How Salvador Dali Worked

Dalí living it up at his home in Cadaqués on the Spanish Costa Brava.
Charles Hewitt/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Salvador Dalí's paintings are among the most easily recognizable in the world. Oozing pocket watches, bleak expansive landscapes, erotic and grotesque nudes, melting body parts supported by precariously placed crutches, spindly legged elephants that seem certain to topple -- all are among the many classic components that so often frequent Dalí's hallucinatory dreamscapes and serve to distinguish him as both a preeminent painter and a complete weirdo.

Dalí, who lived from 1904 to 1989, was a member of the Surrealist movement. And like many of the Surrealists, he dabbled in other artistic genres apart from painting and writing. For example, Dalí co-wrote two short films ("Un Chien Andalou" and "L'Age d'Or"), and he was also the madman behind the dream sequence in Hitchcock's movie "Spellbound." Dalí designed jewelry, magazine covers, costumes, advertisements and furniture. He created sculptures, lithographs, installation art -- and in everything, he was, above all, experimental.


Pinning down Dalí is an exercise in futility; the man was larger than life and many different things to many different people. His often off-the-wall behavior, strange artistic outpourings and shockingly outlandish claims have at different times been called scandalous, brilliant, bizarre, riveting, appalling, inspired, grotesque, superb, subversive, egotistical, imaginative, disgusting, energetic and flamboyant -- you get the idea. While simultaneously esteemed and despised, there's no question that Dalí completely captured people's attention.

And that was no accident. Even apart from the attention his artwork received, Dalí adored fanfare (sensational or controversial, it didn't matter) and was known for shameless self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. Then there was the classic Dalí look: full-length fur coats, canes and that mesmerizingly maniacal mustache. The look was completed by Babou, his pet ocelot.

Details concerning Dalí's life are murky, with much of the confusion coming from the artist himself. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to the details of Dalí's childhood and some of his stranger psychological claims, which we'll explore on the next page.


Salvador Dali's Personality

Perhaps the best word to describe Dalí would be "complicated."
Daniel Farson//Stringer/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Various sources on Dalí report his full name as everything from "Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech" to the more straightforward "Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí" and "Salvador Dalí i Domènech." Whichever is correct, the artist was born in Figueres, Spain, on May 11, 1904, and is known today as Salvador Dalí.

He was not, however, the first such Salvador in the family. An older brother of the same name, who was struck down at a young age -- possibly a victim of meningitis -- preceded the better-known Dalí in life. Sometimes the boy is described as being just shy of 2 years old at the time of his death and, at other times (including in Dalí's own autobiography), he is said to have been around 7. Whichever the case, Dalí's parents were particularly devastated by the loss of their firstborn. Though affectionate and extremely indulgent parents, their endless remembrances of the dead boy -- from talking about him constantly to displaying photographs of him -- apparently affected the artist greatly. They even took the second Salvador Dalí on a disturbing visit to the grave bearing his name and told him he was the original child's reincarnation. Such constant dwelling on mortality influenced the artist heavily throughout his life.


Dalí's aforementioned autobiography, "The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí," contains outrageous anecdotes that critics often discuss with fair amounts of incredulity. Dalí was noted for being eccentric, vain and narcissistic. He was fond of the good life and loved the limelight, so it's possible he simply cooked up an off-the-wall life story to sell to the public, or he could have been merely performing an exercise in Surrealistic psyche-plumbing. Or it's possible he really was a recovering necrophiliac with no qualms about physically assaulting legless old blind men, as it's been reported.

What is pretty much agreed on, however, is that whether or not Dalí lived out every extreme anecdote, he was a brilliant draughtsman and a talented writer. His creativity was noted early on, and he began painting and featuring in shows at a young age. On the next page, we'll delve deeper into the career of the man with the mustache and find out about his impact on 20th century art.


Salvador Dali: Biography

Dalí was just 14 when his work was exhibited for the first time. A few years later, he could be found in Madrid, attending the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando where he was given the boot after refusing to participate in an end-of-the-year exam. However, his work was displayed in several other exhibitions, and Dalí continued to develop his reputation as a painter.

