Volume 1 Number 3 Summer 2006


The Mindset of Salvador Dalí
Stephen Francis Saladyga


One of the most renowned and controversial artists during the 20th century was an eccentric Spanish painter by the name of Salvador Dalí. Although his popularity exceeds well beyond average heights, many people do not know about the artist’s life and influences. By studying his mindset through the following survey of Dalí scholarship, Dalí’s art can become less complicated and, in turn, interpreted with more clarity. Some of the most important relations and events that shaped Dalí’s artwork are as follows: his family, the formation of his sexuality, Gala (his wife), Surrealism, Sigmund Freud, and the dropping of the atomic bomb.


The artist was not even out of the womb before his first great mishap took place: his brother’s death at twenty-one months, just nine months and ten days before Dalí was born. When Dalí became a little bit older, he saw that not only was he named after his father, but also after his dead brother, disturbing his young mind to no end (Etherington-Smith, 1992).

Meredith Etherington-Smith (1992) notes how Dalí’s parents were in constant disarray when their first son died. They would often talk about the dead Salvador Dalí, confusing the second and giving him feelings of guilt "that he had 'stolen' his elder brother’s very existence" (p. 3). Sanford Schwartz (1994) writes, "The picture of the first Salvador remained over his parents’ bed, and his younger brother grew up under it, forever aware of having been the replacement, never certain of where he stood with people" (p. 44). His mother would also often take Dalí, as a child, to visit his dead brother’s grave. As Dalí would look up at the giant grave stone, he would see his name written there in big letters. Of course, this was all very detrimental to his mental health, and it was only the start of events that would shape the way he thought, and in turn, the way he painted. Dalí once said in light of his parents’ actions, "I wish to prove to myself that I am not the dead brother, but the living one" (qtd. in Etherington-Smith, 1992, p.4), which was definitely a first sign of his egotistical way.

The confused child had a long road ahead of him. Growing up, Dalí lived in a small apartment full of women. These women included his sister (born three years after Dalí), mother, grandmother, aunt and his nurse, which left Dalí and his father the only men in the home, creating a spotlight on Dalí to receive a lot of individual attention. The close quarters of the apartment made Dalí throw constant fits. In response to these extreme behaviors, his Catholic mother would forgive him and simply sympathize with him, "[promising] that he could dress up as a king in a fancy-dress outfit all children wore for 'Els Reis' (The Feast of the Magi)" (Etherington-Smith, 1992, p.9).

Although Dalí’s mother had a warm, loving personality, his father was considered quite the opposite in Dalí’s mind. Some of Dalí’s early eccentric behavior can be best linked to his father and his strong authoritative power. Dalí’s father viewed education as very important and wanted his son to succeed in school because he "was the son of a bankrupt suicide…whose widowed mother had made great sacrifices to enable him to finish his own education" (Etherington-Smith, 1992, p.11). He literally dragged Dalí to his first school, Trayter, because Dalí, who was so used to staying at home like the other females, didn’t want to go at all. Dalí’s father, after a year, moved him to a different school because his son still could not read or write. It was all the same to Dalí and he continued to drift away during class, staring out the nearest window. Eventually his teacher moved him away from the window, and Dalí (qtd. in Etherington-Smith, 1992, p. 17) later commented that it was "torture not being allowed to see that beloved plain of Empordá," the geology which, Etheringston-Smith (1992) argue, "fashion[ed] the entire aesthetic of the philosophy of the Dalinian landscape" (p.17)

Etherington-Smith (1992) remark that Dalí disliked his father so much that he pretended not to know how to write, describing it as "nonchalant, with thousands of blots and characters of bewildering irregularity" (p.17). This explains why his writing would be "incomprehensible to those he felt to be authoritarian" (p.17), since his father was the most significant authoritative figure in his life.

