BARCELONA, Spain -- Shameless showman, brilliant artist and the proud owner of one of the world's pointiest mustaches, Salvador Dali was a cultural icon known as much for his eccentric lifestyle as for his art.
He was a complex visionary whose art constantly evolved, luring him from the seductions of impressionism to the absurdities of surrealism to his later more classical works. And he was a painter, sculptor and writer who also was one of the art world's most unconventional inhabitants.
His flashy dress style and disconcerting habit of staring bug-eyed into camera lenses gave him a deserved reputation as a lover of the limelight, while his overly frank discussions of his obsessions with sexuality, [filtered word] and scatology marked him as mad in the minds of many.
Yet art experts say that Dali was anything but mad and his showman's personality has eclipsed what's truly important: his art. They hope to set the record straight with the "Year of Dali 2004," a host of yearlong exhibits and activities celebrating the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth on May 11, 1904.
Most events are being held in Catalonia, Spain, where Dali was born in the farming village of Figueres. Other exhibits will also be shown in Philadelphia, at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., and throughout Europe.
"Dali's public persona and his work have always been closely linked, but his behavior often overshadows his art," says Montse Aguer, a Year of Dali organizer and the director of the Center of Dali Studies in Figueres, near the French border.
"We want the public to get to know him in a deeper way. There are many Dalis in Dali; many people don't know that he also wrote screenplays, created perfumes, did designs for publicity campaigns, worked in fashion and, for a time, worked with a hairdresser."
So great was Dali's creative outburst that he produced more than 1,500 paintings and drawings alone during his lifetime. The last, "Two Phoenixes in Combat - Torero Series," came in 1985, four years before his death. He also imagined sets for such productions as "Romeo and Juliet," and worked on such films as Luis Bunuel's "An Andalusian Dog," with its images of a slashed eye and dead donkeys. He created the famous dream sequence for the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, "Spellbound," worked with Walt Disney on an unsuccessful effort to make a "Fantasia"-like movie called "Destino" and even collaborated briefly with the Marx Brothers.
Some of his works turned off spectators; others bewildered. A work he showed at the 1930 World's Fair had live "mermaids" frolicking in a tank of water. One woman was chained to a grand piano; others milked a cow.
University of Barcelona art history professor Lourdes Cirlot says that Dali used his eccentricities simply to gain notoriety. "He tried to give an image of extravagance because it sells. He was conscious of it; he wanted to provoke. Dali was incredibly interested in fame, but he was basically normal," she says.
As Dali himself once famously quipped, "the only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad."
Born into a well-to-do family in 1904, Dali was named for an older, infant brother who died almost a year before he was born, a fact that marked him for life. From a young age he devised often bizarre ways to get attention, acknowledging in his autobiography, "The Secret Life of Salvador Dali," that he took "delirious joy" as a child in kicking his baby sister's head.
Like Picasso, he displayed an early artistic talent, and his parents built a studio for him at their vacation home in Cadaques, on Spain's Costa Brava. By 18, Dali was studying art in Madrid, where he would become friends with students such as poet Federico Garcia Lorca and Bunuel, two men who would influence and be strongly influenced by Dali.
Shortly thereafter, Dali read Sigmund Freud's writings on the erotic significance of the subconscious. His interpretations of Freud's work encouraged the artist to exploit his fear and fascination of the erotic, a theme that would appear countless times in his artwork.
In 1929, he met Gala, a married Russian woman who became Dali's lover and muse. They lived for a time in Paris, where Dali was immersed in the surrealism movement, a group that believed the subconscious held more truth than the conscious mind. Surrealist artists tried to express uncensored subconscious images without regard for moral or aesthetic values. Dali fit right in.
He quickly became one of the leading figures of the movement, developing a technique he called "paranoiac critical," his way of accessing images from his subconscious mind. These images are associated with Dali's brand of surrealism, a dream world where realism and fantasy are side by side on canvas. Objects and people were deformed in his paintings in an attempt to unmask the workings of his subconscious. One of his best-known works, "The Persistence of Memory" (1931) features melted clocks draped over a table, a tree limb and a disfigured head.