In 1929, he arrived in Paris for the second time (he had already visited his idol Pablo Picasso in 1926), and shortly thereafter, he joined ranks with the Surrealists. That was also the year Dalí met Gala (then the wife of fellow Surrealist Paul Eluard), and they married in 1934. Gala, whose original name was Elena Ivanova Diakonova, was Dalí's lifelong muse and would often model for his paintings.


In 1936, Dalí was featured on the cover of Time magazine, the photograph taken by associate Surrealist Man Ray. Dalí remained part of the official Surrealist movement until 1939, when they, too, sent him packing, in part because they suspected his politics didn't measure up to their own anti-Franco sentiments.

That didn't stop him, however, from continuing to crank out and exhibit his art. Dalí was exacting about his work, even away from the canvas. The people at the Bonwit Teller department store in New York City found that out when they changed a few details in a window display Dalí set up. When the irate artist discovered the alterations, he caused a bit of a scene, shoving a bathtub so hard he and it burst right out through that same unfortunate window.

That sort of stunt was all Dalí, who was known for high jinks and antics. He once filled a Rolls-Royce with cauliflower, and on another occasion, he turned up to deliver a lecture in a diving suit with bejeweled dagger attached to one hip, a billiard cue in hand and two leashed Russian wolfhounds. That particular prank was apparently supposed to represent Dalí's descent into the human psyche, but the artist was lucky to survive his hoax -- the diving suit wasn't hooked up to any oxygen and he almost suffocated before attendees realized there was a problem and managed to unbolt the helmet.

Sadly, Dalí's final years were less than joyful. His tumultuous relationship with Gala had become severely strained, and after her death in 1982, he sank into a deep depression and began to deteriorate rapidly. Heart failure finally took the master to his grave in 1989.


Salvador Dali: Paintings

Salvador Dalí in his studio
Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Salvador Dalí's preferred painting process was the paranoiac-critical method. The artist would simulate a paranoid state, then meticulously develop and paint the hallucinatory images he had seen. It was all about creating pieces that were startling, yet authentic, with different interpretations and associations abounding.

The artist's Surrealistic imagery was loaded with symbolism, some of it straight from Freud, and some of it from Dalí's own imagination. The symbolism was often sexually significant. For example, he believed rhinoceros horns were a symbol of chastity and the Virgin Mary, and that eggs represented purity, perfection, intrauterine life and rebirth. Bread often appeared phallic and hard in Dalí depictions, while ants represented rot, decomposition and the transitory nature of life. To Dalí, crutches displayed solemnity and authority and conveyed a certain sense of assurance bordering on arrogance, while the melting pocket watches symbolized the fluidity and relativity of time.


Other aspects of his life can be examined to expose relations to his artwork. For example, Dalí's sex life (or near celibacy, according to some reports) was apparently quite complicated. The artist was rumored to have practiced voyeurism and autoeroticism; he also admitted to strong feelings of sexual inadequacy, which perhaps influenced some of the erotic aspects of his artwork. Dalí's complicated psychological relationship with his deceased mother and brother also likely played a role. Some have suggested the appearance of lions with manes represents the universal symbol known as the vagina dentata (toothed vagina) and could relate to Dalí's sexual phobias and fetishes. Praying mantises are another symbol often linked with issues concerning sexuality interwoven with morbidity.

Although he's most famously associated with Surrealism, Dalí's style would gradually evolve into different genres later in life. World War II prompted such a style shift, as he turned his attention to matters of physics and the nuclear age by starting a new style he named Nuclear Mysticism. He also dabbled with religious motifs later in life.

On the next page, we'll find out where Dalí aficionados can see the master's skills firsthand.


Salvador Dali: Legacy

Fans of Salvador Dalí have several options when it comes to seeing his works in person. For starters, they can visit the master's hometown of Figueres, Spain (85 miles or 140 kilometers north of Barcelona), to visit the Dalí Theatre-Museum. Dalí himself collaborated on the project, spending more than a decade deciding even the most meticulous details of the edifice and its exhibits. The Dalí Theatre-Museum was officially inaugurated on Sept. 28, 1974, and apart from some 1,500 paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, engravings, stereoscopes and holograms, Dalí devotees can also view the artist's crypt, which is located in the museum's center.

