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The self publicist surrealist who survived a brush with death from his own art

Salvador Dalí in his hometown of Figueres, northern Spain - Credit: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Salvador Dalí’s talent for self-publicity was exceeded only by his gifts as an artist, says CHARLIE CONNELLY.

On the evening of Wednesday July 1, 1936, Salvador Dalí prepared to address a crowd gathered at the New Burlington Galleries in London’s Mayfair. The three-week International Surrealist Exhibition was in its final days and had already caused quite a stir. For its opening the British artist Sheila Legge posed in Trafalgar Square as ‘The Surrealist Phantom’ in a wedding dress with her head completely swathed in flowers, a tableau inspired by a Dalí painting. A Danish artist’s works had already been turned back at the British border and came close to being destroyed altogether after being deemed pornographic, and at one point the poet Dylan Thomas was seen circulating among visitors with a cup containing boiled string, asking if they liked it “weak or strong”. The composer William Walton pinned a kipper to a painting by Joan Miró; Paul Nash removed it when the smell became overpowering.

Dalí, never knowingly upstaged, clearly needed to come up with something exceptional for his lecture if he was going to be the one talked about after the event. Taking as his topic ‘Some Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’, the artist clanked up to the lectern in a full deep-sea diving suit carrying a billiard cue and accompanied by a pair of Irish wolfhounds.

It would have been tricky enough for the London audience to make out what Dalí was saying from inside the bolted down brass helmet, but the fact he was speaking in French compounded by a strong Spanish accent made it all but impossible. The chair of the event put his ear to the helmet and attempted to translate: there was a story about how as a child Dalí had been fascinated by a dead donkey and an anecdote about a student friend who had, with Dalí’s approval, once eaten a wardrobe.

Just after he had announced through the twin filters of helmet and interpreter that “human beings are excessively small blackheads on the nose of space”, it became clear even in this unusual scenario that something was amiss. Dalí’s voice faltered and his breathing became laboured. Increasingly frantic gestures were initially interpreted as part of the show but the artist was in fact slowly asphyxiating. David Gascoyne, poet and author of the previous year’s A Short Survey of Surrealism, rushed over with a spanner, undid the bolts sealing the helmet and, with a little help from a billiard cue, prised off the headgear to reveal a dazed and pale Dalí, moustache still immaculately symmetrical as if performance suffocation was all part of the plan.

He’d sailed perilously close to tragedy but soon realised the significance of the incident, writing later that, “I believe the Dalínian mythology… owed a great deal to the violent eccentricity of this lecture in a diving suit”.

Dalí was a supreme artist of the 20th century not just in terms of the surrealist works he produced, from melting clocks to telephones with lobsters for receivers, but in his pioneering role harnessing the power of personal celebrity. Most artists’ names conjure in the mind images of their work. Mention the name Salvador Dalí and even now, more than 20 years after his death, most people will likely see the wide-eyed stare and gravity-defying moustache (when his body was exhumed in 2017 as part of an unsuccessful paternity suit it was reported his facial hair was still immaculately in place).

Where his contemporaries were happiest in their studios and in the galleries, Dalí recognised the value of modern mass entertainment culture to an artist capable of making it work to his advantage. His combination of flamboyance, intelligence, wit and talent ensured that he became the most recognisable artist of the age, unafraid and unashamed to court publicity for himself as much as his work.

He was an early adopter of cinema as a method of artistic expression, collaborating with Luis Bunuel on the groundbreaking Un Chien Andalou, released in 1929. Still regarded as a masterpiece, the film became notorious in particular for a scene Dalí contributed in which an eyeball is sliced with a razor, one of the most daring and controversial moments in the history of film. Alfred Hitchcock invited Dalí to create the memorable dream sequence in his 1945 thriller Spellbound, citing the “architectural sharpness of his work”.  Shortly afterwards Dalí was commissioned by Walt Disney to work on Destino, an animation that was a long way into production when financial problems brought work to an early close.

The introduction of television into almost every household in the US, during the 1950s brought new and different opportunities. In 1957 Dalí appeared as a guest on What’s My Line?, signing in with a paintbrush ahead of an appearance memorable for how he answered almost every question in the affirmative, including “Are you known for being a writer?” and “Do you have anything to do with sports or any form of athletic endeavour?”

He designed four covers for Vogue magazine, an LP cover for Jackie Gleason, created a portrait of Raquel Welch to promote her film Fantastic Voyage and produced advertisements for De Beers, Gap and Datsun, among others. In 1969 he designed a new logo for Chupa Chups, a version of which is still used on the lollipops’ packaging today.

This naked commercialism predictably drew criticism from his contemporaries. André Breton, credited as the key figure in the establishment of surrealism, had said in 1929 that, “With the coming of Dalí it is perhaps the first time that the mental windows have been opened really wide so that one can feel oneself gliding up towards the wild sky’s trap”. Breton eventually took to referring to Dalí as, ‘avida dollars’, an anagram of his name that means ‘greedy for dollars’ in Spanish.

If it was designed to hurt, it didn’t work. Dalí had never hidden his ambition, nor his belief in his own talent and destiny. In his autobiography he wrote, “At seven, I wanted to be Napoleon. My ambition has been growing steadily ever since”. He delighted in Breton’s anagrammatic barb and embraced it himself. Yet for all his showboating Dalí was unquestionably a supremely gifted artist. Self-publicity can only carry you so far if you have no substance with which to back it up.

A native of Catalonia Dalí began in his career in outwardly conventional fashion, enrolling at Madrid’s School of Fine Art in 1921. It didn’t last. There were hints of what was to come when he was suspended once for seditious behaviour and arrested twice for anti-government activities before being expelled altogether for refusing to sit an examination in the history of art.

“I am infinitely more intelligent than these three professors and I therefore refuse to be examined by them,” he’d announced. “I know this subject much too well.”

The key moment in his creative destiny occurred in 1928 when he visited Paris for the first time, meeting Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Breton and others and subsequently abandoning the Cubism with which he’d been wrestling in favour of surrealism. Within three years Dalí had produced The Persistence of Memory, the oil painting of flaccid, melting clocks that became his most famous work. It was a product of what he called his ‘Paranoiac-Critical’ method through which he tried to access the creative depths of his subconscious free of influence or conditioning. He described it as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge, based on the critical-interpretative association of the phenomena of delirium”. He would stare at a fixed object for so long that it would start to transform in front of his eyes, and sit with a mixing bowl on his lap holding a spoon. If he nodded off the spoon would clatter into the bowl and wake him up, keeping him, he thought, in a dream-like state that could access the images he sought.

A master of a particular strand of irrational knowledge in both his work and his personality, Dalí the man became as famous as his art. Pronouncements such as his long-running insistence that Perpignan railway station was the centre of the Earth and that if Spain were not anchored to it “we would now be in Australia with the kangaroos and there is nothing more depressing in the world than living with kangaroos” would anger artistic purists, not to mention Australians, but the quality of his work endures as powerfully as the self-belief of the man himself.

“Compared to Velázquez, I am nothing,” he said in 1960, “but compared to contemporary painters I am the biggest genius of modern time.”

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