Salvador Dali


Thesis: Salvador Dali was one of the most important surrealist artists, especially with the original themes he introduced to this school of art.

  1. Salvador Dali’s first contact with Surrealism
  2. His revolutionary spirit
  3. Production of surrealist films
  4. Contact with Andre Beton
  5. Salvador Dali’s Surrealism
  6. Freudian influence
  7. paranoiac-critical method
  8. photography of concrete rationality method
  9. Dali’s commitment to Surrealism

III. Dali’s break up with Surrealism

  1. His dislike for communism
  2. His attraction to powerful figures
  3. His tendency towards commercialism
  4. Sources of Dali’s Surrealism
  5. His sadistic nature
  6. His hysterical mood
  7. His surrealist mood

Salvador Dali is considered to be one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. His masterpieces were those he painted before World War II, mainly when he adopted Surrealist thought and work. Dali spent a large part of this period (1923-1939) moving between Spain and France where he met a large number of other painters, in addition to influential writers and poets. Dali remained committed to Surrealism until the mid-1930s where he started to express attraction to figures of power such as Hitler. He rejected communism and showed support for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Moreover, Dali was very obsessed with public relations and self appearance. As a result, he was expelled from the Surrealist movement. By moving out of Surrealism, Dali’s work lost a lot of its imagery and power.

Salvador Dali was born in Figueras, in the Gerona province of Upper Catalonia in northeast Spain. He showed a very strong talent for art and painting every since he was a young child. His parents encouraged him, especially his father who fostered his art education over the years. Dali attended the National School for Art in Madrid but was expelled because he frequently provoked his colleagues to revolt against the administration. Besides, he was accused of breaking the school laws when he refused to sit for exams supervised by his teachers whom he considered as inferiors (Marks, 1984, p.174).

Only a year later, in May 1924, Dali was imprisoned because of his rebellious political activities. Dali’s early childhood and youth reflect an extravagant personality as well by a lot of boasting and showing off. His character was also a mixture of vigorous emotions and lust for appearance and self-expression. These feelings, usually repressed, were a main source of his Surrealistic works (Marks, 1984, p.175).

Dali’s works during the 1920s reflected a slight but clear influence by the Surrealist movement. This influence continued to increase until Dali and his colleague Luis Bunuel made the silent film An Andalusian Dog which was received by the Surrealists in Paris with great interest (Gowing, 1988, p. 158). This reaction by the Surrealist School encouraged Dali to commit himself more to the philosophy of Surrealism (Gowing, 1988, p.158).

The Surrealist movement was established by Andre Beton, a French poet and essayist. This school regarded reason and logic as repressive forces that limited innovation and the conscious mind. Surrealism concentrated on the subconscious mind as a source of its themes and works. Consequently, it was largely influenced by Freud and his psychoanalytic works (Prosyniuk, 1991, p.159).  Dali shared two common characteristics with Surrealism. First of all, he believed that his innovative powers were hidden in his subconscious, and consequently, he wanted to discover them there. Secondly, Dali was so much obsessed by internal freedom and sexual desire that he saw Surrealism as a means to free his subconscious. This reflected directly on his art towards the end of the 1920s. Dali developed his own system of shading which created an effect of hallucinatory reflection of light. This was later to lead to the adoption of illusionism as an important technique and method by the Surrealists (Gowing, 1988, p.158).

By 1939, Dali’s commitment to Surrealism was almost complete. He had already developed some techniques and new themes that influenced Surrealism to a great extent. Illusionism was just one of them. However, Dali’s most important contribution to Surrealism was the development of his “paranoiac-critical method” which was based on his ability to perceive unexpected analogies between forms and objects (Gowing, 1988, p.158).

Through this paranoiac-critical method, Dali used his imagination to loosen his rationality and free his subconscious, letting his feelings, dreams, fears, and every repressed anxiety or desire inside him through images, all while he remained aware that he was not conscious. This method was described by Robert Hughes as “looking at one thing and seeing another” (Marks, 1984, p.175).

As soon as Dali reflected this method in his works, especially in the The Lugubrious Game, Accommodations of Desire and Illumined Pleasures, he was subjected to great interest and attention by the Surrealist School, especially by Breton, the leader of this school (Marks, 1984, p.176).

Dali was immediately able to prove his uniqueness and brilliance in this new school. He was said to have brought “a new objectivity to the surrealist painting by depicting the unreal world with such extreme realism that its truth and validity could not longer by questioned” (Marks, 1984, p.176). This was what Dali referred to as the handmade photography of concrete rationality, a technique that was not less important than the paranoiac-critical technique (Marks, 1984, p.176).