The Gala-Salvador-Dalí Foundation manages about 2,500 additional works by Dalí and occasionally lends them out for temporary exhibitions. It also runs other Dalí-devoted museums, including the Portlligat House-museum in Cadaques, Spain, and the Gala Dalí Castle in Pubol, Spain.


For U.S.-based Dalí fans, a good venue to visit is the Dalí Museum located in St. Petersburg, Fla., which has been open to the public since March 10, 1982. Based around the collection compiled by A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, the museum features nearly 100 Dalí oil paintings, along with drawings, graphics, sculptures, photographs and other pieces of art. Another possibility -- if you're in the vicinity of Paris -- is to check out L'Espace Dalí, which features a variety of Dalí sculpture.

On the next page, get links to good information about lots more artists and the artistic movements they fueled.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • "Art: Not So Secret Life." Time. Dec. 28, 1942. (4/1/2010),9171,886108,00.html
  • 3D-Dalí Web site. (4/1/2010) http://www.3d-dalí.com/
  • Campbell-Johnston, Rachel. "Take Hitchcock, Dalí and 400 human eyes." Times Online. July 6, 2005. (4/1/2010)
  • Dalí, Salvador and Chevalier, Haakon. "The secret life of Salvador Dalí." Dover Publications. 1993. (4/1/2010)í%20biography&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q=salvador%20dalí%20biography&f=false
  • Dalí Theatre-Museum Web site. (4/1/2010) http://www.salvador-dalí.org/museus/figueres/en_index.html
  • Espace Dalí Web site. (4/1/2010) http://www.dalí
  • Etherington-Smith, Meredith. "The Persistence of Memory: A Biography of Dalí." Da Capo Press. 1995. (4/1/2010)í%20biography&pg=PR6#v=onepage&q=salvador%20dalí%20biography&f=false
  • Faerna, José Maria. "Dalí." The Great Modern Masters Series. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (4/1/2010)
  • Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí Web site. http://www.salvador-dalí.org/
  • Gibson, Ian. "The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí." W.W. Norton & Co. 1997. (4/1/2010)í.html
  • Meisler, Stanley. "The Surreal World of Salvador Dalí." Smithsonian Magazine. April 2005. (4/1/2010)í.html?c=y&page=1
  • Orwell, George. "Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí." George Orwell Library. 1944. (4/1/2010)í/english/e_dalí/
  • Peppiat, Michael. "Paranoia Personified." New York Times. Nov. 22, 1998. (4/1/2010)í.html
  • Rattner, Joan. "The Wildest Pets." The Spokesman Review. Feb. 11, 1967. (4/1/2010),3325701
  • Roberts, Glenys. "Is this woman Salvador Dalí's secret love child?" Daily Mail. Aug. 15, 2008. (4/1/2010)ís-secret-daughter.html
  • Rojas, Carlos. "Salvador Dalí, or The art of spitting on your mother's portrait." The Pennsylvania State University Press. 1993. (4/1/2010)í%20biography&pg=PP8#v=onepage&q=salvador%20dalí%20biography&f=false
  • Ross, Aaron. "A Semiological Exploration of Dalí's Paranoiac-Critical Method." Dr. Yo. April 1991. (4/1/2010)
  • Salvador Dalí: The Paranoid Critical Transformation Method." Humboldt State University. June 15, 2003. (4/1/2010)í_Salvador/Dalí_Paranoid_Critical_Transformation.htm
  • "Surrealist Art." Centre Pompidou. (4/1/2010)
  • Tansey, Richard and Fred Kleiner. "Gardner's Art Through the Ages." Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1996. (4/1/2010)
  • The Salvador Dalí Museum Web site. (4/1/2010)http://www.salvadordalí
  • Kováry, Zoltán. "The Enigma of Desire: Salvador Dalí and the conquest of the irrational."PsyArt. (4/1/2010)