DALI'S CHILDHOOD AND HOW IT FORMED HIM
Dali once wrote that it was during his childhood that all the archetypes of his personality, his work and his ideas were born. Yes, the physical being Salvador Dali was born into the world in May of 1904, but the Salvador Dali the world came to know and love/hate took a little longer to form; not much longer though, and certainly not as long as many people would think. As the young Salvador grew, the Dali creation was growing within him, like some weird foetus taking over his very being.
Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dali was born at the Carer Monturiol in Figueres, Spain. His father, Salvador Dali Sr. was a lawyer and a strict disciplinarian, while Dali's mother, Felipa, was more laid back and encouraging of her son's creativity. She also pampered him, boosted his ego and gave him free reign to behave as he wished. Childhood portraits show a "Little Lord Fauntleroy" type boy, fancily dressed and clearly worshipped. Like Picasso (whose childhood pictures are almost identical to Dali's), he was middle class and comfortable. Right from the word go though, young Dali had something remarkable to deal with, and suffered an identity crisis as a result of it. He was not the first Salvador child born in his family. His older brother, born in 1901, was also called Salvador, and had tragically died nine months prior to Dali arriving on this earth. Bizarrely, his parents gave him the same name. It was almost as if they wanted to try their luck a second time. If his parents meant well, they surely did not think of the ramifications this would have on the second Salvador, and some of their actions were certainly very unhealthy. When taken to his brother's grave for a visit or to lay flowers, Dali's parents told him he was a reincarnation of his older sibling. When his parents said this, Dali believed them sincerely, and as a result his brother would appear almost eerily in future paintings. His picture hung in the house, and Dali often did not know whether his parents were talking to him or the memory of his dead brother.
On the Dali website, the text to go alongside the picture of Dali's 1963 picture, Portrait of My Dead Brother, rather interestingly reads: "Dali felt his parents wanted him to be a replacement for his dead brother, so he cultivated his eccentric behaviour to prove that he was different. Dali often referred to himself and his dead brother as Castor and Pollux, the Roman twins born of Leda. Dali felt that although his brother was dead, he was still a spectre in his life."
For some reason Dali believed his brother had died of meningitis at the age of 7, but he wasn't even two years old when he officially passed away due to aggravated tuberculosis. The "Divine Dali" was like a shadow constantly pursuing him throughout his life, a figure he both welcomed and was afraid of. On one hand, this was the brother he never met but loved; on the other hand, he was so strong a presence, and so intimidating, that Dali felt compelled to separate himself from this ghostly reminder and enforce his own personality to everyone around him. It made him stronger, almost ludicrously so. While convincing himself he was his own person, he was also feeling a haunting memory of a brother he knew nothing of, but felt spiritually linked to. It has been suggested that when Dali looked in his mother's eyes, he did not see himself, but the reflection of a ghost.
Dali himself said that when his mother took him out, she would warn him when going past certain places, saying, "your brother used to sneeze here," which undoubtedly formed confusion in his mind. Was he half a person, or even less? Was he second best? Was he forever to be judged aside the brother? If so, it would be fatal for the second Salvador. His brother's life was short, tragically so, and therefore perfect and flawless, merely because the poor boy did not have time to make mistakes or live out errors, develop negative traits and behavioural issues, as the second Salvador clearly did. From the word go, Dali was already losing.
Dali was a paranoiac person, someone who painted what he feared, and projected outwards what he saw in his mind. For him, fears were all around, and they came in various forms, some more unexpected than others. The important thing for Dali was trying to make sense of them, and seeing how they all connected. Vitally, most of them came from childhood. When he famously told actress Lillian Gish on the Dick Cavett Show that in his paintings he had no message for the people out there observing his work (he said he disagreed with messages in fact), the audience laughed, but Dali was deadly serious. The paintings had no message, but they made sense to him on a personal level, and clearly art critics and fans can pick out meanings and metaphors in every single piece he did. Certain things jump out at you from a Dali painting that are impossible to miss. But they are most peculiar to Dali himself, not the rest of us, unless of course you share the same psychological complexities as the artist. They are childhood complexes coming to life before our eyes.
