Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, 1st Marquis of Púbol (1904-1989) may be the world’s most famous artist. That’s quite a statement, but if you were to ask someone in the 1950s and 60s to name an artist, Dali would likely have topped the list. The reason for this was less his painting, which is astonishing, but rather the cult of celebrity that he developed and encouraged around him, that made him one of the highest-earning artists in history, and made him a household name among people who probably could not name a single one of his paintings.
Dali was born in rural Figueres, and is associated with Catalan and Barcelona culture as much as Antonio Gaudi. He is best known for painting, but he also made sculpture, jewelry, and engaged in photography and film. His films with Luis Buñuel, including Le Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog), with its famous opening image of a razor slicing an eyeball, were critically acclaimed. He was active in the Surrealist movement, founded by André Breton, which sought to shake the bourgeois out of their zombie-like rituals of the commute, work, and sleep, by creating works of art that provoked wonder and awe, forcing the perceiver to think of everyday things in a new and different way. The movement was literary as well as artistic and, while Dali was not one of the leaders of the Surrealists, he was the member who became most famous, a figurehead for Surrealism. In particular, his painting, The Persistence of Memory (1931), which illustrates soft watches that had been inspired by a runny wheel of Camembert he saw on a hot August day, is perhaps the best known Surrealist artwork.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Dali encouraged a “cult of Dali,” spurred on by his increasingly manic behavior (no one would object if you called Dali “a very weird man”) and his lust for money. He would take on commissions, no matter their content, as long as they paid well—for instance, he made a commercial for Lanvin chocolates and designed the logo for Chupa Chups lollipops—commercial activities that most artists scorned as “selling out.” He was notorious for signing anything that could be sold, to make money from his autographs. André Breton famously called him “Avida Dollars,” an anagram for Salvador Dali that means “dollar-greedy.” There are allegations that Dali employed another artist to paint works in his name, which he would sign, over the last decades of his life. Dali is also one of the most frequently forged artists. He is known to have authenticated a work, claiming it to be his own, that was forged, and his lithographs are frequently faked. One must be wary, therefore, in claiming that one owns a Dali.
This painting is from Dali’s relatively innocent youth, long before Avida Dollars, long before Dali the young, wildly talented painter became Dali the trademark self-caricature. Cubism, which challenged the way artists thought about how a painting could deal with space, dimension, and form, was the most exciting movement of the 20th century, and artists from around the world were drawn to experiment with its techniques. Dali too tried his hand at the style, though he was at heart a brilliant naturalistic painter whose surreal concepts were given greater impact by the realism of his images. As a nineteen-year-old, Dali was wowed by the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, as well as Marcel Duchamp’s Cubist works, such as his 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase.
Where exactly in this “self-portrait” is Dali? There’s a mask-like face (another sign of Picasso’s influence on Dali at this juncture, Cubism and primitive masks being two of Picasso’s own trademarks) that bares little resemblance to Dali. A fragment of a newspaper and wrapping for cigarillos plus an abstract wall design traditional to Catalonia are identifiable, but little else. The effect that Dali produces is that of looking at his own reflection in a pane of glass in a dim-lit room, and then shattering that glass into hundreds of shards, while the glass retains his image. His figure is fragmented to the point where it is difficult to locate figure. Beyond a marvelous arched unibrow and hollow eyes, nothing suggests a portrait. But the flow of the indigo geometric pieces that once, we might imagine, comprised a self-portrait, are beautiful, mobile, reminiscent of both flowing fabric and cracked glass. Here is the young Dali as the young Picasso—if you can find him.