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Salvador Dalí and the Surrealists
Their Lives and Ideas: 21 Activities
By Michael Elsohn Ross
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2003 Michael Elsohn Ross
All rights reserved.
"At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since." — Dalí
Pictures of tiny swans and ducks appeared on the tabletop as young Salvador scratched lines into the red paint. It didn't matter to his mother that her six-year-old son had marked the table. She was proud of his artistic skill. "When he says he will draw a swan, he draws a swan, and when he says he'll draw a duck, it's a duck."
Salvador Dalí was born on May 11, 1904, in Figueres, Spain. This small town is at the edge of the vast Upper Empordá plain in the region of Catalonia (catah-LO-nee-ah). Salvador was the second son born into the Dalí family. His older brother, also named Salvador, had died nine months earlier of a stomach infection when he was only 22 months old. It had been a devastating loss to his parents. They were delighted about the birth of Salvador, but worried about his health and that the same tragedy might befall him.
Dalí's father, Salvador Dalí Cusí, made a comfortable living as a lawyer. He loved music and arguing about politics. Dalí's mother, Felipa Domenech Dalí, was a gentle woman who enjoyed raising canaries and doves. For Salvador's amusement, she drew funny pictures on long strips of paper and folded them, like an accordion, to make little books.
Young Salvador was afraid of his father, who was known throughout the town for his bad temper. He could, however, always go to his mother, the household cooks, or his nursemaid, Lucia, for comfort. His mother may have been particularly protective of young Salvador because of the death of his older brother. All these women served his every need. When Salvador was three years old, his little sister, Anna María, was born. Later, when he was seven, his grandmother, María Anna Ferrés, and a young aunt named Catalina came to live with his family. Among these women, Salvador was treated like a little king. No matter how spoiled he acted, they would always try to grant him his every wish. One of his uncles even sent him a king's costume, so he had the clothes to fit his role in the household.
His mother encouraged his role as a spoiled child. Each morning when he awoke she would ask, "Sweetheart, what do you want? What do you desire?" He would often reply that he wanted to watch a film. His first films were viewed at home. His mother had a hand-operated projector, and from it he watched actors perform in their silent pictures. In 1914, when Dalí was 10, the first movie theater opened in Figueres, and he would go there frequently to view new films.
From his family's apartment window, Dalí could stare out at the beautiful views of the surrounding countryside and the sea. He could see all the way to the Bay of Roses many miles away and also across the Empordá Plain to the Pyrenees mountains. These vistas made an impression on the young Dalí. It was the beginning of his passion for vast open landscapes, and they would later appear as backgrounds in many of his paintings.
Life as a little king in a household of women was comfortable, but it soon came to an end. When Dalí was seven, his father sent him away to school. Most of the children of well-to-do families were enrolled in Catholic school. Señor Dalí decided, however, to send his son to a nonreligious communal school. No matter which school it was, Salvador wanted no part of it. He had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to his classroom. Somehow Dalí managed to survive in the school, though he spent most of his time exploring his own imagination instead of studying.
The teacher, Señor Trayter, was a very odd man who had a braided beard hanging down to his knees. He often fell asleep in class, and the townspeople knew that he broke into churches to steal statues of saints and other items to decorate his home. At school, there were other types of strange objects that Trayter collected, including a mummified frog on a string and a stereoscopic viewer, which made pictures appear three-dimensional. Through this viewer, Dalí saw all kinds of scenes, but one image particularly intrigued him: that of a little Russian girl, covered in furs and sitting on a sleigh that was being followed by wolves. The photograph was so vivid, it looked as if a real girl was there in this world of snow. He thought about this girl often. The image of her would stay with him throughout his life, and when he was older, he was convinced that it had been a picture of his future wife, Gala.
Unlike the other students, Dalí went to school each day dressed in a neat little sailor suit, a typical outfit for a well-to-do child. He was small for his age and was not used to the rough-and-tumble life of the poorer children who were his fellow classmates. The children began picking on him because he was different. They threw snails at him and did other mean things. To escape from these horrors, he spent hours daydreaming.
After completing one year at the school, Dalí had learned little. He could neither read nor write. Upset by his son's slow progress, Señor Dalí pulled him out of this school and enrolled him in a school run by a French teaching order called the Christian Brothers. The Christian Brothers had been banned from teaching in France because at that time the only priests allowed to operate schools in France were another order called the Jesuits. All instruction at Dalí's new school was in French, so now the young boy began learning his third language (Catalan [ka-TA-lan], a regional language of Spain, was spoken in his home, and he had learned some Spanish in Trayter's class). No doubt this added to his confusion. Having parts of so many languages in his head without knowing any single language fluently made learning to read and write even more difficult.
