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Salvador Dali: On The Trail Of A Legend

Not only was he one of the twentieth century's foremost artists, Salvador Dali was also one of its greatest celebrities. Although he is no longer with us, his art lives on, and we can get a glimpse of his world by tracing his footsteps.

Many art enthusiasts seek to get an insight into creation by great artists of the past through their works. They visit museums and peruse thick books filled with glossy reproductions of famous masterpieces. But in order to get a deeper understanding of the artist, one needs to visit the places where he lived and worked, to step into his shoes for a day and attempt to see the world the way he saw it.

Salvador Dali is not the easiest personality to understand. During his lifetime he was known as much for his curious moustache and his eccentricities as he was for his art. However, a visit to his native Spain and a walk through the streets of the cities he frequented, brings the man and the legend to life again, making him more accessible to interpretation and comprehension.

We begin our journey of discovery in Madrid, the capital of Spain. With its rich history, a wealth of museums, and lively nightlife, the city has something to offer anyone. Dali enthusiasts will want to visit the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, which, among other things, contains a major collection of Dali's work. However, the real odyssey begins at the Museo del Prado, one of the world's largest art museums and Dali's favorite place in the city. When he was a student at Madrid's Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Dali would often skip class in order to wander through the halls of the Prado, examining the works of the greatest Spanish painters, preferring to learn from them rather than from his instructors at the academy. We can explore the same galleries and imagine what the tremendously gifted adolescent must have felt as he contemplated the masterpieces of those who had gone before him and daydreamed about taking his place among them.

Spain was Dali's country, but Catalonia was his homeland. Although officially part of Spain, this region is unlike any other part of the country. One of the most significant differences between Catalonia and the rest of Spain is that Catalonians have their own language. Thus, Dali's native tongue was Catalan, although he also learned Spanish and French while he was young. The Catalonians are fiercely proud of their rich cultural heritage, and Dali was no exception. In fact, no matter where he traveled in the world, he would often wear a traditional Catalan hat, and regardless of where he went or how long he stayed away, he was always certain to return to Catalonia.

Dali's hometown was the Catalan city of Figueres, which is now the site of the Salvador Dali Theatre-Museum, a museum dedicated to his works. Because Dali himself designed the building and most of its exhibits, a visit to this museum is indispensable if one truly wishes to gain an insight into the mind of the artist.

The events surrounding the creation of the museum are worth noting, for they reveal something of Dali's character. In the autumn of 1960, the mayor of Figueres asked Dali to donate a painting to his hometown. Dali refused. Instead, he responded that he would donate an entire museum to Figueres and designated the city's Teatro Principal, which had been ruined in the Spanish Civil War, as the site for this proposed museum. The mayor recognized the significance of Dali's offer and set about searching for funding and working to convince the skeptics to support the project.

With the necessary funds secured, construction started on 13 October 1970. Dali directed the project and closely followed every aspect from beginning to end. The museum officially opened its doors to the public almost exactly four years later, on 28 October 1974, when Dali was already 70 years old. Even at that point, however, it was still a work in progress, subject to the creative vision of the artist.

The Theatre-Museum is perhaps unique in that the building itself is a creation of Surrealist imagination. The external walls, which are salmon pink, are dotted with loaves of bread and crowned by gigantic eggs and golden figurines. The interior of the museum is no less unsettling. In true Surrealist form, Dali created a space that would surprise and challenge the viewer. For example, hanging in the entryway is a chandelier made of two elaborate evening gowns that Dali designed in the early 1960s. In another room there is a bed with fish for its feet. Standing next to the bed is the skeleton of a gorilla, painted gold.

One of the most unexpected collections of items is found in the “Mae West Corridor and Hall”. In the main space of this portion of the museum is the tableau that gives the hall its name. It is a sitting room that can also be viewed as the face of actress Mae West. This peculiar metamorphosis is achieved with a couch in the shape of lips, a fireplace and mantelpiece shaped like a nose, and retouched enlargements of two Pointillist pictures that, when viewed from a distance, resemble two eyes. The entire space is framed by an enormous wig made from real hair. To add to the unsettling nature of this room, a collection of bathroom furniture is bolted to the roof.

The “Mae West Hall” is by no means Dali's only foray into the world of clever visual effects. Dali was always intrigued by the potential for things to resemble other things, for objects to be something other than what they seem. His painting Gala Nude Looking at the Sea, Which, at a Distance of Eighteen Meters, is Transformed into a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, displayed under the geodesic dome of the museum, is a perfect example of this fascination.