The reminder of his brother aside, Dali applied all his worries to the canvas. If Picasso said that for him painting was like keeping a diary, for Dali it was like a visit to the psychiatrist. While a limb held up by a crutch to us may simply resemble what it literally appears to be, to Dali, this was a symbolic projection of impotency - and it was his impotency I might add. Dali had to grasp that what he did was not Surrealism at all, but something he dubbed the "paranoiac-critical method". All this began in his childhood, and even though his earliest paintings bare very little resemblance to his iconic work in the Surrealist field, they are vital in grasping his development, and the transformation of his inner dread and visions. Not only that, the physical embodiment of the young and innocent Dali appears in many classic works of his golden era, and key emblems from his youth are frequent visitors to his work, old ghosts refusing to fade away, night time ghouls howling out.
Observing the rocks on the coast of Cadaques in Spain is very important in understanding the roots - the true roots in fact - of Dali's art and his infatuation with executing double images. The Dali family had a home there and would spend summers vacationing by the sea. Cape Creus features a rock shaped like a tiger's face, and even more clearly another reproduces the complex structure of a rhino's head. Peer at another rock and you will see a face. As Dali biographer Ian Gibson noted during one of his two part Omnibus documentaries on Dali, later in the day these shadows will have moved, forming a new shape, a new face, a new image to fear. This enhances the state of paranoia, as the objects one was earlier spooked by have now vanished, and taken on new identities elsewhere. This is undoubtedly where it all began for him, the sense that everywhere Dali looked, someone or something was watching him. Dali knew every curve and angle of this coast off by heart, obsessing over both his own fear and the land he loved. He may have slightly misinterpreted the word "paranoid" in his theories, but paranoid is certainly the key word when delving into the Dali psyche.
Anyone who thinks the strange forms, faces and beasts in Dali's paintings are entirely from his imagination need only look at the bizarre images evident in the rocks on that coast - the squatted camel, the face with the large nose facing downwards towards the ground, and most important of all, that rhino, a creature which would become a life long obsession for Salvador.
Works like The Spectre of Sexual Desire (painted in 1934) directly and openly refer to his childhood. In that particular and peculiar work, a young Dali stands on the beach gazing at the grotesque figure before him, propped up by crutches, deformed to the point of near collapse. For Dali, sex was death and rot, and like the melting clocks of his Persistence of Memory, food and life were destined for decay. If The Spectre of Sex Appeal is a work depicting the young Dali's curiosity about the erotic, it also illustrates his strange mix of fascination and dread with the concept of the erotic. In one hand the boy Dali holds a hoop, fairly standard childhood fixture, but in the other holds a phallic object, his own impending manhood, his soon to be maturing and exit from the innocence of youth. The painting reeks of panic, the true horror of sex itself and the foreboding presence of the naked form. Many other works from this period - essentially the early to mid thirties - depict flaccid phallic objects held up by crutches; but here, with Dali as a youth, this fear of impotency has not yet snuck into his mind. It's more about the fear of the unknown, and what nightmares are in store.
In his youth, Dali was also heavily influenced and partially formed by what went on at the other side of the shore, namely in the waters surrounding Cadaques. His favourite food was sea urchins, which Dali later called "the greatest food in the world", and he nostalgically recalled family feasts where they gleefully devoured the treat. He was also both fascinated and horrified by the life forms seen swimming around there, like the Babosa fish, which he wrote about in his book, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. "I have just looked at the face of the slobberer," Dali apparently called out to his father. He was as afraid of them as he was the dreaded grasshopper, a creature he called "that loathsome insect" which would later pop up in future paintings, most curiously of all perhaps in The Great Masturbator. (Tellingly, by the 1930s, Dali was saying he substituted a grasshopper for the image of his father.) Repulsion was clearly an essential factor in his art, as well as his masochistic attraction to such horrors.
