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Dalí's Optical Illusions


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Salvador Dalí: a Genius?

By Sabrina Laurent

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Salvador Dalí's birth, it seems important to put an end to the controversy that has surrounded his work for the past decades. While Dalí remains one of the most famous painters of the 20th century, some people have been wondering whether or not he was really a genius. They see him as a fraud, a pseudo-artist who received more attention than what he deserved, thus questioning the artistic value of his work.

This idea, which may shock those who have always considered Dalí a great painter, is often reinforced by the fact that most of us do not understand the meaning of Dalí's work. Some find it profound and original, others firnd it too extravagant and ridiculous. The artist himself is often seen either as a genius, a master of Surrealism or, on the other hand, as an eccentric, ego-centered man on the verge of madness. In any case, Dalí does not leave anyone indifferent.

In order to fully understand the works of Dalí, it is necessary to understand the life and personality of the artist. It is only in the light of certain facts that we can truly judge Dalí's genius and deliver it from the many prejudices and clichés that have spoiled it.

Context and Facts

Salvador Dalí was born on May 11th, 1904, in Figueras, a small Catalan town in northeast Spain, in a bourgeois family. He grew up surrounded by the affection of women: his mother, his sister Ana Maria, his aunts and his grandmother all spoiled young Salvador who soon developed phobias (such as his phobia of crickets) and a certain feeling of culpability towards his brother, also named Salvador, who died at the age of two, nine months exactly before the birth of the Salvador we know.

As an adolescent and a young adult, Salvador accumulated more phobias and anxieties, particularly related to his sexuality. In the meantime, Salvador also revealed an incredible talent for drawing and painting. An anarchist, he read many books on psychology, philosophy and politics. Rejected by his schoolmates because of his intellectual, precocious interests and his dandy-like attitude, Salvador reacted by emphasizing his originality and became more and more extravagant.

Another event profoundly shocked young Salvador; his beloved mother died of cancer when he was only 17, a trauma from which he never recovered. Salvador was also disturbed by the remarriage of his father with the sister of his deceased mother. This combination of events profoundly marked his work as an artist.

Was Dalí a Surrealist?

First a Cubist, Dalí officially joined the Surrealist group in Paris, in 1929. If one ever wondered whether Salvador Dalí was truly a Surrealist or not, it is important to point out that Dalí fully represented Surrealism, and not only because of the peculiar elements that populate his compositions. In fact, each of those elements has a signification and appears in the composition for a particular reason. Those elements are symbols, they are the pieces of a puzzle - Salvador's psyche. Dalí was a Surrealist because he used his dreams as a source of inspiration, which was a famous Surrealist technique. As such, Dalí's Surrealism was even more profound than that of some other Surrealist painters (such as René Magritte, for example) who relied more on peculiar combinations of elements and visual effects. It is essential to take into account the psychological symbolism and influence of Freud, which made Dalí's work particularly original and more profound than it may appear at first sight.

His surrealist power is reinforced by the realistic, classic shape of the elements depicted while combined in unexpected ways. Dalí used his gift for drawing to offer a pictorial representation of his psyche: memories, phobias, dreams, obsessions and more or less conscious feelings were all combined in an almost fantastic, unique composition.

Many contemporary artists have tried to imitate Dalí's style, but very few have the artistic talent, vision and substance of the Spanish artist, and their work often results in a gloomy, fantasy style depiction of banal feelings, with very little to do with Surrealist technique and spirit.

Greed and Scandals

Salvador Dalí has often been accused of being more interested in money than art. However, his work has never been seen as commercial and was never meant to be commercial either.

Dalí's paintings have always been politically incorrect and often depicted taboo ideas in a very unique style. As such, and in spite of Dalí's talent, nothing could have predicted the success of the artist, who preferred to take his chances and impose his style rather than giving into a safer and less shocking academic style.

André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist group in Paris, gave Dalí the nickname Avida Dollars (greedy for dollars), the anagram for Salvador Dalí - maybe out of jealousy. Dalí was often accused of being opportunist and greedy, but he never went the easy way or sold out in order to impose his style.

Many other scandals accompanied Salvador's career until his death in 1989. Promotional hoaxes, extravagances, provocations, political scandals, etc. Dalí fostered the controversy during his entire life, thus cultivating the image of an absurd, delirious artist. Dalí did not only want his work to be artistic; he wanted his entire life to become an art and transformed his own person as a work of art. However, and while the personality of Dalí cannot be dissociated from his work, it is important to go beyond this image to reach the genius and truly understand the profundity and symbolism of his work.

In the end, was Salvador Dalí a genius? Certainly so, whether one appreciates his work or not. As we celebrate this year the memory of Dalí, it is necessary to leave aside the many clichés and prejudices that have tarnished his reputation and made us forget his real talent and the genius of his work. At a time when so many mediocre contemporary pseudo-artists are praised for being simply able to cover a canvas with pretty colours, denying Dalí the title of master is definitely one of the greatest absurdities.

Copyright © 2004 by Sabrina Laurent. May not be reproduced or used without permission of the author.
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