Despite the change in schools, Dalí continued to daydream. He was constantly staring off at clouds or at cracks in the ceiling. Frequently he saw objects or scenes "hidden" in these everyday views. He often stared out the window at two cypress trees, fascinated by the way the light changed on the trees just before sunset. To him, the trees appeared to be black flames. When darkness fell, he stared across the room at a reproduction of a painting, The Angelus, by the French realistic painter Jean-François Millet (mee-YAY). In the picture a man and woman, both peasants, stand praying in a field at sunset. The painting gave Dalí an uncomfortable feeling. This image made such an impression that it would later appear in many of Dalí's paintings.
* * *
Dalí was terribly bored by the rote learning and memorization that was typical of schools at that time.
Everything had to be memorized, including math, historic dates, and grammar. Dalí was a curious boy, and he wanted to really learn, not repeat lessons like a parrot. The teachers quickly labeled him a lazy student. They kept him back in the lowest grade, but young Dalí didn't seem to care. He later said that he even wrote very poorly on purpose to aggravate his father.
Not only were his lessons torturous, but at the new school Dalí continued to be teased and pestered by his fellow students. He was deathly afraid of grasshoppers and threw fits when his classmates brought them to him. Once he even jumped out of a first-floor window in terror to escape the frightening creatures. Eventually he was expelled from this school for his dramatic behavior. Salvador was anything but a success at school, but as he grew older, his parents began to realize that their son possessed special artistic talents.
At age nine, Dalí convinced his mother to allow him to use an old laundry room located on the roof of their home for his very own art studio. It was a tiny room, filled almost completely by a cement tub that had previously been used to wash laundry. In this tub he sat, on a chair, with an old washboard on his lap for a table. During hot summer days he stripped off his clothes and sat on the chair with water up to his waist. On the walls of the room he hung his paintings. They were done on the lids of wooden hatboxes, which he had taken from his Aunt Catalina's hat shop.
To encourage his son, Señor Dalí gave young Salvador a series of small books about great artists, such as Titian (tih-shen) and Rubens. Although the pictures were reproduced in black and white, they fascinated Salvador and he spent hours studying them. He memorized the paintings and imagined he was living in the pictures themselves. The paintings took on a life of their own and merged with his memories of life in Figueres. Years later, when he was a teenager, he wrote in one of his journals about the images in the paintings. "I feel like I've really seen all this and that I've known these people for ages and very intimately."
Señor Dalí had spent part of his childhood living in the small coastal fishing village of Cadaqués (ka-da-KAYS), not far from Figueres. From the time Salvador was a young boy, the Dalí family spent part of each summer there. It took a full day to travel by horse and cart over the rough and winding mountain roads to reach the coast. To young Salvador, the trip was well worth it. Cadaqués was a paradise where he could roam barefoot on the beaches and through the village. There were orchards and olive groves bordered by slate walls. Salvador, Anna María, and other children explored the beaches and the plant and animal life on the seashore.
They became friends with the local fisherman and net makers. Salvador met wild characters, such as the smuggler Josep Barrera, and Noi de Tona, a tramp who pulled teeth for a living. Most intriguing of all was Lidia Nogueres, a fisherman's widow who many people believed was a witch because of her strangely bulging eyeballs and her habit of fortune telling.
One of Dalí's favorite places was the wild landscape of Cape Creus, near Cadaqués. He would later describe this area as the "spot where the mountains of the Pyrenees come down to the sea, in a grandiose geological delirium." He meant that this was where the mountains meet the sea in a crazy and grand way. It was like a playground for the mind. Sculpted by winds and rain, the rocks of Cape Creus had eroded into strange shapes, such as monster-like blobs that seemed to stand on stubby legs. Others looked very much like animals, and locals gave these odd rocks names such as "the eagle," "the camel," and "the rhinoceros." As Dalí explored this geological wonderland, his imagination transformed the rocks into hunched-over men, lions, human heads, and odd creatures.
Señor Dalí's best friend, Pepito Pichot, had a family home in Cadaqués. Pichot's brother, Ramon, was an impressionist painter who lived in Paris. Other family members were well-known musicians, and Pepito himself was admired for his creative garden designs. Salvador roamed the village each summer with the children of the large Pichot clan. They listened to family concerts along the bay and met well-known artists and writers. Dalí may have even encountered Pablo Picasso (pic-AH-so), the famous Spanish artist, who came to Cadaqués in 1910 to visit with Ramon Pichot. If so, then Dalí was only six years old when he met the artist who would have such a big impact on his own art.
