Salvador Dalí: just the mention of his name (or the sight of his curled, waxed moustache) is enough to set the imagination off into surreal worlds of wilting clocks, tigers leaping from the mouths of fish and stilt-legged elephants stalking around hallucinogenic deserts.
Born in 1904 in the town Figueres, north of Barcelona, Dalí’s talent for painting was encouraged by his mother at an early age. He attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid in 1922, but his outspoken nature, though entertaining for fellow students, got him suspended a year later for criticising his teachers.
Undeterred, in the late 1920s he made many trips to Paris where he met Spanish cubist painter Pablo Picasso, along with Joan Miró and René Magritte, who introduced him to surrealism. Despite a mutual admiration, political differences and one too many fiery conversations led to Dalí’s expulsion from the group for failing to denounce fascism and Franco. It seemed to matter little to Dalí, whose ego was cushioned by a galactic sense of self-importance: ‘Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy – the joy of being Salvador Dalí – and I ask myself in rapture: what wonderful things is this Salvador Dalí going to accomplish today?’
His flamboyant exhibitionism only grew after meeting his wife and muse, Elena Diakonova, known as Gala, in 1929. Travelling with the Dalís was a glamorous affair: so we’d accompany them as they socialised with famous friends like Coco Chanel, and tag along on their frequent trips to her Cote d’Azur mansion. His idiosyncrasies – such as climbing on top of a grand mantelpiece to read – were a delight to the designer, and their friendship sparked a few rumours of romantic liaisons.
Dalí’s travels also took him to the US, firstly in 1934, for an exhibition of his work in New York. He departed from Le Havre on the SS Champlain but was so nervous of the voyage he insisted on wearing a life jacket throughout and attached all of his paintings to himself with string.
The city suited his unique brand of showmanship and desire for celebrity. He and Gala spent winters at the St Regis, where he kept a suite and studio until the mid-70s. He would take his pet ocelot down for cocktails at the King Cole Bar, blast out opera and hold court in his suite, where he once tied Andy Warhol to a spinning wheel and threw paint at him. During the Second World War, the Dalís spent time in Monterey, California, at the Hotel Del Monte and then The Lodge at Pebble Beach, throwing extravagant dinner parties. Guests were proffered a jewel-studded cigarette case, filled with fake moustaches, and offered his favourite cocktail, the Casanova, a mix of old brandy, bitters, ginger and cayenne pepper.
He was obsessed with the subconscious and dreams. The works of the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud greatly impacted Dalí’s canvas – the melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory question the rigidity of time, while Metamorphosis of Narcissus explores hallucination and delusion. Dalí finally succeeded in meeting Freud at his home in London’s Primrose Hill in 1938.
Left: KAMMERMAN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images; Right: REPORTERS ASSOCIES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
But it wasn’t always fun and games. He was forced into retirement in 1980 with a motor disorder that caused permanent trembling in his hands. A fire in his bedroom in 1984 saw him return to Figueres, where friends and fellow artists ensured he was cared for. Dalí died of heart failure in 1989, aged 84, with his favourite record, Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, playing in the background.