Salvador Dali knew how to make an entrance. Arriving in the U.S. by ocean liner in 1940, he came down the gangway brandishing a loaf of French bread eight feet long. For a lecture in London he showed up in a deep-sea diving suit. And in Paris he pulled up to the Sorbonne in a black-and-yellow Rolls-Royce filled with cauliflowers. “It’s very difficult to shock the world every 24 hours,” he once said, though he didn’t sound as though he meant it.
Like Oscar Wilde before him and Andy Warhol after, Dali was the artist as public performer, a shrewd purveyor of absurdity on the canvas and in the street. The last of a great generation of Spanish painters that included Picasso and Miró, he took the stage 60 years ago as the most audacious of the surrealists gathered in Paris, making his name with dreamworld images of crawling ants and burning giraffes. Later, when his brilliance flagged and his critical reputation plummeted, he still held the stage as the too-merry prankster with the pitchfork mustache, the two ocelots and the gold-tipped canes.
By the time the master of entrances made his exit last week, succumbing at 84 to pneumonia and heart failure at a hospital in his hometown of Figueras, Spain, his public clowning had long since eclipsed his talents as an artist. In the opinion of many critics, Dali’s significant work had been completed by the time he was 35. Even so, he remained one of the 20th century’s most celebrated painters. His 1931 canvas The Persistence of Memory, with its flaccid pocket watches in a barren landscape, has become one of the touchstone images of the modern world. At the news of his death, thousands of people filed through the Theatre-Museum Dali in Figueras, where the artist’s body lay in state at his residence in the museum’s Galatea Tower. As condolences were received from King Juan Carlos of Spain and Prime Minister Filipe Gonzalez, workers prepared Dali’s tomb in the museum’s inner courtyard.
Despite the pomp that surrounded his death, Dali’s final years were lived in an ever-thickening confusion while associates—Dali had no children—squabbled over control of an estate now estimated to be worth roughly $90 million. He had been in poor health and confined to a wheelchair since 1984, when a fire in his bedroom left him badly burned. Two years earlier, he had been devastated by the death of his wife, Gala—his muse, model and no-nonsense taskmaster. But even before that, Dali had devalued his reputation through a flood of kitschy work and some dubious schemes that helped to make him one of the world’s most widely counterfeited artists. In his later years he even put his signature to tens of thousands of blank sheets. Forgers have been filling them with fake Dali lithographs ever since.
Dali’s life began in more prosaic circumstances amid the dry hills of Catalonia, where he was born in 1904, exactly nine months and 10 days after the death of a 21-month-old brother. He was even given the dead boy’s name: Salvador. One of his biographers, Meryle Secrest, says the young Dali’s need to emerge from the shadow of his dead sibling is why he went to such lengths to establish an identity for himself through perverse behavior, like throwing himself down staircases or pretending to choke while his parents watched in horror. In his gleefully unreliable memoirs—The Secret Life of Salvador Dali—he even recalls biting in half a wounded bat covered with ants. Whatever the reason, it was soon clear that he was unlikely to become a notary like his father.
After being expelled from art school in 1926, Dali made his way to Paris, an ambitious young man with sleepy good looks—sharp cheekbones, thin lips and skin described by a friend as “tight as a drum and as shiny as enameled porcelain.” Paris was a cockpit of modernism, and Dali soon fell in with the surrealists, a group of painters and poets who believed they could plunge directly into the unconscious and bring back its subterranean truths. Dali drew the raw matter of his unconscious through a sensibility steeped in the sexual obsessions of Catholic Spain. His painted versions of dreamland could be strewn with repugnant flesh and full of references to masturbation, cruelty and voyeurism. Yet all of it was rendered with an optical precision that made the most unearthly images as solid as Iberian rock. For all his devotion to advanced subject matter, Dali adored the finely detailed work of the most conservative 19th-century painters. Visitors to his studio sometimes found him working with brushes of just three or four hairs, with a magnifying glass screwed to his eye.
Dali once said that the goal of his art was to “systematize confusion and thus help to discredit completely the world of reality.” By 1929, he was one of surrealism’s chief theoreticians and most visible figures, in part because of Un Chien Andalou (“The Andalusian Dog”), a short silent film he made with the director Luis Buñuel. It became notorious for scenes like the one in which a woman’s eye is shown in close-up being slit with a razor. (The eye was actually that of a dead mule, but the scene is convincing enough to make film students squirm even today.)
By the mid-’30s, however, Dali was feuding with the surrealists, who were sick of his zest for money and his naive infatuation with Hitler and Franco. Some of his friends blamed his waywardness on his deepening obsession with Gala. A woman perhaps 10 years older than Dali (she was coy about her birth date), the Russian-born Gala was married to the surrealist poet Paul Eluard when Dali met her in 1929, but that union had been strained by Eluard’s philandering and her own keen eye for the next opportunity. Dali considered courting her in surreal style, preparing for one seaside rendezvous by donning a necklace, a geranium and a stinking mixture offish glue, aspic and goat manure. (When he saw her outside his window, however, he reconsidered and headed for the shower.) Though Gala returned to Eluard periodically until their divorce in 1932, the affair began that summer. She married Dali in 1934.
If Gala was one of Dali’s passions, the other was money. His fellow surrealist André Breton rearranged the name Salvador Dali into a catty anagram: Avida Dollars. Dali himself once confessed to a “pure, vertical, mystical, gothic love of cash.” And he meant cash. Neighbors claimed that in later years Dali and Gala kept separate trunkloads of dollars, Spanish pesetas and French francs.
By the mid-1930s, Dali was one of the world’s richest artists. The residence he kept in the Spanish coastal town of Port Lligat, formerly a small fisherman’s cottage, became an expansive ramble filled with antiques and a dyed polar bear on which to hang umbrellas and scarves. Dali was paid substantial commissions for creating things like a lamb-chop hat for the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the sets for Gregory Peck’s dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound.
But in the decades after World War II, Dali was too often content to recycle the imagery of his brilliant youth or make commercials for chewing gum, cars and candy. Increasingly, he and Gala also surrounded themselves with an entourage of hangers-on and assistants, some of whom managed to cash in big on their association with the artist. In a moment of acute self-comprehension, Dali once said, “My life is one tragical sequence of exhibitionism.” The sequence is over now, unless Dali, who often swore he would find a way to cheat death, has managed to resume his antics in the next world. In that case, he may be making his arrival there now, in a yellow-and-black Rolls-Royce filled with cauliflowers.