Salvador Dali is among the most versatile and prolific artists of the twentieth century. Though chiefly remembered for his painterly output, in the course of his long career he successfully turned to sculpture, printmaking, fashion, advertising, writing, and, perhaps most famously, film making in his collaborations with Luis Bunuel and Alfred Hitchcock. Dali was renowned for his flamboyant personality as much as for his undeniable technical virtuosity. His work bears the stamp of fellow Spaniards Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. His paintings also evince a fascination for Classical and Renaissance art, clearly visible through his hyper-realistic style and religious symbolism of his later work. Dali is most often associated with the Surrealist movement, despite his formal expulsion from the group in 1934 for his reactionary political views.
Freudian theory underpins Dali's attempts at forging a formal and visual language capable of rendering his dreams and hallucinations. These account for some of the iconic and now ubiquitous images through which Dali achieved tremendous fame during his lifetime and beyond.
Obsessive themes of death, and decay permeate Dali's work, reflecting his familiarity with and synthesis of the psychoanalytical theories of his time. Drawing on blatantly autobiographical material and childhood memories, Dali's work is rife with often ready-interpreted symbolism, ranging from animal imagery to religious symbols.
Dali subscribed to Surrealist André Breton's theory of automatism, but ultimately opted for a method of tapping the unconscious that he termed "critical paranoia," a state in which one could cultivate delusion while maintaining one's sanity. More simply put, it was a process by which the artist found new and unique ways to view the world around him. It is the ability of the artist or the viewer to perceive multiple images within the same configuration. The concept can be compared to Leonardo da Vinci's scribbling and drawings. As a matter of fact, all of us have practiced the Paranoid Critical Method when gazing at stucco on a wall, or clouds in the sky, and seeing different shapes and visages therein. Dalí elevated this uniquely human characteristic into his own art form.
Paradoxically defined by Dali himself as a form of "irrational knowledge," the paranoiac-critical method was applied by his contemporaries, mostly Surrealists, to varied media, ranging from cinema to poetry to fashion.
Dali was born in Figueres, a small town outside Barcelona, to a prosperous family. His larger-than-life persona started early: aged 10, he had his first drawing lessons where he claimed that he manifested hysterical, rage-filled outbursts toward his family and playmates. Throughout his life, Dali retained his love for Catalan culture, and he depicted the landscape surrounding Figueres in several key paintings throughout his career. Dali entered the Madrid School of Fine Arts in 1921.
In Madrid, Dali experimented with Impressionist and Pointillist styles, but abandoned these techniques after he won a bet that he could "paint a prize-winning Pointillist picture by splashing paint at a canvas from a distance of three feet," . In 1920, Dali visited Paris where he became greatly interested in Futurist attempts to recreate motion and show objects from simultaneous, multiple angles. In exploring this style, Dali began to consider a means of dramatically reinterpreting reality and altering perception. He discovered the psychoanalytic concepts of Freud as well as metaphysical painters like Giorgio de Chirico, and consequently began using psychoanalytic methods of mining the subconscious to generate imagery. By the time he was expelled from the art academy in 1924, Dali was already exhibiting work locally, and had been adopted into a social circle that Luis Bunuel, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Maria Mallo.
In the latter 1920'ss, Dali was practicing Cubist styles and was deeply influenced by Picasso, whom he personally met in Paris in 1929. That same year, at the Galerie Goemans in Paris, Dali exhibited canvases that explored symbolism and his interest in the subconscious. Through this exhibition, he met Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard, and André Breton, who wrote the essay for Dali's catalog. Soon after, Dali moved to Paris, and was invited by Breton to join the Surrealists. For the next several years, Dali's paintings were notably illustrative of his theories about the psychological state of paranoia and its importance as subject matter. He painted bodies, bones, and symbolic objects that reflected symbols that referred to the anxiousness over the passing of time.
Dali ascribed to Breton's theory of automatism, and claimed he didn't know the meaning behind the symbols in his paintings. He credited his childhood as inspiration, urging artists to be skeptical of modern technology and to embrace intuitive, craft-based art-making techniques instead. As politics of war were at the forefront of Surrealist debates, Breton expelled Dali from the Surrealists in 1934 due to differing views on General Franco and fascism. In 1937, Dali moved to Italy, and practiced more traditional painting styles that drew on his love of canonized painters, like Gustave Courbet and Jan Vermeer, though his emotionally-charged themes and subjects remained as strange as ever.
Late Period and Death
In the 1940's and 1950's, Dali's paintings focused on religious themes reflecting his abiding interest in the supernatural. He aimed to portray space as a subjective reality, which may be why many of his paintings from this period show objects and figures at extremely foreshortened angles. He continued employing his "paranoiac-critical" method, which entailed working long, arduous hours in the studio and expressing his dreams directly on canvas in manic bouts of energy. In 1955, he returned to Spain and became quite reclusive, but continued to paint until his death in the 1980's. His paintings came to be increasingly likened to Renaissance masterworks. And, like a Renaissance artist, Dali had many other creative outlets: he designed jewelry, sets for theater, worked in fashion design, collaborated with Chanel, and much more. These endeavors led to further commercialization of his work, whose impact has been recently academically reassessed in several large-scale exhibitions.
Dali's manner of revealing the gap between reality and illusion influenced all manner of modern artists. Beyond developing his own symbolic language, Dali elaborated a way to represent the inner mind. He is considered one of the major Surrealists who used shock and unease to illustrate moments of pleasure, and in this his work remains highly contemporary. Though some second generation Surrealists, like Joseph Cornell, continued working in representational modes, other artists, like many Abstract Expressionists, drew on Dali's belief in mining the subconscious. Painters such as Robert Motherwell, who first showed as Surrealists at Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery, also deeply admired Dali's way of personalizing the political and vice versa.