"Dali was the most innovative surrealist and the best painter of the group. Now he is the symbol of surrealism. He is the painter of dreams," Aguer says.
Symbols such as bread (said to represent the life cycle), eggs (fragility, softness, and the life cycle), the Mediterranean (a reference to Dali's home in Catalonia) and eroticism appear repeatedly in works like "The Great Masturbator" (1929) and "Ordinary French Loaf With Two Fried Eggs Riding Without a Plate" (1932). The symbols made their way to other Dali projects, too. Small sculptures of bread loaves cover the exterior of the Dali Theatre-Museum, which the artist built in Figueres. The roof of the museum is crowned with a giant egg.
"Dali's works are very complete, with multiple layers of meaning and multiple interpretations. If you want to understand him, you have to go beyond what you initially see," Aguer says.
Dali's dreamlike work revolutionized the art world of the 1930s. "That period was extraordinary," Cirlot says. "He invented new styles, like the 'soft paintings' that depict objects that look as though they're melting, and from the very beginning Dali's work had important repercussions on the art world. Many modern artists - from Andy Warhol to Man Ray - were interested in Dali's work.
"Of course, all artists have good works and works that aren't so good. After 1940, he got comfortable with his level of success and began reusing the techniques and style of past great artists, though with his own touch," she says.
When World War II broke out, Dali and Gala moved to New York, where he accepted all kinds of odd jobs, drawing comics, doing commercial design and working on films. He also wrote his tell-all autobiography, the first of many confessional writings.
Dali worked nonstop over the next decades, easing out of surrealism and into a more classic style that involved paintings of historic and scientific themes such as "The Last Supper" and "The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus." He died in 1989 in Figueres, near the museum where he is now buried, leaving behind an enormous quantity of paintings, sculptures, designs and writings.
Those works have been brought together for the Year of Dali in some of the most comprehensive exhibits ever shown of the eccentric artist's work.
"Dali and Mass Culture" features more than 300 oil paintings, drawings, films and other objects that explore Dali's combination of "high culture" and "low culture" and his use of modern objects such as telephones, cars and mass-consumption products. The traveling exhibit is currently on show in Barcelona, but it will eventually be displayed in Madrid, St. Petersburg and Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
"Salvador Dali, an Anthological Exhibition" is a broad look at Dali's long career. A collection of 150 oil paintings showing examples of all Dali's major styles and themes form the base of the exhibit, which will be on view in Venice from September to January 2005, and then at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from February 2005-May 2005.
Other exhibits, such as "The Quixote According to Salvador Dali," "Private Memories: Salvador Dali's Childhood and Youth" and "Dali's Land" are being held in various Dali-related venues in Spain.
The northwestern pocket of Catalonia near the Pyrenees mountains where Dali was born and raised has been dubbed "Daliland." The Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres is the best-known attraction. Designed by Dali in 1974, the sprawling museum has a broad selection of his works, including such greats as "Soft Self-Portrait With Fried Bacon" (1941) and the "Rainy Cadillac," a bizarre sculpture using a real Cadillac whose interior is drenched with near-constant rain.
In nearby Pubol, the castle Dali decorated for Gala is also open to the public. The most interesting works are the spindly legged elephant sculptures in the garden and several pieces of furniture designed by Dali.
The Salvador Dali Museum-House in Portlligat, where the painter lived for most of his adult life, is the final stopping place on the Daliland triangle. A cluster of whitewashed fishing huts huddled beside a pebbly beach, this place more than any other was the artist's home. Inside, his furniture and personal effects are still intact; even his small desk and its uncomfortable-looking wooden chair have been left as they were, giving the impression that Dali has merely stepped out for lunch and is soon to return.
Perhaps more so than the overpowering museum in Figueras or the surreal images on his canvases, the Mediterranean house in Portlligat pulls back the skin on the inner workings of this polemic, self-promoting and endlessly creative artist, showing him as he was: an artist constantly at work.