Salvador Dalí will be remembered as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. His brand of Surrealism combined with his eccentric behavior has guaranteed him a legacy second to none. Though what he might be less remembered for was his brilliant technical mastery of the art of painting. People should not be mistaken; Salvador Dalí was a classic technical master. He was not only one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, but also one of its most refined and accomplished painters. From a young age Dalí was trained in the style of the masters, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velazquez. It was in these painters that Dalí shaped himself after. In fact Dalí’s pitchfork mustache was not even his own creation; it was a homage to 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velazquez. It must be understood that Dalí was a painter through and through, everything else came second. In Dalí the world witnessed a rare combination of highly skilled technique and a wildly vivid imagination.
Salvador Dalí the “painter” entered art school at a very young age. During this time he was trained under the supervision of a local Spanish artist, Ramon Pichot. Under Pichot Dalí began to hone his craft and learn the techniques of the Renaissance masters, who Pinchot was very keen on. At this time Dalí was turned on to the works of Impressionist and at one point Dalí himself declared that he wanted to be an Impressionist. It is noted that Mr. Pichot saw in this young Dalí signs of genius and great talent.
By the time Dalí attended the San Fernando Academy of Fine Art he was under the influence of Dadaism and Cubism, precursors to Surrealism. The works that stood out at this time were his paintings, Cabaret Scene (1922) and Composition with Three Figures (1927) were clearly his experimentation with Cubism and Expressionism take hold. Even then, he still remained true to his early ties to technical precession. The Basket of Bread (1926) is a remarkable example of Dalí’s realistic sense and ability. We see here that Dalí is never too far from his realistic roots, even when he was on the verge of going completely Surreal.
Some would argue that Dalí’s first truly Surrealist endeavor was Honey Is Sweeter Than Blood (1927). Somewhere under the influence of Miro and Picasso Dalí produced this work and we see one of his most famous icons, the Dalinian landscape. The Dalinian landscape is a barren plane which will show up repeatedly in Dalí’s paintings. It is around this time that Dalí officially joined the Surrealist movements, and it is around this time that he collaborated with Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel to create some of Spain’s classic films; L’Age d’Or and Un Chien Andalou. The two films are like watching Dalí’s paintings come to life.
Soon after Dalí joined the Surrealist movement he created one of his greatest masterpieces, in fact, one of the greatest works of art every, The Persistence of Memory. The story behind this work of art is now talked about like an epic artistic myth. Apparently Dalí wakes from his slumber one day in his studio and sees some melting cheese and connects the transformation of the cheese with the passing of time….and like that, voila…..the iconic melting clocks. The Persistence of Memory sent shock waves throughout the art community. With this work, Dalí not only declared himself a staunch Surrealist, but he also declared himself as one of modern art’s greatest forces. The impact of The Persistence of Memory cannot be overstated; it is a remarkable work which brings us into the mind of Dalí. Often described as dream like, it is with The Persistence of Memory that Dalí would be measured against and remembered.
At this point in his life Dalí continued to explore his new sense of Surrealism with paintings like Autumn Cannibalism, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Swans Reflecting Elephants, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire, and The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As A Table. In these works Dalí toyed with double imagery, irony, optical illusions, and made great use of his Paranoiac-Critical Method, a technique he used to see the surreal in everyday objects.
In the 1950s Dalí entered what some have labeled his “Nuclear Mysticism” period. These were years that Dalí was heavily influenced by the new findings of physics and the traditions of Roman Catholicism. Influenced by the recent use of the atomic bomb, Dalí shifted his interest to the cross roads where science and religion meet. His painting Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) is a perfect example of mathematics and religion meeting. In this painting we are presented with the crucifixion of Christ in a 4th dimensional existence. His painting The Sacrament of The Last Supper makes use of a mathematical formula in order to get the precise composition. Another example of Dalí exploring the Christian theme is in his great painting The Temptation of St. Anthony, where the audience witnesses a remarkable Surrealist scene of St. Anthony facing his supernatural temptations. Clearly Dalí saw a link between faith and science, between that grounded in the Earth and that supported by the heavens. His other great paintings in this period were, Galatea of The Spheres, Leda Atomica, and Christ of St. John of The Cross. Often in these works Dalí makes use of his wife Gala as a subject. For him there is a distinct link between Gala and the divine, and between the divine and logical.
After his “Nuclear Mysticism” phase Dalí entered a period where he created vast and large paintings stretched across enormous pieces of canvas. The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus is 14 feet tall by 9 feet wide. Again, we see Gala as the Virgin Mary and a young Christ like figure bring the ship onto land. This giant painting would set the standard for Dalí’s later period of works. Tuna Fishing, stands at about the same size as The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Though here, in this painting, we see a slight departure from Dalí’s classical style. There are almost holographic elements in this work and stencil like figures. The colors blend in a new way, and it is clear that Dalí is evolving as a painter. One of Dalí’s greatest paintings is The Hallucinogenic Toreador. In t his painting Dalí pays tribute to many things, Classical Greek Art, with his rendition of Venus de Milos his brother (the small boy in the lower right corner), his Spanish up bringing through the imagery of the toreador, and of course his love, Gala.
In 1983 Dalí completed his last painting. By this time he had lost much control in his hands, and he could not paint in the realistic way he once could. The Swallow’s Tail-Series on Catastrophes perhaps can be attributed as a commentary on physics, rather than an homage to it. It is based on the works of Rene Thom, a catastrophe theorist. Again, we see Dalí immense obsession with science and its insights.
Whether it was through his wife Gala, physics, psychology, Spanish motifs, melting clocks, classical art, or ants, Dalí push through with new creative ideas and images way beyond his time. Dali’s paintings explored our inner most dreams and our outer most desires, our wildest fantasies and our deepest fears. He was a psychologist, a surrealist, a mathematician, a religious fanatic, a non-religious fanatic, a Gala devotee, a rebel, a master, an eccentric, a realist, but he was at his core a painter.