“Nothing seems to be more suited to be devoured by the surrealist fire than those mysterious strips of 'hallucinatory celluloid' turned out so unconsciously in Hollywood, and in which we have already seen appear, stupified, so many images of authentic delirium, chance and dream.” -- Salvador Dali, 1937
Born in the Catalan town of Figueres near Barcelona in 1904, Salvador Dalí (1904—1989) was a gifted artist from an early age. As a teenager, he travelled to Madrid to attend the prestigious San Fernando Academy of Art (Picasso’s alma mater), and by the late 1920s he had already earned a reputation in Barcelona as an excellent draughtsman and scandalizing provocateur. Dalí’s first “big break” would come not through painting, however, but through film, when in 1929 he collaborated on a seventeen-minute short with his school friend, Luis Buñuel. The film, titled Un Chien Andalou ("The Andalusian Dog"), was intended as an “anti-art” film that would shock the establishment. It went so far as to even include scenes of putrescence – ants and rotting donkeys among them – to suggest the “cultural cadavers” that needed to swept aside to make way for the new art. Although Buñuel famously reported that at the first screening of Un Chien Andalou, he carried stones in his pockets to hurl in the event that the audience revolted, somewhat to his and Dalí’s disappointment the film was an immediate success when it premiered in Paris. Indeed, its disturbing opening, in which a razorblade slashes a young woman’s eyeball, remains one of the most celebrated sequences in all of cinema history.
Un Chien Andalou also caught the attention of a group of avant-garde writers and artists in Paris: the Surrealists. The Surrealists were interested in liberating thought and expression from the moral and aesthetic concerns imposed by society, and they saw in Dalí and Buñuel’s film a parallel to dream states and the Freudian psychoanalysis that drove their own explorations into the subconscious. Dalí quickly became a fixture of the Surrealist group, contributing important ideas and texts including what he termed “the paranoiac critical method”: a self-induced “psychosis” that led him to see double-images in the world around him that he would ultimately represent in his paintings.
Dalí’s fame during the 1930s was meteoric, not least thanks to his famous “soft watch” painting, The Persistence of Memory (1931), which toured the United States extensively in the early 1930s and was for most Americans their first exposure to Surrealism; by 1936, his photograph (taken by Man Ray) was on the cover of TIME magazine. Dalí’s popularity antagonized the other members of the Surrealist group, as did his political ambiguity when other Surrealists were taking resolute stands against the rise of fascism in Europe. Relations became strained after 1934, and by May 1939 Dalí had been officially expelled from all official Surrealist activity.
Dalí’s expulsion from Surrealism began a new chapter in his life. With his wife Gala, Dalí moved to the United States in 1940 and embarked upon his quest for wealth and celebrity status, channelling his creative imagination to everything from neckties to ashtrays. He turned to designing jewelry with the flamboyant Duc Fulco de Verdura, who had opened a showroom on New York’s Fifth Avenue. He also supplied regular artwork for Vogue and Town and Country magazines (he provided Vogue’s cover art in 1939, 1944, and 1946), designed for the ballet and the stage, and became a sought-after book illustrator. Between 1944 and 1947, he produced fifteen collages to advertise Bryan’s Hosiery, and other artworks were used to sell Johnson Paints and Waxes, Chen Yu lipstick, and Leich’s “Desert Flower” perfume. Dali insisted on the artistic legitimacy of these projects, saying, “I am a man of the Renaissance. . . . I would sign a pair of pants if someone commissioned me to. After all, Michelangelo . . . designed the uniforms for the [Pope’s] Swiss Guards. . . . I feel no separation between myself as an artist and the mass of the people. I stand ready to design anything the people want.”
With Dalí’s move to America also came a public rejection of his surrealist past and an embrace of what he now called “classicism”, though various elements of his earlier style – including the ever-present double-images – persisted. Among his most notable 1940s projects were his forays into Hollywood. The Hollywood “dream factory” embraced Dalí’s dreamlike aesthetic, and the artist himself was eager to disseminate his work to a wider American audience. Unfortunately, most of Dalí’s visions for film would go unrealized – his 1937 script for the Marx Brothers, titled Giraffes on Horseback Salad, for example, and arguably also the dream sequence he designed for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound, the final cut of which bears little resemblance to Dalí’s original designs.
