The Life And Art Of Salvador Dali

“One day it will have to be officially admitted that what we have christened reality is an even greater illusion than the world of dreams.”

There was no-one quite like Salvador Dali. Outlandish, boorish and naturally gifted, the Spaniard was a walking contradiction. He is one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, yet, at the same time, he was an absolute monster, the living embodiment of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937).

His life is one of duality, of light and dark, good and evil, birth and death. In his youth, he was a colossal giant, an explosive force of nature who revealed to us another altogether surreal world. In later life he was an eccentric madman, lost in his very own fantasy world. The sublime and the tragic, that was Dali in a nutshell.

The esteemed art critic Robert Hughes understood the painter very well. Writing in the Guardian ten years ago, on the centenary year of the painter’s birthday, he remarked in his opening paragraph that “no artist yet unborn will achieve the same kind of relation to the twenty first century than he did to the twentieth century”.

Dali passed away in at the age of 84 in January 1989, a full ten months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there is something poignant about that dichotomy. He belonged to a modern world, but not a contemporary one and thus, as Hughes observed, his life can be read to be historic: it was as chaotic, destructive and brilliant as the twentieth century.

“Despite all bombast of the later work, Dali’s greatest and most frightening painting is probably the Soft Construction with Boiled Beans – Premonition of Civil War (1936),” Hughes wrote in 2004.

“With this single painting, the art of Salvador Dali moved into the territory of Goya. This monstrous Titan – its body is part-based on that of stringy Saturn, seen in the act of eating his child, in one of Goya’s Black Paintings in the Prado – is the most powerful image of a country’s anguish and dismemberment to issue from Spain (or anywhere else) since Los Desastres de la Guerra.”

Every inch of it, the late critic went on to say, was deftly executed, provocatively arguing that this is the defining testimony on the Spanish Civil War and not Pablo Picasso’s powerful indictment of modern warfare.

Many argue that beyond this, specifically the late thirties, as Europe and much of the world moved closer and closer into the abyss, Dali, already successful beyond imagination, lost all credibility, morphing into a purveyor of mostly brash, unoriginal and pretentious tosh.

However, as the independent curator and writer George Stolz discovered while researching an article for ARTnews in 2005, there was a ‘late, great Dali’. The artist, post-himself, was still a prolific artist beyond the so-called severance of youthful glory. Not everything that he painted beyond the forties was uneventful.

“Dali is obviously the model for later artistic production, especially Warhol,” the American artist Mike Kelley told Mr Stolz.

“It’s impossible to look at contemporary art now and not think of Dali. What I find especially interesting is how endlessly creative he was. It’s hidden because of all the kitsch he produced. But with so much of what he did—who could have done something like that, and at that time? It looks like it was made yesterday. And it’s not just one or two things: it’s year after year, pumping it out.”

Love him or hate him, it is unimaginable to think of a world without Dali. Yes, certainly, he could not deliver iconic works to the calibre of The Persistence of Memory (1931), yet, as the sequel to this giant shows, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1954), his capacity to be original and thought-provoking was still very much alive.

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