Dali no doubt romanticises his childhood, and if we go by his account it is a surreal and otherworldly time, a period where he was allowed to run free and explore everything in the world (or the Catalonian coast at least) that was to fascinate and terrify him for the rest of his days. Though he recalled with glee his early encounters with grasshoppers and repulsive sea life, Dali could also be wistful and romantic about his youth. Dali painted a vivid picture, in words this time, of the atmosphere of his childhood, his home, the people, and the vibe of the place itself. As much as we have to be dubious of Dali's autobiographical texts, there is no doubt he was a great writer and summoned up the most wonderful images with carefully chosen words, despite what his harshest critics have said about his written accounts.
"Behind the partly open kitchen door I would hear the scurrying of those bestial women with red hands," Dali wrote. "I would catch glimpses of their heavy rumps and their hair straggling like manes; and out of the heat and confusion that rose from the conglomeration of sweaty women, scattered grapes, boiling oil, fur plucked from rabbits' armpits, scissors spattered with mayonnaise, kidneys, and the warble of canaries—out of that whole conglomeration the imponderable and inaugural fragrance of the forthcoming meal was wafted to me, mingled with a kind of acrid horse smell."
Aside such warm recollections are more strange and troubling childhood memories, some of which have entered Dalinian folk lore due to the fact that they are so outrageous. Did he really, for example, bite a nearly dead bat in half which was covered in ants? If he were totally alone when he did so, it is hard to believe that a child would do such a thing, and actually more unsettling if so. But if Dali devoured the creature while in the presence of another, as a kind of act of early desperate showmanship, it is certainly more believable. Such a tale is purely ludicrous of course, and reveals nothing more than the fact he was a little twisted, but there are other things about the young Dali which we know are true, and which are quite telling; like the fact he dressed in flamboyant clothing, ruffled collars and velvet hats; that he hated to get dirty and would not remove his shoes or gloves like the other kids, refusing to get overly involved in play. If he got a scratch, a bandage would be immediately applied, no matter how tiny the mark. Oddly, the young Dali would walk around dressed in his royal garb, tucking his genitals into his legs to pretend he was a girl in front of the mirror. He would sit with other children at school and feel superior, because he was dressed in more expensive clothing and his family were better off financially. All of these traits and instances certainly add up to the conclusion that the young Dali was as odd as the adult Dali, but none of them explain where that artistic talent came from. These so called "revelations" were published in Dali's off the wall book The Secret Life of..., which was famously criticised by George Orwell, who called it dishonest and little more than a strip tease act meant to shock (he published a long and unrelenting attack on Dali as a person too), so it is debatable what is real and what is not. Ether way, the fact that Dali even dared to write such confessions, however true or untrue they are, is rather disturbing and telling in itself.
However, while he was quietly painting these fairly standard works, he knew he was destined for greatness. With his name literally meaning Saviour, he soon began to "realise" that he was put on this earth to be the saviour of art itself, to rescue it from the "isms" which were limiting the medium and forcing the many varied forms of expression into tidy, though constricting boxes; Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism etc. In the future, Dali knew for sure there would be one word and one word only which mattered to him in his artistic vocabulary, and that was Dalinian.
When the family lived moved to an apartment in Figueres, Dali enjoyed his own private world on the roof of the building. It was exclusive to him and him alone, and no one could come up stairs to his kingdom without his consent (this reminds one of his wife Gala's later insistence that Dali could not enter her castle without her permission). This stroppy child was treated like a king, which only heightened his self importance. Up on the roof in the glare of the sun, Dali was free to explore, express and enjoy himself. In the old wash house, Dali had his first art studio, a primitive set up which was just right for him at that age. Dali would sit naked in the tub when the weather was very hot, and draw for hours on end. "I was aware I was in the process of playing a genius," he wrote of this period. "If you play a genius," he said, "you become one."
