Earlier this year an exhibition opened at the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí's Púbol Castle revealing a version of the iconic surrealist as seen through the eyes of female photographers. The photos in the show, titled Women Photograph Dalí, are fascinating. Curators Bea Crespo and Rosa M. Maurell selected shots of the artist in private photos never meant for the public. Surrealist Denise Bellon and Vogue regular Karen Radkai's iconic magazine prints hang alongside behind-the-scenes portraits of Dalí directing In Voluptate Mors, shot by collaborator Philippe Halsman's wife, Yvonne. The jewels of the collection, though, are rarely-seen photos by Gala Dalí, Dalí’s wife and muse, taken at the dawn of their 53-year relationship.
Gala was born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova in Russia in 1894. She met Dalí in 1929 while married to the French poet Paul Éluard and sleeping with the German Dadaist painter Max Ernst. By the end of the year, she and Dalí were living together, and entered an open marriage in 1934. Her photos in the exhibition were captured during their early years together in the Catalonian beachside town of Portlligat.
Taken between 1930 and 1932, Gala's photos of her frenetic early relationship with Dalí have never been displayed before publicly. They add a counter-visual to one of the most mysterious artist-muse relationships in recent history. They cement Gala's place as more than a famous object of the artist's attention, immortalized in paintings like The Madonna of Port Lligat and Portrait of Galarina. Dalí biographer Ian Gibson tells VICE Gala never spoke to the press about their relationship, so her impact on Dalí’s art must be decoded through his incredibly performative memoir, public appearances, and gossip from those who passed through their famous parties and orgies. But in Women Photograph Dalí, her gaze directed back at him is on display.
“Although Dalí and Gala had a strong emotional bond, it was not a mature relationship," Dr. Zoltan Kovary wrote of the couple in an email to VICE. A clinical psychologist, creativity researcher, and associate professor at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University, Kovary took a close look at the couple when he began writing a psychological analysis of Dalí’s artwork called The Enigma of Desire: Salvador Dalí and the conquest of the irrational.
There’s plenty of eros in Gala’s photos of young Dalí, especially the ones of him sunning himself at their home in the Spanish beach town. But Kovary said their love, “Was more like a mother-infant affair; Gala sometimes called Dalí, ‘My little son.’ They never had a ‘real’ sexual relationship. Dalí, although Gala raised deep desires in him, had fear of physical contact.”
Nevertheless, these photos are full of the excitement of early romance. Dalí stands in front of a weird shop they found, or lies down, barely looking at the camera. His poses look casual and unassuming. We see Dalí as he wanted Gala to see him, years before he became famous for attention-grabbing stunts like walking his pet anteater in public and making cryptic statements on game shows.
No one understands how hard it can be to sort fact from fiction and exaggeration in Dalí’s life better than Gibson. The biographer behind The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí said in an email, “He’s a biographer’s nightmare. What can you do with an individual who is always acting, always playing a part?” Gala's photos create empathy for the woman married to such a confounding man.
Gibson’s advice to those still fascinated by the man who painted the fantastical vision of The Elephants and the transcendentally anxious Persistence of Memory is straightforward. “The main clue to Dalí, I think, is that he was pathologically timid deep down and constructed his exhibitionistic persona as a protective device,” he said. “The tragedy is that we don’t have Gala’s side of the story.”
Women of Dali gets us closer than we’ve ever been before.
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