Towards the end of October, we realised that the weather in Provence wasn’t going to get any warmer and started to look south towards Spain. We have loved our time in France, but were ready to explore somewhere new. We stopped for a night in Colombiers, drove across the border and soon found ourselves on the beach again, looking out at the Mediterranean from the bay of Roses.
One of the things we wanted to do whilst in this area of north-eastern Spain was learn a bit about one of its most famous sons – Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dali i Domenech, Marques de Dali de Pubol – otherwise known as Salvador Dali.
The Dali Theatre-Museum
The Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, northern Spain, has been described as the largest surrealist object in the world, and before you even get inside, you are introduced to the bizarre and eccentric world that the artist inhabited: as we queued to get in we gazed up at the red castle-like building, topped with giant eggs, its entrance façade decorated with gold Oscar-like statues and medieval knights in armour with gold baguettes balanced on their heads. Dali’s incredible museum is built on the ruins of the town’s theatre, which was destroyed during the Spanish civil war. He started the project to bring his Theatre-Museum to life in 1960 and it finally opened in 1974. He said of it, “The municipal theatre, or what was left of it, seemed to me to be very appropriate for three reasons: first, because I am an eminently theatrical painter: second, because the Theatre is in front of the church where I was baptised and third, because it was precisely in the lobby of the Theatre that I had my first exhibition of paintings.”
As you would expect from Dali, this is not a traditional art gallery. Here the museum is a piece of art in itself: it is one of his masterpieces, everything in it conceived and designed by Dali himself. He wanted to offer visitors a real experience of delving into his captivating and unique world and a building where each element is an intrinsic part of the whole.
The museum contains a very broad range of Dali’s work, created during his extremely long career. The rooms within it are numbered and a one-way route has been laid out for visitors to follow. In the leaflet we were given as we entered, the museum was quite apologetic about this, acknowledging that it is not really in the spirit of Dali or his idiosyncratic way of doing things to suggest that anyone follow a preconceived route! This really made me laugh, although actually some of the ‘galleries’ were more like narrow corridors and to have the flow of people going in one direction was definitely of benefit to keep everyone moving.
More than a surrealist
What struck me most about the work on display was the enormous range of subjects, styles and materials Dali employed. I was expecting the weird, surrealist works for which he is best known and, aside from being stunned at the enormous scale of some of these, they left me cold and somewhat bemused. They certainly didn’t go down well with the girls, who found them creepy and odd. What I hadn’t expected however were the incredible still life drawings, exquisite in their detail and so real you felt you could reach out and touch them…..a piece of bread in a basket, a portrait of his wife Gala whose hair looked so incredibly soft and almost like a photograph or the tiny painting of some Arabs on galloping horses. I had read that Dali was respected as a technically brilliant artist and these works made me question the pigeonhole (‘weird, surrealist rubbish’) into which I had placed him and his work. By the end of our visit, I still found a lot of what he painted to be self-indulgent, odd and not to my taste at all, but I had to also acknowledge that he was an extremely gifted artist.
There were simple line drawings, oil paintings, pastels, sculptures, stained glass and more. There was a great image painted on the ceiling that made it look like two people (one of them surely Dali himself, with his characteristic moustache) were hanging down from a hole in the centre, their feet just above our heads. And a clever piece that looked like his (naked) wife Gala looking out at the Mediterranean Sea, but when viewed through a camera or from afar looked like a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Then there were the cheeky, fun and jokey works like the old Cadillac where you could put a coin in a slot and it would rain on the mannequins inside the car. And down under what would’ve been the stage of the old theatre is a simple headstone that marks where the man himself is buried.
Dali liked to push the boundaries of what was possible in art and there were quite a number of pieces exploring different techniques and quirky ways of viewing images. One of these was stereoscopy, a process dating from the beginnings of photography that tries to recreate the missing third dimension and give the viewer the impression of depth and relief. I guess this was the forerunner of our 3D movies and pictures. Stereoscopy achieves its effect by having two nearly-identical symmetrical images, that vary only in their shades of colour and tone. When you look at the two images, with the help of a set of mirrors, you ‘see’ a virtual image that is created in your mind. It was funny to watch people trying to do this as you had to look straight ahead at the point where the two mirrors met and with your nose touching the cabinet in which they were contained. It produced an interesting effect.
Dali described himself as a “Paladin of a new Renaissance” who refused to be confined. (I had to look up ‘Paladin’ in the dictionary and it comes from the name for the twelve peers of Charlemagne’s court, and means a knight renowned for heroism and chivalry – Dali was nothing if not modest!). He said, “My art encompasses physics, mathematics, architecture, nuclear-science and jewellery, not paint alone.” Amongst some of the concepts he explored in his work were that of the interrelation of spirit and matter and of time and space and he played with the idea that time is fluid not rigid, as portrayed in his famous painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’ with its melting watches. Love him or hate him, his work came from a place of deep thought and wild imagination, and it pushed the boundaries of what was possible in every way. He was a real showman (some would say a show-off) and his Theatre-Museum is a lasting performance and fitting memorial to his unique life and career.
Alongside the Theatre Museum (and included in the entry price) is a another permanent exhibition called Dali-Jewels, which includes about 40 pieces of jewellery designed by Dali, together with the drawings and paintings that he made when designing them. These too were exquisite in their detail and playfulness and in true Dali fashion he apparently wanted to make the pieces all about the mastery of the creator rather than the jewels themselves. This collection reinforced just how varied his work was. And if you’ve been reading this and you think you’ve never seen a Dali creation, you’d probably be wrong as in the late 60s, he designed the Chupa Chups logo, seen on the top of lollipops worldwide for decades!
If you want more of Dali…
You can also visit Salvador Dali’s home, Portlligat House in Cadaques, which has also been turned into a museum, and the Gala Dali Castle, the medieval building he turned into a home and retreat for his wife Gala. The Theatre-Museum completely satisfied our curiosity in Dali and so we didn’t bother to visit either of these, but the three museums together form a popular Dali tour in this part of Spain. Take note: Portlligat House in Cadaques, is operated on a timed entry system and so you need to book your slot in advance, even during the off-season. Finally, we visited the Theatre-Museum on a Tuesday at the end of October and we still had to queue to get in, so booking in advance for here would also be advisable. There are some tickets available online for each day and these allow you to enter through a separate door, thus avoiding the queue. At the time of writing, entrance was €14 per person, with children under 8 being free.
What about you? Are you a fan of surrealism? Has anyone else ever been to the Dali Theatre-Museum? I’d love to know what you thought. Or do you know anything interesting about Dali himself – he was certainly unique!