The boy went to drawing school, beginning his all important art education. He had his first exhibition when barely into his teens, which was held at the family home, funnily enough instigated by his father, who put on a feast of sea urchins for all who came to gasp in awe at the young Dali's art. There are a number of Dali works that stick out from the early years, but very few of them bare much resemblance to iconic Dali, as he is clearly still working within his beloved impressionism. The untitled landscapes he painted around the age of 10 have an accomplished charm about them, and one would not believe they could have been done by someone only just in their double figures. Dali later stressed that any painter who did not study the rules of art, the logic of mixing colour and the true art of light, shade and mood was just lazy. This rebel was only truly disciplined about one thing, and that was how to be the best artist he could. This is even reflected in these very early paintings.
Portrait of Lucia, which he painted in 1918 at the age of 14, depicted his aging nurse who at the time was looking after his aged Grandmother, seeing as the kids had grown up. It's a striking portrait and he seems to have relished the chance to paint every wrinkle and crease in her old face. (He later wrote of his fascination with age, and the beauty of wrinkles and how anyone who wished to rid themselves of such marks in old age was a traitor.) Perhaps his best known early painting is 1921's Self Portrait with the Neck of Raphael, a haunting and strangely comforting picture which sees Dali still painting within a more restrained and conventional setting, but with an added air of dream like delirium about it. This one in particular illustrated that even before his own style was fully refined, his technique was exceptional.
Some of the most memorable and famous pictures from this time are his early portraits of his sister Ana Maria, with whom he had a rather unusual relationship. As kids they were very close, though Dali often admitted that he delighted in kicking her in the head for some unknown reason. But she was also his favourite model, and he often painted her from the back. Though some authors have claimed he had unnatural, incestuous feelings for her, I disagree, not least because there seems to be so little evidence to back these theories up. They remained close until Dali married Gala, and seeing as Ana Maria strongly disagreed with her brother shacking up with the divorcee, and his ties to Surrealism, their friendship fizzled out to nothing.
Art wise, this era is proto-Dali. Dali's heroes are clearer in these early works than they are in any other part of his career. Van Gogh's influence is clear in a couple of works, especially 1919's Self Portrait in the Studio, while Goya and Diego Valezquez are also haunting much of this period. The early twenties landscapes could have been culled from the previous century,
Though shy on the outside, behind closed doors Dali was supremely confident about his abilities, if his diaries are anything to go by. Certainly, though he was unsure of himself sexually, he had enormous faith in his art. ''I'll be a genius," he wrote at the age of 16, "and the world will admire me. Perhaps I'll be despised and misunderstood, but I'll be a genius, a great genius, I'm certain of it.''
He was also a master of manipulation. Though he was conniving in his behavioural patterns, he devotedly loved his mother, pure and simple, and their relationship had no complications. Perhaps that's why he alludes to her much less in later life than he does his stern father. There was no hidden animosity in their relationship; she loved him back equally and gave him whatever he wanted, pandering to his every whim. When his mother tragically died in 1921 of cancer, Dali said it "was the greatest blow I had experienced in my life. I worshiped her. I swore to myself that I would snatch my mother from death and destiny with the swords of light that some day would savagely gleam around my glorious name!”
The death of the woman who had so inspired him led Dali to be more ambitious in his work, and strive for an even bigger greatness, a kind of immortality through his art. Whereas he had been eccentric and extravagant before as a direct reaction to his parents, and as a declaration that it was he who was alive and not his deceased namesake brother, now he behaved in such a way it order to fill the void of his mother. The fact she died so young gave him a dread of death, and Dali thought that if he could not live forever in life, then he could at least be remembered eternally for his paintings.
On the other side of the coin is Dali's relationship with his father Salvador Sr., a man who was just as important to Dali's development -though in a very different way of course - as his mother. Dali's relations with his father were scratchy and awkward, and Dali was more of a reactionary with him than he was with his mother. Seeing as his father tried to squeeze all the life and individuality out of the young Dali, especially on a creative level, the pair never really got on that well. But his father's conservatism, in a strange way, was just as inspiring as his mother's encouragement, though in a non direct fashion. After all, what better way is there to wind up a rebel than by constricting him even more? With his insistence that Salvador Jr. drop the art and get into the law field like him, his father inadvertently encouraged the young Dali to be more outrageous, more fearless and more controversial.
