Salvador Dalí: beyond surrealism

By Ari Nuncio

“At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven, I wanted to be Napoleon. My ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” —Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí became famous for two reasons: one, his surrealist paintings are considered cornerstones of modern art; and, two, he was a tireless self-promoter. After a brief period in the 20s and 30s when he was the darling of intellectuals such as André Breton, Dalí fell out favor. Many of his contemporaries dismissed him because of his politics (he supported Spanish dictator Francisco Franco) and because he was seen as a commercial artist if not a sell-out (he did work for Disney, Bonwit-Teller, and even Hallmark, the greeting card company). But many of the reasons people have had for snubbing Dalí now seem academic as the battles and allegiances of the twentieth century fade from memory. Today, we can appreciate Dalí for what he was: one of the greatest painters of all time.

Dalí was born in Spain in 1904. He was enrolled in an art school at 10 and was just 14 when he had his first exhibition. Dalí was a master of classical technique: he paints with an “imperialist fury of precision.” Although his best-known works depict impossible dreamscapes, their execution is rarely sketchy and never sloppy.

Art historians divide Dalí's work into four periods: Early (1917–27), Transitional (1928), Surreal (1929–39) and Classic (after 1940).

During his formative Early period, Dalí experimented with impressionist and cubist styles and briefly flirted with abstract painting during the Transitional period. In the late 20s, he read Sigmund Freud's writings on subconscious imagery and met the Surrealists of Paris, after which he set out to use his painterly ability “to help discredit completely the world of reality.” He produced his most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory, during this period.

Dalí and his wife Gala moved to the United States in 1940. That year marks the beginning of his Classic period. Dalí had always revered the great masters of the past—Raphael, Vermeer, and Bosch—more than he did the famous artists of his own day. Although he returned to surrealist styles on occasion (as, for example, in his Vision of Hell), Dalí spent the rest of his life exploring religious themes and science.

The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida is home to the world's most comprehensive collection of Dalí works.