To get away from it all (mostly the crammed living space and his father), Dalí, along with his sister, would go with the local fishermen on boat rides near Cap de Creus. Upon passing the fascinating landscape of giant rocks and caves, explain Etherington-Smith (1992, pp. 20-21), "he could see them changing into curious humanoid and anthropoid shapes that became according to the vantage point, eagles, lions, human heads, the face of a woman, a hunched-up old man. For all these figures the fishermen had names that were part of the local lore."

Later in his life, these boat rides gave rise to Dalí’s "double image" method, otherwise known as his paranoiac-critical method. The artist would draw out a realistic situation and then insert another image somewhere in the original drawing. This allows for a paranoid interpretation of the work; viewers think they see the real world being portrayed, and then notice something else that makes up this "realness," creating a sense of falsity to the realness. This falsity of reality, in turn, discredits reality, which is something the Surrealists loved to do. While discussing about one of these "paranoid" paintings called Impressions d’Afrique, Fiona Bradley (1994) explains "it resolves the dialectical tension between perceived and conceived worlds by forcing a viewer to cross from one to another as they recognize the face of Gala in an ostensibly 'innocent' building" (p.620).

Formation of Sexuality

The artist’s sexuality was formed at an early age. Etherington-Smith (1992) mentions an event that deals with puberty and Narcissism at Cadaqués, where Dalí spent his summers in serenity: Cadaqués "is said to encourage eccentricity bordering on outright madness" because "it is surrounded by the rocks and the sea, [which is] a place of . . .violent climatic change" compared to Figueres (p.19). Dalí, after noticing his first pubic hair, started acting odder by growing out his hair and stealing "his mother’s cosmetics, powering his face with rice powder, crayoning around his eyes, and biting his lips to make them red" (p. 24). He became infatuated with his new self; later Dalí said on this matter, "I espied my first pubic hairs and found expression for my narcissistic desires among the rocks at Cap de Creus. I ecstatically sowed my seed as I masturbated along the coves, creating a sort of erotic Mass between that earth and my body" (p. 24).

Another important detail about Dalí’s sexuality is his fear of sex. Dalí’s father should be held partly responsible for his son’s fear of a sexual relationship. As a child, Dalí remembered the following: "On top of the piano in my house, my father left a medical book in which there were photographs enabling one to appreciate the terrible consequence of venereal disease" (qtd. in Etherington-Smith, 1992, p. 3).  His fear of sex also stemmed from not being in control. Dawn Ades (1982) explains, "Still locked in the auto-eroticism and masturbation of the pervious years, he had fallen in love with Gala and found his anxieties concentrating more and more on fear of impotence" (p. 76). This fear is most prevalent in Accommodations of Desire and Illuminated Pleasures, painted in 1929. He was afraid that Gala would push him around and make him do things he did not want to do. Perhaps, as we see throughout his life, his instincts were quite accurate. As the couple grew older, Gala, who was known to love money, would make Dalí work more and more often so he would be able to sell more work. Melissa Burdick Harmon (2001) explains, "Under Gala’s prodding, he became a virtual factory, producing designs for everything from fabric to cognac bottles to ashtrays and postage stamps" (p.120).


According to Bradley (1994), Dalí met Gala in the summer of 1929 when she came to visit the Cadaqués with her husband, Paul Eluard, and other members of the Surrealist group. It was said that she was the only one who could communicate with the artist, who was suffering from hysterical fits of laughter. Etherington-Smith (1992) notes that Dalí claimed "these fits were self-induced by imagining the inhabitants of Cadaqués with tiny owls on their heads," but, contrary to Dalí, Etherington-Smith (1992) believes that "they were involuntary, bred of his impotent desire to break out, to be free" (p.107). It seems that Dalí, and not Etherington-Smith, would be correct since the artist’s outbursts of laughter subsided when he met Gala. This logically makes the most sense because after getting a glimpse of his future lover, his mind forgot about random owl heads on people and focused on Gala. If they were involuntary like Etherington-Smith says, how did they just disappear upon meeting Gala? Surely the presence of laughter would not have subsided if Etherington-Smith was correct because he still was not free.