Dalí Begins Painting
Dalí painted his first oil painting when he was 10 years old. It was an impressionistic landscape that was probably influenced by the paintings of Ramon Pichot. This painting, titled Paisaje (Spanish for landscape), has a perspective and depth that are quite amazing for the work of a young untrained boy. The painting shows a path leading through a green field of cypress trees with buildings behind them. High mountains, one of them snow covered, rise in the background. Large birds soar in the sky.
School continued to be emotionally difficult for Dalí, and after completing his exams he was a nervous wreck. His doctor recommended a rest in the country. Pepito Pichot offered to care for him in his country manor outside town. Surrounded by acres of wheat fields and olive groves, the manor also featured an old mill tower that fascinated Dalí. This would inspire the beginning of Dalí's impressionist stage.
On the walls of the Pichot dining room, where he ate each day, hung the impressionistic paintings of Ramon Pichot. In that same dining room, Dalí discovered a crystal stopper on a carafe that gave him a new way of looking at the world around him. Gazing through it was like peering into a prism. Everything became impressionistic. Instead of seeing precise details he saw wonderful splotches of color and blurry shapes. Dalí carried the stopper in his pocket and observed scenes to see what they would look like in the eyes of an impressionist painter.
Señor Pichot encouraged Dalí's interest in art by letting him use a storeroom as a studio. It had beautiful morning light and smelled like dry corn. Dalí spent hours there. Before long, the walls were covered with his paintings. One day, after he had used up all his canvases, he decided to paint a picture on the panel of a large door that was leaning against one of the walls. Using three colors — vermilion (scarlet red), carmine (purplish red), and white — he painted directly from the tubes. Examining the morning light shining on a pile of cherries, he quickly painted one gleaming cherry after another onto the old, worm-eaten wood.
The painting astonished everyone, including the peasants who came in from the fields to view it. Someone pointed out, however, that Dalí had forgotten to include the stems. Suddenly Dalí had an idea. Quickly, as he munched the real cherries, he attached each stem with glue to a painted cherry. This may have been his first collage (a composition made of a variety of different materials assembled together). More important, this simple creative act was the beginning of Dalí's lifelong passion of blending the real and the unreal.
Dalí's visit to the Pichot manor was a momentous transition in the young artist's life. He had never been away from his family before. He had never known such independence. He had survived his illness. It was obvious that Dalí was gaining a new strength and an independent vision as an artist. He identified himself as an impressionist, and his works of the next few years show his youthful skill. The painting titled View of Cadaqués with Shadow of Mount Pani shows the village glittering below a pine-topped ridge. In this piece, which is painted on burlap, the land glows in warm afternoon light. In a self-portrait completed at this time, Dalí depicts himself as a fragile youngster — his narrow hands rest limply on his lap as he rests his head against the back of a chair — but by the end of his stay he had regained a new strength. At age 12, Dalí was truly becoming an artist.CHAPTER 2
2 LESSONS FOR A YOUNG ARTIST
"So little of what could happen does happen." — Dalí
Although life was good in Figueres, that certainly wasn't the case north of the border in France or in other neighboring countries. World War I had been raging for a couple of years, but Spain had remained neutral (had not chosen sides) and stayed out of the conflict. Elsewhere in Europe, people lacked basic necessities such as food and water, but in Figueres people could still attend school, feast on fine foods, and continue to lead a fairly normal life.
After Dalí's return to Figueres in the fall of 1916, his father enrolled him in evening classes at the municipal school for drawing. Dalí was excited to learn the new drawing skills and techniques that Professor Juan Núñez (NOON-yez) taught him. Dalí respected his new teacher, and Núñez realized that Dalí was a special student.
During that same year Salvador studied other subjects at the Figueres Institute. At age 13, Dalí finally achieved success at school. He started to pay attention in class, he earned good grades, and he even received a special certificate of achievement from the municipal school for drawing. He earned his bachelor's certificate (the equivalent of a high school diploma). To celebrate Salvador's achievements at the drawing school, Señor Dalí held an exhibition of his son's artwork at their apartment. Guests gathered on the terrace to feast on Salvador's favorite meal of sea urchins.
Excerpted from Salvador Dalí and the Surrealists by Michael Elsohn Ross. Copyright © 2003 Michael Elsohn Ross. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Peter Tush, Curator of Education, The Salvador Dalí Museum,
1 KING DALÍ,
2 LESSONS FOR A YOUNG ARTIST,
3 A LEAP INTO THE SUBCONSCIOUS,
4 DALÍ AND THE SURREALISTS,
5 DALÍ THE CLOWN PRINCE,
6 CELEBRITY ARTIST,
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