This brief and colorful volume offers a biographical and thematic survey of the remarkably complex and controversial work of the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí. As author Gilles Néret explains on the very first page, Dalí was an admitted megalomaniac who wrote once that he awoke each morning to experience the great joy of being himself. From the age of seven, he explained, his ambition evolved to the point that he could envision “no greater wish” than to be Salvador Dalí. Though it is obviously not the largest or most comprehensive treatment of this remarkable artistic visionary, Néret’s book provides his readers with an entertaining glimpse of that wish.
The book is divided into four major sections. The opening chapter—which carries the unusual title of “How to be a Genius”—Néret surveys Dalí’s early life, especially the formation of his artistic persona, including his oversized confidence in his own talents, a theatrical arrogance that helped bring about his famous expulsion from the Madrid Academy of Fine Arts in 1926. Néret explores the importance of Dalí’s Catalan roots, from which his paintings derived a sensual emphasis (reflecting, for example, his passion for food) as well as a preoccupation with its coastal Mediterranean landscape, which figured so centrally in his early works. During these early years, lasting through his move to Paris—where he intended to “seize power”—Dalî energetically toyed with a variety of styles, particularly the contemporary trends that included Impressionism, Cubism, Pointillism and Futurism. None of these held his interest for long, as Dalí used each style as a staging ground for developing a broader, unbounded devotion to the irrational—or what he later described as his “paranoid-critical method.”
The irrational experience of love, as Néret explains, focused Dalí’s artistic vision more than anything else. His Parisian introduction to Elena Ivanovna Diakonova (known as “Gala”) the wife of the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard, brought a greater sensuality—indeed, an overpowering sexuality—to Dalí’s work from the late 1920s through the 1930s. Exploring Freudian symbolism in works like The Great Masturbator (1929) and The Enigma of Desire—My Mother, my Mother, my Mother (1929), Dalí showcased the interplay of “hard” and “soft” forms; in other works, he clotted his images with cabinets and drawers, drawing on Freud’s consideration of the subconscious as a repository for secret desires and repressed traumas. Meantime, as if to complete the Freudian drama, Dalí’s relationship with his father capsized during these years, a trauma that was reflected indirectly in some of the work he completed in self-imposed exile in a small Spanish fishing village.
The last two chapters look more directly at the maturation of Dalí’s “paranoid-critical method”—an approach to art that not even Dalí himself could explain with clarity—and his various battles with the Surrealists, especially the ferocious Andre Breton. Among Dalí’s greatest jabs at Surrealism was to give it three-dimensional shape and substance through the creation of “objects functioning symbolically.” Dalí’s surrealist objects included his famous Lobster Telephone or the couch he conceived in the form of Mae West’s lips; these and other inventions drew Surrealism away from its preoccupation with dream and language. (Dalí also perturbed Surrealists like Breton with his seemingly passive response to the rise of fascism, an episode that Néret discusses in some detail.) During the 1940s and afterward, Dalí also turned to science and metaphysics to create some of his more memorable “hallucinations” and “scientific visions,” and his work drew new influences from time spent in the United States as well as from his turn toward Catholic mysticism after World War II.
Overall, Dalí is an artistic autobiography rather than a detailed study of the artist’s life. Indeed, the book tells us very little about Salvador Dalí after the 1960s—an omission that is perhaps appropriate since the vast bulk of his work was completed by the end of the 1970s. Readers who are seeking a more comprehensive look at Dalí the person would do better to read elsewhere. Those who are looking for a brief, nicely packaged (and inexpensive) introduction to his enormously entertaining and at times baffling work, Néret’s slim volume is an excellent place to begin.
David Noon teaches American history at the University of Alaska Southeast.