Whichever opinion is correct, there is no arguing that Gala never left Dalí after that, divorcing Eluard and marrying Dalí, who proclaimed that she was his savior and inspiration. René Passeron (1978) adds that their love for each other "corresponds to a major characteristic of the Surrealist sensibility" (p.140), since the artist would include his lover in most of his paintings and other work; for instance, a poem called I am Eating Gala. Passeron (1978) goes on to write that "this 'unique love' does not exclude such statements by Dalí as: 'In love I attach special value to everything known as perversion and vice. I consider perversion and vice to be the most revolutionary forms of thought and action, just as I consider love to be the sole attitude in a man’s life'" (p. 140).

In Doubling and Dédoublement: Gala in Dalí, Fiona Bradley (1994) describes how Dalí’s world seemed to revolve around Gala so much so that "Gala is an alter ego: her name has become synonymous with that of Dalí, and her image signals the presence of her recreator" (p. 612). Interestingly, Dalí constantly referred to Gala with different names. These names, such as Galuchka, Olivete, Tapir, Noisette Poilue and Lionete, all serve to show how Dalí’s ideas of Gala continuously change; every time he uses one of these names, "he brings her face to face with a new mental variant" (p.616). Some of these names, like Olivete, were created because Gala’s skin was an olive color to him, and more or less reflects or doubles Gala with various attributes about herself. Some of the other names, like Tapir, were created because Gala reminded Dalí of a little forest animal, and more or less shows Dalí’s opinion of her and uses for her (pp. 616-619).


Dalí and Gala were both heavily involved in the Surrealist movement. Many people think Surrealism is just present in painting, but in fact it includes many forms of artistic expression like poetry, film, photography, collage and dance. This movement, which started in Paris, spread quickly to other civilizations, allowing people of all ethnicities to come together. Surrealism constantly stressed the "other," which had to do with looking at other cultures and other ways of thinking; it wanted to move away from mainstream society.

Duplessis (1978) explains, "the Surrealists invite us to step beyond the utilitarian world where material gain is the prime motive, so that we can set foot in another world, altogether marvelous and mysterious. ‘Surrealism is the expression of our will for the total dissociation of everything from everything" (p. 28). He then goes on to explain the different techniques that help shape Surrealism: humor, the marvelous, the dream, madness, Surrealist objects, The Exquisite Corpse and automatic writing.

Humor in relation to Surrealism "turns our accustomed attitudes upside down by misplacement, surprise, and unexpected associations" (Duplessis, 1978, p.26). This technique is most present in movies, such as Animal Crackers by the Marx Brothers, and uses laughter to free the spirit, which is constantly kept in the shackles of mainstream society. By pointing out the absurdities in society, the Surrealist technique of humor can lead to uprisings directed toward an established society.

The marvelous in relation to Surrealism, as Pierre-Albert Birot put it, "Performs the miracle of blending itself with the ordinary and commonplace in the most natural way in the world" (qtd. in Duplessis, 1978, p.36). It is in these everyday objects that beautiful and simply amazing things lie. Surrealism lifts up the cover, which clothes objects, and tries to reveal what is underneath, which is the marvelous.

The dream in relation to Surrealism questions reality. Dalí commented, in a written work called La Femme Visible, "By day we unconsciously search for the lost images of our dreams, and that is why, when we find such an image, we believe we are already familiar with it, and say that to see it is to dream" (qtd. in Duplessis, 1978, p.38). A dream can be seen as more real since it is created through our own mind; it represents perfection because it is created through our thoughts alone and nothing else. The Surrealists believed that dreaming is just as important as thinking because you can learn just as much from dreaming as from thinking. Some Surrealists also wondered if dreaming was just another form of wakefulness, where we continue our "reality" each time we fall asleep.

