Mae West had a mouth on her. This fact was not lost on Salvador Dali when the Catalan artist devoted a room to the American queen of quips and double entendres in his Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, north-eastern Spain.
Keeping in mind that West believed it was “better to be looked over than overlooked”, I ascend a small flight of stairs to view the room through a reduction lens. Its contents instantly meld to become West’s face: a Botox-like frozen moment with a plastic fireplace nose and Saliva-Sofa overblown lips. Despite the soft lens, there’s no denying the 1930s screen siren has had some work, even receiving a new wig in 2000.
Having read in a guidebook that none of Dali’s best-known works are here, I haven’t pinned any hopes on his home town of Figueres, seeing the 140-kilometre airconditioned bus trip from Barcelona as respite from the hordes of tourists that choke Spain’s cultural heart in summer rather than a surrealist exercise in tripping out. However, the guidebook has led me astray, for the Dali Theatre-Museum – Dali’s greatest contrivance and his final resting place – is the largest surrealist work in the world, its scale matching the largesse of its creator’s ego.
Inaugurated in 1974, the museum occupies the site of Figueres’ former municipal theatre, which was razed in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Dali’s choice of site was purposeful. “The municipal theatre, or what was left of it, seemed to me to be very appropriate for three reasons,” he said. “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.”
In this town of Dalinian beginnings and endings, which is easily navigable on foot, it’s a 10-minute stroll from Dali’s museum to the house in which he was born in 1904 at No. 20 Carrer del Monturiol and his family’s subsequent home in nearby Placa de la Palmera. Neither of Dali’s childhood homes is an architectural stand-out in the Catalan modernista streetscape, unlike his museum with its deep-pink walls studded with gold bread rolls; its lofty, precariously placed giant eggs; and its crowning glory, a huge glass geodesic dome.
The whimsical entrance to the museum assures me that I am crossing over to another world – “the new, unsuspected and hallucinatory world of surrealism”, as Dali described it – which is reinforced by the museum’s advice to consider Dali’s idiosyncrasy by not following a preconceived route. Trying to ignore that flash of panic at the possibility of missing any part of the museum, I surrender to the ride.
There’s nothing fusty about this museum experience, I realise, as I jostle with other visitors to take in every detail of Dali’s large Rainy Cadillac (1974) sculpture in the light-filled internal courtyard that used to be the theatre stalls. Beyond the courtyard, sunlight streams through the glass dome to throw a natural spotlight on the stage area, illuminating the backdrop canvas that Dali created for the ballet Labyrinth (1941). Even in death, Dali is the ever-present director of these scenes, guiding visitors to appreciate the many ways he has played to the museum’s origins as a theatre.
On this self-guided tour I’m curious to know if there were grounds for Dali’s detractors to dismiss his works as the ravings of a deranged mind. If any work had certified the outlandish behaviour and outrageous beliefs of “The Divine Dali”, as the artist styled himself, it was the 1970 documentary Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dali narrated by Orson Welles. “Dali is not crazy!” the artist ranted in the third person at the camera, perhaps protesting too much, before staging several happenings at his home in nearby Port Lligat. These included Dali leading a procession of a plaster rhinoceros’ head and two children dressed as cherubs along a coastal goat track while tossing handfuls of feathers into the air; and Dali emerging with his wife, Gala, from a giant egg on the beach like the offspring of Leda and Zeus.
Back in the museum that Dali opened four years later, I start in the Treasure Room with The Spectre of Sex-Appeal (1932), which Dali completed during his surrealist period before he was expelled from the movement in 1939. This paradoxically miniature painting of an oversized, grotesque female apparition is rendered in fascinating detail with a sure hand. Dali was no Sunday painter. Despite being unable to apply himself to his art studies in his youth, he could apply his hallucinatory visions to canvas with measured, almost faultless classical precision. The subject of the painting hints at deeply disturbed thoughts but its rendering is far from frenzied.
It’s also in the Treasure Room that I glean further insights into Dali’s interior world. While Dali arguably had his demons, there are few signs of them here in his portraits of his Russian wife and muse, Gala, with whom he instantly fell in love in 1929 while she was married to French poet Paul Eluard. Gala’s image, for the most part, is immune to the grotesquerie and dismemberment that afflict so many of Dali’s other subjects, his brush instead meditating on her unaffected beauty in the serenely poised Galarina (1945) or elevating her to the supreme object of desire in Atomic Leda (1949).
A notable exception, also in the museum’s collection, is Portrait of Gala with Two Lamb Chops Balanced on Her Shoulder (1933), an absurd expression of Dali’s “subconscious desire to devour her”, his flesh-and-blood muse. Dali, quite simply, adored Gala. In 1969 he installed her in her own medieval castle in nearby Pubol and visited her only by written invitation.
The Fishmongers Room is where Dali’s portrait of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who he met on a trip to Paris in 1926, shares the space with Dali’s Soft Self-Portrait with Grilled Bacon (1941). I’m amused and frustrated in equal measures, for the transparently unflattering Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1947) seems intent on resisting interpretation, the full title of the painting enigmatically nodding to the “genius” of Dali’s fellow countryman. Before I admit defeat, I remember that Dali, a master of self-mystique, claimed he could never understand his own works either because “Dali only creates enigmas!” (Sorry, Picasso, it’s not really about you.)
Like that other inimitable Catalan artisan, Antoni Gaudi, whose crypt is in La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Dali is buried within his greatest work. I enter the museum’s dimly lit Crypt Room without having fully taken on board the first lesson about Dali: expect the unexpected. The air is sombre with orthodox reverence that almost seems to flout the memory of this flamboyant personality who made a career of thumbing his nose at convention and inflaming controversy. Dali’s tombstone, too, is a surprisingly simple, unadorned slab inscribed with stoic roman capitals, a far cry from the flourish of Dali’s signature.
On leaving the museum, I wander around the building’s perimeter and happen to look up at just the right moment: the bell tower of Dali’s baptismal church, Sant Pere, is seemingly sprouting up from behind the museum’s egg-crowned tower, Torre Galatea, where Dali lived for five years before he died in 1989. No other scene could so poetically encapsulate the life of this theatrical illusionist. It’s in this unexpected moment that I appreciate what writer Josep Playa Maset referred to as Dali’s “first and last acts of a perfectly planned scenario”. Or perhaps, to borrow a line from Woody Allen’s portrait of Dali in Midnight in Paris, I see a rhinoceros!
Catalunya Bus Turistic operates return daytrips from Barcelona to Figueres (via Girona).