Figueres, Spain and Salvador Dalí
The city of Figueres, Spain is as homely as a mule’s butt. Narrow streets choked in a fog of exhaust fumes, scooters without mufflers scream through the city with a sound that can liquefy your brainstem, the parks are ugly and dangerous and guys stand in doorways doing nothing all day aside from laying mad dog looks on tourists that pass by. Quite frankly, the place sucks. If it weren’t for the fact that Salvador Dalí, one of the 20th century’s most talented, egomaniacal and prolific artists wasn’t birthed there and his Teatre-Museu Dalí weren’t located there, Figueres probably wouldn’t even have a train station, which makes it mercifully possible to zip into town from Barcelona to see the museum without actually having to spend the night there.
Salvador Dali was a world class weirdo. Not just in that he was burdened with a dizzying assortment of eccentricities and psychosomatic issues – Dalí had to be fed through a tube in his nose for the last seven years of his life due to a psychological problem with swallowing – but more notably due to his fantastic paintings that kicked Surrealism in the ass, laid the seeds for Pop Art and simultaneously enthralled and alarmed the artistic community in general. He showed extraordinary aptitude and range while dabbling in just about every art form he could get his hands on including sculpture, holograms (the one with Alice Cooper is a must-see), writing, film, ballet, theatre set and costume design, jewel design and quotable quotes that will make you howl and marvel at the man’s inflated self-image. It’s no wonder his contemporaries were equally in awe, infuriated and frightened by him. He once gave a lecture in a diving suit. His work incited outrage, riots and once forced him to flee France. With the help of photographer Philippe Halsman, he created a photographic tribute book devoted entirely to his legendarily pliable moustache. Only the most gargantuan, wacky ego could cause this much pandemonium.
The highlight of Dalí’s repertoire was his “Paranoid Critical Transformation Method,” a way of perceiving reality using “irrational knowledge” based on a “delirium of interpretation” and then putting these “hallucinations” on a canvas. Imagine, not only crafting, but even intelligently writing and lecturing with a straight face on a technique whereby one simulates a paranoid state, without the use of drugs, and upon returning to ‘normal perspective’ they paint what had been envisioned therein. Now that, my friends, is a mother*%$#&* artist!
2004 marks the centennial of Dalí’s birth (May 11th, 1904) and Dalí-related hubs around the world are staging celebrations of his life and work, particularly in his home country of Spain. Special exhibitions are in most large cities, biographies are being repeatedly aired on television and one channel is even inserting short five second bumpers between commercials and shows with dreamy, morphing Dalí image sequences.
As illustrated previously, the man was a bit egocentric and full of self-adulation. He never obtained a formal art degree as he refused to take his final oral exam on Raphael at the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, claiming that he knew more about the subject than his examiners. He was promptly expelled. His bridge burning didn’t end there. Until late in life, when universal admiration for the man had finally taken hold, nearly every art group and community that enthusiastically welcomed him eventually banished him. It’s safe to say that Dalí wasn’t the world’s greatest people person, but then, as I can personally attest, maniacally obsessed artists rarely are. Ahem.
The Teatre-Museu Dalí stands out in otherwise dull Figueres, with its huge dome being the first and possibly only notable landmark that one will encounter during the 15 minute walk from the train station. Being the only tourist-worthy distraction for dozens of kilometers in any direction, the museum is predictably infested with people on day trips from the resorts on Costa Brava. On the day of my visit, a French charter bus careened to the door and cut loose France’s 50 most hyperactive kids and 30 rudest adults into the museum directly ahead of me. The kids ran around, screaming, playing hide and seek and generally losing their minds. The adults were totally nonplused to the behavior of their snot-nosed charges as they were too preoccupied with line-jumping and arrogantly knifing to the front of groups of people admiring exhibits and planting themselves directly front of the pieces, cutting off sightlines for the rest of the guests. By about half way through the exhibits myself and several other muttering visitors were clearly ready kick some major Frog ass.
Considering that it is devoted entirely to one man (or so it is marketed, keep reading), the Teatre-Museu Dalí is quite huge and appropriately full of Dalí-like character. While you explore the museum, you need to force your eyes to take in every square inch of floor, wall, corner and ceiling space to absorb all of the little Dalíanian decorative touches and surprises that you might glaze over if you are only focusing on the paintings or exhibits. Unlike most museums where you are left to wander aimlessly, the Teatre-Museu Dalí has a very clearly marked tour path that carefully and efficiently leads you through the exhibits, meaning that I was uncomfortably and unavoidably on the heels of the irksome Frog invasion the entire time.
With Dalí’s work having been disseminated to museums and collections around the world, in addition to there being several touring Dalí exhibits at any given time, one has to wonder, even with his nearly 70 years of frenetic output, whether or not there is enough leftover Dalí material to fill a museum of this size. It appears that the answer is ‘no.’ I had toured the much more sated Teatre-Museu Dalí in 1994 and many of the exhibits that I clearly remembered seeing in ’94 were gone and inexplicably replaced by a variety of small exhibits by other artists. Needless to say, this was disappointing. After all, if I had wanted to see pieces by these other people I would have gone to their effing museums. Nonetheless, the Teatre-Museu Dalí keeps a good stock of bizarre Dalí material, particularly a collection of sculptures that you are guaranteed to not see anywhere else as they are so large, weighty and complex that they probably couldn’t be dismantled and sent on tour even with the most ambitious of intentions.
— Salvador Dalí: Diary of a Genius, p.157-8
In keeping with his monumental self-love, many of Dalí’s pieces feature images of himself or his name, but unlike many people, I didn’t find this the least bit offensive as the material was always strange and exciting enough that the ego issue quickly slipped from my mind. I’m about as knowledgeable about art and art history as a dead armadillo, but I know what I like and I like Dalí. Aside from using himself and the fetching breasts of his wife Gala Eluard in an excessive number of his paintings, he was a big fan of insects, melting clocks and drawers coming out of people’s bodies. If you have about 15 hours to kill, check out Dalí Gallery where such a debilitating number of Dalí’s paintings are on display that you may inadvertently induce your very own fit of Paranoid Critical Transformation Method.
The big surprise of the Teatre-Museu Dalí comes while you are wandering through the galleries in the basement. You’re just moving along, looking at pencil sketches of disjoint bodies and stuff and you round a corner and bam, there’s the man’s crypt! Goodbye fun, upbeat mood! Still, for a guy who liked himself so much, it probably shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to see his burial chamber next to numerous self-portraits and stylized sculptures of his name.
Whether you’re in Figueres (God help you), or Madrid, or Barcelona, or St. Petersburg, Florida (site of the Salvador Dalí Museum), or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or a Dalí tour happens to lurch through your town or if you can stand the eye strain of staring at a computer monitor for five hours to get a good sense of his dizzying contributions to our world, it would behoove you to pay tribute to this man in the centennial year of his birth if only to see what the human mind is capable of under very unusual circumstances.