Late in life, Dali delved deeper into his experimentation with visual effects using an instrument called the Wheatstone stereoscope. With the aid of this device, he was able to create three-dimensional images by painting the same picture from two perspectives and in different colors. When the resulting canvases are viewed through the stereoscope, the viewer perceives a three-dimensional image, which ironically, exists nowhere except in his own brain. Dali devoted a hall of his Theatre-Museum to works of this nature.

Even today, years after the death of the artist, the museum continues to grow. As recently as in 2001, a new exhibit was added. It consists of the Dali Jewels, a collection of thirty-nine works of art executed in gold, platinum, and precious and semi-precious stones. Although some of the pieces, such as the “Telephone Ear Clips” and “The Corset Ring”, seem playful at best, Dali claimed that nothing was frivolous. Other jewels, such as “The Bleeding World” and the many religious pieces, are clearly steeped in meaning.

There is much more to see in the Theatre-Museum, but this museum in Figueres is not the only place of interest in Catalonia. Dali's favorite place in the world, the place to which he always returned no matter where he traveled, seemed to be Port Lligat and the fishing village of Cadaques. This picturesque spot is not far from Figueres and was the site of many family vacations during Dali's childhood; in 1930, Gala (his wife) and Dali purchased a fisherman's hut in Port Lligat. Over the course of the next four decades, until 1971, the couple transformed this humble dwelling into a sprawling and luxurious home complete with a studio for the artist, a swimming pool, and a dovecote. It continued to be Gala and Dali's home until the former died, at which point the artist moved to Pubol Castle.

Today, the Port Lligat house, complete with the original furnishings chosen by the artist and his wife, is open to the public in the form of the Salvador Dali Casa-Museu (House-Museum). Although he only spent six to seven months of the year in this residence, Dali considered the Port Lligat house his home. It was here that he lived and worked and created many of his most important paintings.

As a result of the method of its construction, the structure of the house itself is unique. Dali designed it and decreed that its roofs, which are of different height, should form a series of steps leading down to the water. He added other unconventional touches, such as the enormous egg atop the dovecote. Although the interior decoration was primarily Gala's domain, the inner spaces of the house are even more surprising than its exterior. The Catalan writer Josep Pla described it as “surprising, extraordinary… never-seen-before… There is nothing traditional, nor inherited, nor repeated, nor copied here. All is indecipherable personal mythology. There are many things whose meaning is known only to the owners”.

The entryway of the house sets the tone for everything that is to follow. It is known as “The Hall of the Bear”, named after the stuffed polar bear that stands as a sentinel there. Dali placed a lamp in his right paw and adorned him with a collection of necklaces. Other oddities in the room include a sofa in the shape of lips and an imitation tiger skin rug.

Perhaps the most important part of the house, from an artistic point of view, is the studio and the rooms immediately surrounding it, because this space served as the artist's retreat. These rooms connect with one another via stairs, narrow doorways, or small passageways, creating an atmosphere of isolation. The first chamber in this section of the house is dominated by a Japanese parasol, large reproductions of sea urchin skeletons, and two huge reprints of Millet's Angelus, a painting that was very important to Dali and reappears in some of his own works. Next to the studio is the “Models Room”, notable for the broad red and gold stripes that cover its ceiling and the vivid blue moiré patterned wallpaper used on some of the walls. Also of note is a series of portraits of famous men with moustaches, part of Dali's collection of moustaches. Included here are Philip IV, Stalin, and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.

One enters the studio through a door shaped like an isosceles triangle with its apex removed. It is a brightly lit room, thanks to its two large windows and the fact that the walls and ceiling are painted white. In addition to all the paraphernalia one would expect to find in an artist's studio, this room contains an eclectic collection of objects. These include a plaster reproduction of a neoclassical male sculpture wearing a fencing mask and a Davy Crockett hat, poised as if to kick the American football positioned at his feet. Dali spent most of his time at the Port Lligat house in his studio. He began working at sunrise and worked until dusk, interrupted only by bathing, the midday meal, and a short nap. But although his artistic life revolved around this space, his social life centered on another part of the house.

The swimming pool that Gala and Dali installed in 1971 was the hub of their social life, especially in the period from 1972 to 1974. Complete with fountains and an airy temple built at one end of the elongated pool, this magical space was the scene of many an evening party. Gala and Dali entertained frequently and welcomed numerous visitors to their home, including Walt Disney, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, King Umberto of Savoy, and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, all of whom came to pay homage to the man who was both visionary artist and international celebrity.

Prepared by Vlada Popushoi

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