‘Myself at the age of ten when I was the grasshopper child’.
Who in their right mind would give such a title to a painting?
The same person perhaps who entitled another as the very descriptive ‘Telephone in a dish with three grilled sardines at the end of September’.
Several people have often wondered if in fact Salvador Dali was in his right mind. He was once quoted as saying, “The only difference between myself and a madman is that I am not mad.”
Mad or not, his artistic genius is hard to deny. And his output was phenomenal: he produced over 1500 paintings in his lifetime as well as dabbling with sculpture, film and performance art.
There are several permanent galleries devoted to Dali’s work in both Spain and the U.S. In addition, there’s also plenty of Dali’s work in private collections throughout the world. And there are several of them in a travelling exhibition from the Beaverbrook Gallery in New Brunswick that are currently on display here at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Whilst other great artists painted what they saw, Dali painted what he thought. It is said that after a heavy lunch with a bottle of wine he would take a nap in a favourite chair in front of his house. He would sit clutching a hammer in his hands with a metal bucket between his legs. As he dozed off the hammer would fall into the bucket with a clang that would startle him back to alertness and allow him to remember his dream with amazing clarity.
Then he would paint it.
This was an age when Sigmund Freud was attempting to explain the meaning of dreams. Dali went one step better, he showed us his dreams.
Dali’s private life was no less controversial than his works.
The two great loves of his life were his initial relationship with the esteemed Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, followed by his wife, muse and lifelong companion Elena Diakonova, known simply as Gala.
Gala was the equivalent of an art world groupie of the time, having previously been in relationships with Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Max Ernst and Andre Breton.
Lorca was left aghast that Dali would even look at a woman, nevertheless one like her.
Gala was to feature in many Dali paintings over the years. She would shock the locals by strolling topless through their tiny Catalan village on the Costa Brava just before the civil war.
So when Dali painted her as the ‘Madonna of Port Lligat’, it caused quite a few snickers among the local Catholic fishermen.
The centrepiece of this WAG display is the massive ‘Santiago el Grande’, a four metre canvas depicting St. James the Great rising out of the sea on a white horse whilst holding an oversized radiating crucifix as he leads his followers to the battle of Clavijo against the Moors.
Painted in 1957 this also features Gala, shrouded in robes in the lower corner.
It also shows us another of Dali’s trademark enigmas, the light and shadow on the horse’s neck is the exact same size and shape as the angels floating just above the horse’s snout.
Another constant feature especially in some of Dali’s later works is himself. As an alternative to signing his paintings he would often paint himself into the picture, mostly unobtrusively in the background.
And he’s here in ‘Santiago El Grande’ as a tiny prostrate figure barely visible at the bottom centre of the painting.
These Dali paintings and some of his sculptures along with photographs of Dali himself are just part of Lord Beaverbrook’s collection that is on loan here. You’ll also find many classical masterpieces from the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney as well as an A.Y Jackson and even an industrial Lancashire mill town by L.S. Lowrie.
Yet it is the Dali’s that are the undisputed attraction.
It is maybe fortunate that Dali didn’t live in today’s world of celebrity gossip; I wonder what the tabloids would have made of him. Despite a marriage that lasted over fifty years, it was unconventional to say the least. Gala had a rampant appetite for younger men whilst Dali, with his fear of sex, just liked to watch.
He bought a Spanish castle for her to live and entertain in, yet he wasn’t allowed to visit it himself unless he got advance written notice from his wife.
Yet he was a master of self-promotion and Gala was a level headed businesswoman who took care of finances as he worked to leave his legacy for the world to enjoy.
You can enjoy a part of that legacy here at the WAG as the Dali Up Close exhibition runs until January 25.