“I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.” On Salvador Dalí’s birthday, May 11, we remember the surrealist painter’s equally surreal life.
In 1924 French poet André Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto, in which he explained an emergent post–World War I movement in art and poetry called surrealism. The goal of surrealist art was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality,” which was often achieved by contrasting the mundane and the fantastic.
French poets may have created surrealism, but Spanish artist Salvador Dalí perfected it. Born May 11, 1904, Dalí was an intelligent but easily distracted child. He later said, “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” Dalí was a natural with a paintbrush whose talents were evident early on.
At the age of 13, he won a prize for his artwork, and his parents set him up with his own studio. When he was 17, Dalí went to Madrid to study at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Art, where he quickly grew bored of the professors, preferring instead to wander around the Prado, Madrid’s art museum, studying the paintings of the masters firsthand.
Shortly before graduating from the San Fernando Academy, Dalí was expelled for refusing to finish his final examinations. His reason? He knew more than his examiner did. And he had every right to be cocky. Dalí was only 22 years old, but his work had already attracted the attention of Catalan artist Joan Miró as well as that of Dalí’s idol, Pablo Picasso.
Responding to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and World War I, and influenced by radical intellectuals like Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, Dalí developed a unique style of art, which he called “hand-painted dream photographs.” His work eventually grew so photorealistic that one could scarcely perceive a single brushstroke in his completed paintings.
On the cusp of World War II, Dalí and his wife escaped to the United States, where he became a massive celebrity. He continued pushing the envelope and influencing the next generation of surrealist and psychedelic artists until his death in 1989 — and beyond.
Salvador Dalí’s life was often as surreal as his art. Here are six examples.
1. Dalí believed he was the reincarnation of his dead brother.
Before Dalí was born, his 22-month-old brother, also named Salvador Dalí, died of a stomach infection. Given his resemblance to the deceased child and the fact that he was born nine months after the first Salvador Dalí died, Dalí’s parents believed him to be the reincarnation of his dead brother. Dalí came to believe this himself, and images of his late brother haunt several of Dalí’s paintings.
2. Dalí once conned Yoko Ono out of $10,000.
Dalí’s facial hair was almost as iconic as his artwork. Influenced by 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, Dalí grew a gravity-defying mustache, which became his trademark.
According to The Telegraph, Yoko Ono bought a single strand of hair from Dalí’s famous mustache for $10,000 — only Dalí didn’t actually send her the hair. His former lover Amanda Lear explains: “Dalí thought that Yoko Ono was a witch and might use it in a spell. He didn’t want to send her a personal item, much less one of his hairs. So he sent me to the garden to find a dry blade of grass, and sent it off in a nice presentation box.”
3. Despite hallucinatory artwork, Dalí was not on drugs.
André Breton once said, “The art of Dalí is the most hallucinatory known.” A brief glance at many Dalí paintings reveals how psychedelic his work is, but Dalí famously said, “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.” If we take Dalí at his word, then we are left to wonder how he tapped into such trippy visuals without the aid of psychoactive substances.
Legend has it, one method Dalí used for accessing the hallucinatory part of his brain involved sitting in a chair holding a spoon over a tin plate. He would then allow himself to drift off, which would cause the spoon to strike the plate, waking him up so he could jot down the surreal images from his dreams. Another method had him standing on his head until he almost passed out.
4. Dalí worked in advertising.
Though Dalí was a fine artist, he also dabbled in advertising. In 1969 he was approached by the founder of Chupa Chups lollipops to create a new logo, a variation of which is still used by the company today. The bright red-and-yellow daisy design and Dalí’s suggestion to position the logo on the top of each lollipop demonstrated his savviness as an advertiser.
Dalí also worked with department stores in New York in the 1930s to create window displays, and he appeared in a 1968 television commercial in which his eyes cross and his mustache twirls in apparent ecstasy after he tastes a Lanvin chocolate. In addition, he was in commercials for Alka Seltzer and Veterano Brandy, requesting a minimum payment of $10,000 for each appearance.
5. Dalí created a hologram of Alice Cooper.
At a press conference in Manhattan in 1973, Dalí proclaimed himself and Alice Cooper “the greatest living artists.” He went on to add that Alice Cooper is “the best exponent of total confusion I know.” He then posed Alice Cooper on a rotating turntable wearing $4 million worth of diamonds, where Cooper was photographed in 360 degrees to create a hologram.
And if that wasn’t surreal enough, Cooper also held a bizarre version of the Venus de Milo, and a red velvet cushion was positioned behind his head, which contained what Dalí called “the Alice brain,” an ant-covered plaster brain topped with a chocolate éclair.
6. Dalí worked on a movie with Walt Disney.
Throughout his career, Dalí experimented with many different art forms, including film, theater, literature, fashion, photography and architecture. In 1945 he designed the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. That same year, Dalí worked with studio artist John Hench to storyboard an animated short for Walt Disney, a project that was later put on indefinite hiatus during World War II and beyond.
In 1999 Walt Disney’s nephew Roy E. Disney discovered the dormant project while working on Fantasia 2000, at which point he hired a small Parisian production department to complete it. The result is a breathtaking short film almost 60 years in the making and a testament to Salvador Dalí’s unique vision. Seeing his surreal art come to life is a wonder to behold.
In the last decade of Dalí’s life, The Dalí Museum, often shortened to simply “The Dalí,” opened in St. Petersburg, Florida. Today, the museum features more than 2,000 works, including drawings, oil paintings, watercolors, photographs and sculptures. It is the largest collection of Dalí’s work outside of Spain and one of the world’s most acclaimed collections of a single modern artist. Consider paying them a visit! There’s no substitute for seeing Dalí’s art in person.
Salvador Dalí once said, “A true artist is not one who is inspired but one who inspires others.” By that logic, Dalí is one of the truest artists of all time. He didn’t just create surreal drawings, paintings, films and sculptures — he lived a surreal life. Salvador Dalí was, in many ways, the finest piece of startling art that Salvador Dalí ever produced. ¡Feliz cumpleaños, Dalí!