Use provisions for journalistic purposes only)