Madness in relation to Surrealism allows observers to study and find out what it is like in a certain mental state, like paranoia. Someone who is mad thinks everything that happens in the world is tied in with their own life. "The patient, is not content to take refuge in his interior world," explains Duplessis (1978, p. 41), "but instead incorporates the attributes of the external world in his delusions. His impressions of the outside world serve only to illustrate his mental fantasies." Surrealists go into these insane states, but also keep some contact with the external world so they are able to come back to their normal state. A famous psychologist named Jung said that the Surrealists knew how to resist "the temptation of morbid elation" (qtd. Duplessis, 1978, p.44), which meant that they would not allow the new mental state to consume them.

The Surrealist objects in relation to Surrealism have to do with creating imaginary images into physical objects. Dalí defines the Surrealist object, in relation to the outrageous vehicles he created, as "an object that lends itself to the minimum of mechanical functioning, and that is based upon fantasies and images capable of being induced by the substantiation of unconscious actions" (Duplessis, 1978, pp.46-47). The Surrealist objects often perturbed the public because they viewed them as irrelevant, silly or frightening pieces of artwork.

The Exquisite Corpse in relation to Surrealism allows for a creation that seems to not make any sense whatsoever. It often involved three or more people where the first would write one word, the second another, the third another, and so forth till they end up with phrases that do not make any sense. This is also done with drawing, where three people create a body; one draws a head, another draws the upper body and the lower body. Dalí would often partake in these crazy looking drawings with other artists like Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. Duplessis (1978) writes, "The Exquisite Corpse encourages man to release himself from the world of dismal reality, so that he can penetrate the world of the disjointed and the strange" (p. 49).

Automatic writing in relation to Surrealism is when a writer lets the unconscious do the talking. In order for automatic writing to take place, the writer has clear the mind and forget about the outside world, possibly through isolation. Duplessis (1978) explains this deep state of mind: "The external world slips away to such a degree that any interruption to the writing is like an abrupt awakening" (p.52).

Ades (1982) informs us how Dalí joined the Surrealist movement in the summer of 1929. It was stressed that in order to partake in this movement, a member must regularly attend their meetings, which were sometimes at a café or in André Brenton’s apartment (leader of the movement), participate in reviewing Surrealist activities, and also contribute to group exhibitions. The reviews were normally written in La Révolution Surréaliste, and in that first year that Dalí joined, Accommodations of Desire and Illumined Pleasures were two of his recent works displayed.

Sigmund Freud

The Surrealists, as with Dalí, were heavily fascinated with psychology and, further into the subject, psychoanalysis; they together embraced Freudian theory. Duplessis (1978) writes that Sigmund Freud used psychoanalysis to uncover the hidden truth of man. Freud believed that sexual desire was the main drive that controlled man, and by knowing this man should confront it.

Surrealists wanted to explore the unconscious mind because they believed, like Freud, pure thoughts can only present themselves through dreams, madness or love, states that are anything other than normalcy. It is in these states that we are able to leave our everyday personality and see it for what it really is. In other words, we can have a better understanding of our well-being if we are able to see how our unconscious works (Duplessis, 1978, pp.111-128).

Duplessis (1978) mentions Henri Bergson, a person who analyzed the dynamism of psychological life, who argued that the consciousness is only a rotted covering on top of what is actually on the inside, the unconscious. It is this thing underneath that sometimes gets shown through madness or under psychoanalysis.

Surrealism’s aim, working with Freud’s psychoanalysis, is to form new perspectives about life. André Breton stressed that in order to be fully satisfied with yourself as a human being, you have to free yourself from consciousness. You must explore the other part of yourself in order to fully know who you are, in order to be happy. In a sense, it is like achieving self-actualization (Duplessis, 1978, pp.111-128).

The Atomic Bomb

Dalí became fascinated with science after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. Kirsten Bradbury (1999) mentions the artist would constantly read scientific journals to keep on top of various scientific advancements. In light of this unbelievable, breathtaking event, Dalí said, "The explosion of the atom bomb on 6 August 1945 sent a seismic shock through me. Since then, the atom has been central to my thinking" (Descharnes & Néret, 2004, p.157). This triggered his "nuclear mystical" period of artwork where he focused on atomic physics and Christianity, Catholicism to be more specific, which was "the territory of the sacred" that Dalí wanted to further explore (Descharnes & Néret, 2004, p.160).

