He left the world such disturbing images as a female torso on crutches with open drawers extending from it, and loaves of bread engaged in the act of sodomy. And in his life, too, Spanish artist Salvador Dali—who died at 84 last week in a Spanish hospital—indulged in the bizarre. With his extravagant attire and waxed, upcurled moustache, the artist—who succumbed to heart failure brought on by a lengthy history of respiratory problems—was a paragon of aggressively cultivated eccentricity. Along with his arresting paintings, a penchant for self-advertisement made him one of the best-known artists of the 20th century. Born in Figueras, he gained a reputation as both a talented artist and a rebel early in life. At 17, he attended the School of Fine Arts in Madrid, often attired in knee breeches, a large black felt hat and a long cape. In 1926, he was expelled from school permanently for misbehavior. Throughout the 1920s, he experiment-
ed with a wide variety of painting styles. As a student, he emulated the bleak, mysterious urban vistas painted by the First World War Italian metaphysical painters Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carra. After two trips to Paris in 1928, he flirted with more abstract styles. But a year later, Dali aligned himself with the Paris Surrealist movement, which rejected logic and embraced dreams and madness as sources of inspiration. In Surrealism, Dali found the means to combine his passion for the unconscious, the visionary and the hallucinatory with the meticulously realistic painting style that he had mastered at art school.
One of his best-known paintings, The Persistence of Memory (1931), has the dreamlike quality that became characteristic of his work. In it, three melting watches appear to have fallen from the sky onto an empty landscape. During his early affiliation with the Surrealists, he also collaborated with Luis Buñuel to make the movement’s most provocative film, Un Chien Andalou (1929), which attempted to break through to the unconscious by depicting sexual violence. Featuring such images as an eyeball sliced with a razor blade, the film became the object of public protests.
Throughout his life, Dali balked at taking anything seriously—including artistic movements. In 1938, he announced that he would begin painting in the “classic” tradition of the 16th-century Italian Mannerists, who distorted the human form to elegant effect. Soon afterward, the French poet André Breton, one of the founders of Surrealism, formally drummed Dali out of the movement, claiming that he had betrayed it. The irrepressible Dali—who moved to the United States in 1940—invented a movement of his own, the “paranoic-critical system,” in which he trained himself to hallucinate and then painted the results. Dali and his wife, Gala, whom he had married in 1938, remained in the United States for 15 years, returning to Spain in 1955. A self-proclaimed possessor of a “pure, vertical, mystical, gothic love of cash,” his critics accused him of catering to commercialism and kitsch.
Dali’s final years were consumed with loss, illness and scandal. When Gala died in 1982, her ailing, increasingly frail husband fell into a severe depression. Two years later, he almost burned to death in an electrical fire. After recovering, he moved into his final home, the Torre Galatea, a castle near his Figueras birthplace that he renamed after his wife. In recent years, the artist had lived in seclusion there, fed by a gastronasal tube and attended to around the clock by nurses. But he still managed to capture public attention when art experts discovered that collectors have spent at least $750 million on fake Dali prints since 1980.
In a rare interview four years ago, Dali said that he wanted to be remembered as a thinker. “Painting,” he declared, “is an infinitely minute part of my personality.” Indeed, Salvador Dali will be remembered as much for his outrageous character as for the haunting pictures that he left behind.
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