Like other surrealists, Dali concentrated a lot on sexual desire. His paintings were shocking to the public, especially as they addressed the subject of sexuality very openly, using symbols that revealed too much according to that conservative period. Some of his most shocking works were The Great Masturbator and The Enigma of Desire (Prosyniuk, 1991, p.154).

As a surrealist, Dali had to listen to a lot of criticism, especially about his sexual symbols. Nevertheless, in an attempt to gain the support of other surrealists who were before him in the movement, Dali answered back in his famous essay “The Stinking Ass” saying that those who were criticizing surrealism will have to expect nothing but disappointment and more repulsion. By this, Dali was immediately perceived as one of the most important and promising leaders of surrealism (Prosyniuk, 1991, p.154).

Even though Dali was a hero in the eyes of the surrealists, he did not share everything with them. Surrealism was, for example, assumed to be a leftist movement, concentrating on the reflection of the people’s repressed values and desires through symbolic expression. Hence, as the Communist influence grew in the mid-1930s, the surrealists reflected their joy. Dali himself used leftist symbols in his works, especially in Partial Hallucination: Six Images of Lenin on a Piano, which he completed in 1931 (Prosyniuk, 1991, p.155).

Nevertheless, Dali despised the communists. He was more concerned about power, wealth, appearances and self-expression. Consequently, he refused to join communism and earned the anger of his colleagues. He earned more anger when he showed interest in Fascism, especially in Hitler. He believed Hitler was a perfect representation of a dictator who ruled so harshly and entered a world war just to enjoy his masochist pleasure of losing in the end. In addition to such remarks,  Dali refused to take sides in the Spanish Civil War, especially that he supported General Franco while the surrealists supported the communists (Prosyniuk, 1991, p.155).

Dali was further attacked for having become too commercial in his work. Breton himself warned him several times, but Dali was too concerned about his public appearance and about his personal hallucination that he did not listen. As a result, he was finally expelled from the surrealist school in 1938, by Breton himself who had admitted him in the first place (Prosyniuk, 1991, p.155).

The surrealist school must have influenced Dali in many ways, particularly that he adored Picasso. But at the same time, Dali had his own surrealistic ingenuity. There are several sources for his genius mind, as he used to say. He used to say that he was a hysterical person ever he was a child. He recalls his sadistic pleasure in torturing others such as his sister by kicking her on the face. He also recalls that he once enjoyed torturing a wounded bat and in the end, he put the bat in his mouth and bit it in half. But worst of all, Dali recalls his sadistic relationship with his girlfriend when he was an adolescent, when he used to excite her with his kisses and caresses and in the end, he would simply refuse to go on. He also describes how he used to tell her that he would desert her after five years, which he did in the end (Prosyniuk, 1991, p.162).

Dali’s social life was also surrealistic. He was very narcissistic, so much in love with his own talent and his own personality, that he became an artist at public relations. He was proud of his bad reputation and of the gossip that filled the world about him. He simply let everything inside him burst out freely, letting his subconscious appear to the whole world (Prosyniuk, 1991, p.162).

Dali was also obsessed about his wife Gala whom he loved so much. She became subject to many of his paintings, many of which were surrealistic. Gala was similar to Dali in many ways, but her secret in winning his love and adoration was in her ability to let his subconscious and mind run free, letting nothing to repression (Prosyniuk, 1991, p.162).

Even after being expelled from the surrealist school in 1938, Dali continued to paint using surrealist techniques. However, after the war was over in Europe, he began to test and experiment new techniques that were more for commercial than pure artistic purpose (Ades, 1986, p.173). Eventually, surrealism became outdated, but certainly Dali’s surrealist paintings were still considered to be his best, if not the best in the whole history of the surrealist school.

In conclusion, surrealism has no place or meaning in the history of art without mentioning Dali, one of the greatest of its members. Dali was not the person one could easily understand or love. Actually, he did not care about being loved or not because he was already in love with himself. He did not care about anything because he was aware of his own talents. These talents were best seen in Dali’s productions between 1928 and 1938, that is, when he was  member of the surrealist school. Dali might have been insane and crazy, but he knew that his success as an artist could only depend on such aspects of his personality, and when he let his craziness come out naturally, his production was so great that it might never be repeated again. For those who loved Dali’s surrealism, Dali was considered dead after World War II (although he died in 1984),  but at the same time, his paintings remained vivid and alive in memory of history and art.


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Gowing, L. (1988). A Bibliographical Dictionary of

Artists. London: Facts on Line.

Marks, Claude. (1984). World Artists: 1950-1980. New York: The

H.W. Wilson Company.

Prosyniuk, J. (1991). Modern Arts Criticism. New York: Gale

Research Inc.