In one of Dalí’s paintings, Dematerialisation Near the Nose of Nero, the artist surrounds a pomegranate, which is cut in two, with a concrete looking cube, which is cut in four. Above this is a head statue of Nero in four pieces; the nose, the head and upper body, a pedestal, and a flat board, which would go under the pedestal. All of these objects are underneath, slightly encased, a golden arch with a roof that is detached and floating above it. The pomegranate, which appears in a handful of Dalí’s work, represents a nucleus of an atom exploding, releasing its numerous seeds that represent powerful energy.

Another famous painting, completed in 1951, that contains atomic physics and Christianity is called Raphaelesque Head Exploding. This is not only an image of the Madonna, painted by Raphael as the title of the work suggests, but also the Pantheon at Rome, which is contained inside the head of the Madonna. A light can be also seen pouring through the top of the Madonna’s head to show it is the Pantheon at Rome, giving more religious symbolism. This painting is a great example of Dalí’s famous "double image" method. More importantly, this image is comprised of fragments representing the explosion of a nuclear bomb. Interestingly, Bradbury (1999) explains that "some of the particles of the exploding head are the same shape as a rhinoceros horn. Dalí believed that this form could be seen everywhere, in everything: a cauliflower or a sunflower, and here in particles of the exploding head of the Madonna" (p.186). Ades and Taylor (2005) also make reference to the artist’s religious exploding figures writing: "In rendering a figure ‘atomically’ comprised of elements metaphorical to Christ, Dalí illustrates his opinion that matter is spiritualized on the subatomic level—indeed, that God might be the ‘substance being sought by nuclear physics" (p.372).


Salvador Dalí was a complex artist. His family experience, which is so crucial to a child’s development, was in disarray. From the beginning, Dalí the child became distraught because of his parents' decision to give him the same name as their first son, who died. Taking Dalí to the grave with his own name on it, along with other actions, confused Dalí psychologically. Dalí also grew up with almost all women in his home, putting more feminine qualities in his personality; women were oppressed and expected to stay at home all the time. This might be the cause of why he was not interested in education; women were not expected to go to school. Also, we should not forget the close quarters of where he grew up. Living in such a small place with so many people, it is no wonder why Dalí became easily frustrated, throwing numerous fits.

Dalí’s sexuality became shaped through his family. Since he was around so many women, he grew up watching them use makeup to get ready for important events. This could explain why he used cosmetics to express his joyful discovery. Then when his father showed the repulsive pictures of venereal disease, Dalí was sure to never experience what he saw. This mainly led to his sexual anxieties with Gala. He wanted control over his own body and did not want anyone else to do anything with it for fear of the consequences.

Gala was most important to Dalí, who said "I love Gala more than my mother, more than my father, more than Picasso and even more than money" (Descharnes & Néret, 2004, p.25). She played the most significant role to Dalí as being his inspiration for painting and living.

Although Dalí eventually became an ex-member of the Surrealist movement, Surrealism and Dalí go hand in hand. He incorporated in his work and efforts the Surrealist techniques and ideology. By contributing his time and intellect, Dalí helped the movement, just as it was helping him in meeting new artists and gaining a lot of publicity.

Sigmund Freud is also a common name when speaking of Dalí or Surrealism. Through Freud’s psychoanalysis, the unconscious was being recognized as a great importance to who you actually are. By exploring your unconscious mind, you can learn and, in turn, better yourself.

Last, the dropping of the atomic bomb had a great impact on Dalí, as with the rest of the world. Dalí took the idea of the atomic bomb and became fascinated with atoms. He would paint images in fragments of objects to symbolize the explosion an atom. The artist then created his "mystical" period by gaining interest in Catholicism and linking it with nuclear science. This later artwork mesmerized some, leaving them astounded since they could not explain why Dalí turned to religious iconography.



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