In the land of small minds and minor talent, Dalí and Picasso were giants. They were men with visions wider than the horizon and the stamp they left on the 20th century remains indelible.
Twenty years older and already the toast of Paris, Picasso one spring morning in 1928 opened the door to his studio in Montmartre to find a nervous young fellow in a tight suit, an extravagant bow tie and the wispy beginnings of his first moustache.
‘I am Salvador Dalí,’ said his breathless visitor. ‘I have come to see you before visiting the Louvre.’ Picasso noted the Catalan trill and replied, ‘Eso era lo correcto.’ That was the correct thing to do.
He glanced through the portfolio Dalí carried under his arm and looked back into the mad eyes of a genius.
Dalí as a student had been influenced by the early 20th century Cubist paintings of Picasso, Georges Braque and Marcel Duchamp. By repeating images of a woman’s face, a guitar, a nude descending a spiral staircase, it created the sense of three-dimensional forms on a flat surface.
With his great gift for hyperrealism, Dalí reinterpreted the Cubist genre to portray single images with multiple meanings and identities. A red sofa becomes the lips of the actress Mae West. Or, most famously, his celebrated the Persistence of Memory brings us soft watches like camembert cheese against the rugged hills of his home village Cadaqués, the image suggesting that time loses meaning in the unconscious world and one loses a sense of time in Cadaqués.
Dalí called his technique the paranoiac-critical method which, in his words, requires the artist to invoke a paranoid state of fear that the self is being manipulated or controlled by others. This results in the deconstruction of the psychological concept of identity in such a way that subjectivity becomes the primary aspect of the artwork.
Applying the method to optical illusions and multiple images, Dalí’s surreal canvases brought him into the Surrealist Movement in 1930, only to be blackballed by a kangaroo court set up by its poet founder André Breton. Breton – a mediocre poet – accused Dalí of being ‘too hungry for money’ and showed as incontrovertible evidence the anagram Avida Dollars – the rearranged letters of the name Salvador Dalí.
Dalí in his defence pronounced a subtle truth. ‘The only difference between me and the surrealists is that I am a surrealist.’
The Persistence of Memory was exhibited at Dalí’s first one man show in Paris at the Galerie Pierre Colle in 1931. He was 27. His moustache had thickened and turned up à la Velázquez, his guiding light, and he was already one of the brightest stars in the artistic stratosphere.
The Russian muse and nymphomaniac Gala (Elena Ivanovna Diakonova) abandoned her daughter Cecille and left her poet husband Paul Éluard to marry Dalí in 1934. Picasso paid for their tickets on the liner Champlain to sail to the United States. Dalí’s work was being shown in two exhibitions, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Julien Levy Gallery. Levy bought the Persistence of Memory himself for $200. It has passed through many hands and is now in New York’s Museum of Modern Art where, Dalí would be pleased to know, it is valued in excess of $100 million.
Dalí and Picasso at War
War came to Spain in 1936 when General Franco led an uprising against the elected Republican Government. Picasso joined the Communist Party and announced that he would not return to Spain until the Military Junta was overthrown.
Picasso painted Guernica for the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. The huge black and white masterpiece captures the aftermath of the destruction of the small Basque town by Nazi aviation and is for many the most powerful anti-war piece of art ever produced.
Dalí some months before the outbreak of hostilities completed what he called Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), a grotesque human figure in a broken landscape. He claimed that he was aware the war was coming and cited the work as evidence of ‘the prophetic power of his subconscious mind.’
It remains the belief of many people that Dalí supported Franco’s uprising, but it is highly unlikely. If Dalí had one great love in his life, it was not Gala, but his student friend, Spain’s great poet Federico García Lorca, who was murdered by fascist thugs in the early weeks of the civil war.
Picasso never communicated with Dalí again, but Dalí in his eccentric way sent Carlos Lozano, his ambassador in Cadaqués, into the village every summer to buy a postcard to send to Picasso. On it, he wrote the same message: In July, neither women nor snails.
What does it mean? It doesn’t matter. Dalí wasn’t a fascist, communist, nationalist or Catholic. Applying the paranoiac-critical method to his life and work, Dalí was always a surrealist.
My book Sex, Surrealism, Dalí and Me – the Memoirs of Carlos Lozano, is available in print, audible and as a digital download now FREE on Amazon – UK, US and Spain.
“…a book that paints with words the same kind of surreal and rich worlds that Dali did with his brush,’ Peter Burnett on Amazon.