After his mother died, Dali's father ended up marrying her sister, so in effect Dali's aunt became his step mother. No doubt, this added more animosity towards his father. These feelings were already there though, and he enjoyed angering the straight laced man. When young Dali once choked on a chicken bone, his father became extremely disturbed and had to leave the room, sickened and horrified by his choking sounds and the panic of the whole situation. Keeping this in mind, Dali frequently used to pretend to choke, just to annoy and put his father ill at ease. He would also pretend to lose his voice, meaning his parents had to come in closer to listen to his whispers. He had them, it seems, wrapped around his finger.
Other areas of his young life however are not as perfectly snug with the Dali myth. Some say Dali was a poor student at school, that he could write his name and recite the alphabet at 4 but soon forgot how to do both. Rather than learning, he would sit and dream of painting, look out the window and not pay attention. He noticed the remnants of snuff on the handkerchief of his teacher; it was all about the little details, not the education. Leaving the communal school, Dali Sr. sent him to the Hermanus De LaDoctrina Cristina. There he sat at a window side desk, seen as the dumbest kid in class, prone to tantrums and allowed to walk off in huffs, then given tea to calm down. It seems that at school his weird behaviour was tolerated, accepted even, just as it was at home.
In his writings, Dali went into detail about his school life, but seemed more interested in the corridor outside where two pictures hung on the wall caught his attention. It seems this pair of paintings piqued his interest much more than the teacher and anything he was saying could hope to. One painting was of a fox emerging from a cabin, while the other, which literally hypnotised him, was a copy of L'Angelus by Millet. "This painting produced in me an anguish. Those two motionless silhouettes," Dali wrote, "in their motionless pursued me for several years, with a constant uneasiness provoked by their continual, ambiguous presence." Dali said that the picture always took him straight back to his childhood, and he closely dissected every facet of it; seeing the folded hands of the woman as a symbol for the eroticism of a virgin in waiting, with the man in awe of her. Dali also eluded to a Freudian use of body language, with the man's hat lowered to cover his privates, the shame of his virility. He saw the pitch fork ploughed into the earth as a clear symbol for sex, its sharp edges sticking into the soil, as phallic as any farming tool can be. For Dali, the picture proved as essential and haunting as the rocks at Cadaques, and though some people tend to skim past the Millet picture's significance, it pops up in future works more than his love for other masters like Goya, Velazquez, Raphael and Da Vinci. In one painting, the positions of the man and woman in Millet's masterpiece are replicated exactly, but in a dream like Dalinian fashion; and in another, the picture is hanging above a door, perfectly reproduced in miniature, almost a minor detail in its tininess but vital for anyone looking close enough. The Millet picture is a continuous presence for a few years, like the ghost of his brother, always there in spirit somehow. Indeed, the framing of the L'Angelus picture pre-echoes numerous Dali paintings, its framing and sense of otherworldliness, despite its ordinary subject matter. Salvador would take the shame, guilt and repression of this picture and apply its baron alien-like quality to his own Surrealistic world, becoming just as iconic and important as Millet in the process.
When Dali left school, Figueres, and the surrounding areas behind for Madrid and art school, his home land remained in his heart; as did his childhood, which had impaled his soul like an anchor, its powerful grip never loosening. There really was no getting away from Figueres, the place he would later build his own museum and eventually be buried within. He called Figueres the only place such a place could exist, telling Russell Harty that it was the most legitimate place for the construction of his "temple of kitsch". After all, this was the place of his adolescence and where he experienced, in his own words, all his early "erotic events". He'd go to New York, Paris and everywhere you could care to name, but for Dali, Port Lligat, Cadaques and particularly Figueres were the only places which mattered. When he said, as a dying man, "Viva Spain", he should really have said "Viva Figueres". His childhood remained in his very soul for the rest of his life, and he retreated to it time and time again, like the baby to the womb.