Memory endures, though it does so unevenly. Such is the message of Salvador Dalí's 1931 dorm room print The Persistence of Memory, and such is the takeaway of the surrealist painter's legacy. Adolescent boys who will one day run multi-million dollar corporations salivate over Dalí and his theoretical elevation of the repulsive to art, rarely having to confront the fact that he was a cruel narcissist of a human being.
Over and over again, following high-profile rape scandals and domestic abuse, intellectual thievery and explicit racism, people have asked, hesitant yet hopeful, if it's possible to separate the art from the artist. The subtext of this question, usually outwardly expressed as a kind of philosophical fluffing, is: Can we please just purely enjoy our favorite catchy songs, cool-looking paintings, and well-written sentences without having to think about the suffering their creators engendered? With Dalí—an openly obnoxious man who willfully claimed necrophilia, cruelty to animals and people, fascism, self-obsession, and greed—to do this seems particularly egregious.
Born to a middle-class family in Spain in 1904, young Salvador was ruthlessly ambitious from an early age, he writes in his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. "At the age of six I wanted to be a cook," he begins modestly. "At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since." The book continues in this vein for some 400 pages, illustrating, literally and figuratively, how a man might have come to a method of art-making called "critical paranoia," which involved accessing and developing subconscious fantasies and desires and memories to maintain simultaneous sanity and madness. And then making paintings about it.
I say it's particularly egregious to try to separate Dalí's personality and behavior from his paintings because 's works are explicitly engaged with the preoccupations (masturbation, necrophilia) he claims in his autobiography; he feared female genitalia (until he met his muse, Gala) and preferred to masturbate in front of a mirror. Pieces like Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano are heavy-handed in their psychological symbolism: Death is a mindfuck for an artist! (He also told the British journalist Mick Brown he "never believe[d] that I will die in any way.") Some of his fuck-authority antics are interesting: He once drove a Volkswagen Beetle covered in grass through Paris, for example; another time he gave a speech in a scuba suit, which almost killed him. Other endeavors, often in the service of art, are cruel: When Dalí collaborated with Philippe Halsman (who also made a book about Dalí's mustache) to make the iconic Dalí Atomicus photo, the process required 28 attempts, which would have been fine except for the fact that each of those attempts involved throwing three cats into the air and flinging buckets of water at them. (Dalí also had a pet ocelot, Babou, which is questionably ethical.)
The beloved painter was also violent. At age five, Dalí writes in his autobiography, he pushed a boy off a high suspension bridge; at six, he pre-meditated a "terrible kick" to his three-year-old sister's head "as though it had been a ball." Not simply childish not-knowing-better, this baseless cruelty continued as Dalí got older; often it seemed he cultivated admiration only to become disgusted with those he sought it from. For five years as a teen he teased a girl who was in love with him, exciting her with kisses and touching but then refusing to give her anything more. (Vaginas are scary!) When he was 29, he "trampled" a girl who remarked on the beauty of his bare feet—"so true that I found her insistence on this matter stupid"—until his companions "had to tear her, bleeding," from his clutches.
But wait, there's more! Just as Dalí was kicked out of university, the French poet André Breton also expelled him from the Paris Surrealist Group for, essentially, being a political asshole: Dalí refused to imbibe the spirit of Marxism and expressed sympathies with Hitler, though according to Eric Shanes in his biography The Life and Masterworks of Salvador Dalí, the Hitler thing seemed "to have been motivated more by the painter's desire to offend Breton." It could easily be argued that this attitude sucks anyway, but later, Dalí's fascism was more assured: Dalí began to revere the dictator Francisco Franco as "the greatest hero of Spain" (he liked concentration camps and was responsible for the deaths of between 200,000 and 400,000 people) and painted a portrait of his daughter on a horse. According to Brown, who spent a weekend with Dalí in 1973, years later the artist professed to subscribe to an ideal system of government that aligns with these preferences, sort of: "One king that rule very strongly the country, and underneath the maximum of anarchy! One ruler, the more authoritarian as possible, with one crown decorative and symbolic to put on every magazine cover."
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Breton also christened Dalí with his nickname, "Avida Dollars," or eager for dollars, which he earned because he was. In the 1970s, Dalí demanded $100,000 an hour to star as the "emperor of the universe" in Alejandro Jodorowsky's ambitious and failed Dune film project. In the 1980s, near Dalí's death, he was found to have committed countless instances of fraud by flooding the art market with his signature; he would sign blank sheets of paper that fakers could then print with seemingly verifiable imitations of his paintings and sell.
With so many issues, it's tempting to ask: Is he for real? It's hard to say. Part of the point of The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí is an obviously blurring discussion of false memories and fantasy; some of it he certainly made up to become famous. Eleventh-grade literary analysis points to the obvious awareness Dalíbrings to the tone in his autobiography: The chapter headings ("Anecdotic Self-Portrait," "False Childhood Memories," "True Childhood Memories") are self-referential, and the title gestures to the way one might describe scandals committed by someone else. Indeed, in his (negative) review of the book, George Orwell argued that Dalí's "wickedness," whether real or imagined (but at least real in its harmful influence), was the artist's cheap strategy to both become and move beyond Napoleon. Perhaps on some level the upturned mustache was a device, not just for seeming quirky but so that everywhere Dalí went, he could expect recognition. After all, when he emerged from a car in Barcelona's Las Ramblas street, writes Brown, he did so "acknowledging the applause and the cries of 'maestro' from passers-by with a regal wave of the hand."