A more successful collaboration would come in 1946 with an animated short made with Walt Disney Studios called Destino (1946). Dalí had met Walt Disney in 1945 at a party hosted by movie mogul Jack Warner – a meeting that seems to have gone prodigiously well, as shortly afterwards the artist travelled to Burbank, California to begin work on an animated film set to music in the style of Fantasia (1940). Destino would be based on a song of the same title by Armando Domínguez, and it seems the word destino (“destiny” in Spanish) “sent Dali into raptures”. Disney paired him with experienced animator John Hench and gave him more or less free reign to create as he liked, resulting in many fantastic scenes – optical illusions, double-images, and dreamlike transformations.
Unfortunately, after months of work, the cartoon was shelved, with Disney growing increasingly sceptical over whether the public would appreciate a wacky Dalí cartoon. The film remained untouched until 1999, ten years after Dalí’s death, when Disney’s nephew, Roy Disney, decided to resuscitate Destino. Produced by Baker Bloodworth and directed by French animator Dominique Monfrey, the finished Destino premiered on June 2, 2003 at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, where it was met with wide acclaim, including a 2003 Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Film.
As with many “surrealistic” films, the plot of the completed Destino is difficult to convey, though fans of Un Chien Andalou will recognize a swarm of ants emerging from a hole in a man’s hand – reflecting Dalí’s 1920s interest in putrefaction and recalling the same swarms of ants that attack the soft clocks in The Persistence of Memory.
Dalí would never abandon surrealism. Despite his distance from the group’s other members, he insisted that he was, in fact, “more surrealist than the Surrealists”. His comic moustache, deliberately exaggerated speech, and bizarre antics would make him a star, often overshadowing the importance of his art (which he identified as only a small fragment of his personality). Of the many films that were made about Dalí’s life and art, perhaps none captures his clownish personality paired with extraordinary artistry as effectively as Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dalí (1967). This “creative documentary” by director Jean-Christophe Averty and narrated in English by Orson Welles was shot on location at Dalí’s home in Port Lligat, Spain, and includes such arresting (and suitably “surrealistic”) scenes as Dalí ecstatically playing a piano filled with cats – a reconstruction of a ‘cat organ’ in which a line of cats is fixed in place with their tails stretched out underneath a keyboard so that the cats cry out in pain when a key is pressed. Dalí, it seems, also associated pianos with sexuality – a link formed in his childhood by a book of venereal diseases that his father left open on the family piano to teach his son the perils of promiscuity. Other episodes in the film are no less peculiar: The artist marching triumphantly across the Spanish landscape throwing fistfuls of feathers into the air with a plaster rhinoceros head in a wheelbarrow at two children dressed as cherubs in tow is a prime example, as is the moment in which he emerges from a giant egg, spraying milk, “symbolic blood”, and “symbolic fish” across the Mediterranean beach.
Welles describes Dalí as a “prince of paradox”, but amidst the humorous hijiniks, Soft Self-Portrait proves to be one of the most informative documentaries on the artist’s life, detailing his emergence as an artist in the 1920s, his important contributions to Surrealism in the 1930s, and even his antecedence to 1960s Pop Art (Andy Warhol would later admit that he loved Dalí “because he’s so big”). The film is certainly not as well known as it should be, and the final sequence – an elaborate “happening” in which Dalí encloses himself in a clear plastic dome to “paint the sky” – confirms that Dalí was an extraordinary artist well beyond his heyday in the 1930s.
Dr. Elliott H. King is a Lecturer in Modern Art at Colorado College and a leading specialist in the work of Salvador Dali. He received his PhD from the University of Essex, working with renowned Dali scholar Dawn Ades, and has lectured and published widely on Dali's work, spearheading the critical rehabilitation of the artist's 'late' (post-1940) production. He was recently guest curator of the exhibition Dali: The Late Work, at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia (catalogue published by Yale University Press, 2010). Other publications include contributions to the Dali Centenary catalogue (2004), the 2007 Tate Modern/MoMA exhibit and catalogue Dali & Film, and his 2007 book, Dali, Surrealism and Cinema. His current research interests include intersections between Dali and Andy Warhol.