Following in the footsteps of Dalí and the Dictator
How Salvador Dalí went from subversive surrealist to apologist for Spain’s dictatorship. By Adrian Pole
He doesn’t look like the kind of man you would expect to find in the company of a military dictator. But there he stands, his long black hair slicked back and the tips of his moustache waxed upwards like the antenna of an old television set. When they exhumed him 28 years after his death, it was discovered that the famous moustache still resembled the hands of a clock striking ten to ten. It belonged, of course, to Salvador Dalí.
Surreal though it may seem, the photograph in question shows the eccentric painter with Francisco Franco, the man who ruled Spain with an iron fist for four almost decades. They’re unveiling a portrait of the dictator’s granddaughter, a present for her husband the Duke of Anjou and Cádiz. Dalí looks proud to be in such esteemed company. Franco, for his part, must have been delighted with the finished product, demanding it be temporarily hung alongside the masterpieces of Velázquez and Murrillo in Madrid’s Prado gallery.
Today it remains in the possession of its sitter, who has vowed never to part with it. Asked about the time she passed in Dalí’s studio, one thing in particular stuck out: ‘He talked a lot about arses…about how many folds they have and how difficult they are to paint’. A veritable obsession with backsides is obvious to anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing a Dalí up close – along with disembodied breasts, desecrated hosts, rotting animals, and the odd cannibalistic carcass for good measure. How was it, exactly, that this eccentric and unpredictable artist come to associate himself with such a dour and deeply conservative figure as Franco?
Salvador Dalí was born in 1904 in the provincial capital of Figueres, Catalonia. A 1926 painting of his sister sewing on a terrace shows the view of the town as seen from the second family home, with the Pyrenees rising up not far in the distance. Dalí’s father was an atheist notary with liberal leanings – no one could have guessed that his son would be made a marquis by the king. In the 1960s the famous painter began planning a wildly-ambitious museum in his home-town, and it’s there that he’s buried – in a crypt over which hundreds of visitors pass each day.
The building, which is easily recognised thanks to the gigantic eggs crowning its various towers, was once the burnt-out shell of a theatre damaged during the Civil War. Despite the Dalínian eccentricity which permeates its every corner, Francisco Franco personally encouraged the artist to see the project through, hoping it would turn Figueres into a Mecca of modern art. It’s now a major tourist destination. Dalí, never one for understatement, even painted himself showering the town with gold on one of the museum’s ceilings. Catalan politicians felt understandably snubbed, therefore, when the regional government was excluded from the painter’s will.
But it was from coastal Cadaqués, rather than inland Figueres, that Dalí derived his greatest inspiration. Cadaqués is a pretty fishing village located in the very north-east of Spain, at the upper end of the Costa Brava – the rugged and beautiful coast which stretches its way from Girona all the way to France. In the early 1950s British travel writer Norman Lewis spent several summers in a village somewhere on the coast. What he encountered was a communal way of life still lived in great isolation, the months of the year demarcated by petty rivalries with the neighbouring village and the waxing and waning (though mostly waning) fortunes of the local fisherman. Lewis arrived just in time to witness the sudden arrival of package-tourism to the area.
These days, a noisy highway threads its way along the coast, hurtling past old fishing villages and new tourist developments alike, before eventually emerging on the other side of the Pyrenees. Little Cadaqués, once a god-given to gift to Spanish smugglers, brims with tourists from around the world, many of them looking for the Dalí connection, though the area has been thankfully spared from the high-rise development found further down the coast. Those that nonetheless get fed up with the traffic in and out of Cadaqués during the summer months can always make their way to Xiamen Bay, where a replica of town was built not too long ago. If that doesn’t sound too Catalan to you, it isn’t – it’s in China.
The Dalí family in 1910: from the upper left, aunt Maria Teresa, mother, father, Salvador Dalí, aunt Caterina (later became second wife of father), sister Anna Maria and grandmother Anna
The Dalí family spent their holidays in the picturesque town, beside the sea and beneath the mountains, when the painter was a young boy. The rocky desolation of nearby Cap de Creus, Spain’s easternmost point, provided him with a ready-made backdrop for some of his greatest paintings. The area is today a national park. The shimmering, shadowy expanse of twisted, craggy rock jutting into the sea must have resonated with the young Dalí’s love of all things illusory. After almost a decade of spiralling fame in the United States, he and his wife Gala settled into a house at nearby Port Lligat, adorned with more giant eggs and, this time, a phallic-shaped swimming pool. His father had tried to stop him, indignant that his son had produced a painting entitled Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of my Mother, but it was no use. Nothing could keep Dalí away from where he truly belonged.
Little wonder Dalí’s father reacted the way he did. Long before his dalliance with dictatorship, Salvador Dalí had been at the forefront of those doing their utmost to undermine society’s most treasured values. The twentieth century was the century of manifestos, and Dalí signed his fair share of declarations demanding the old order make way for the new. He was anti-clerical, anti-monarchical, anti-anything that bourgeois society held dear to its heart. Rumour has it that he even bounded around the idea of blowing up the king when he visited Madrid in the painter’s student days. By the late 1920s, he had found a movement which would provide exactly the artistic framework and direction he needed: Surrealism.
Inspired by Freud’s ‘revelations’ into the human psyche, the French writer and communist Andre Breton (below) called on artists everywhere to tap into the unconscious. With the release of the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, the war on rationality was officially underway. Along with the great film-maker Luis Buñuel, Dalí masterminded one of its chief offensives by scripting two of the first attempts at surrealist cinema: Un Chien Andalou in 1929, and l’Age d’Or a year later.
The British Film Institute describes the latter as a ‘still profoundly disturbing Surrealist assault on every social and moral convention imaginable’. Quite a claim to make in an age when even Quentin Tarantino struggles to keep shocking his audiences. Scenes of putrefying donkeys, public copulation, and an orgiastic Jesus Christ were more than enough to compel local fascists to storm the first screenings. The surrealist painter Joan Miró had previously declared his intention to ‘assassinate painting’: Dalí had outdone his fellow Catalan in assassinating good taste itself. The political right was outraged. Breton was delighted.
It was not long, however, before the high judge of surrealism began to have serious concerns as to where Dalí’s wanderings through the unconscious were leading him. The artist seemed to be developing an unhealthy obsession with Germany’s new Chancellor – a charismatic Austrian by the name of Adolf Hitler. Breton demanded Dalí remove a swastika he had painted in one of his canvases. He obliged, but denied that he was in any way Hitlerian. Rather than admiring Hitler, Dalí argued, he was dismayed by the lack of an intellectual response to the phenomenon of Nazism from communists throughout Europe. Summoned before Breton in 1934 at Surrealism’s answer to a show trial, Dalí only narrowly escaped expulsion. This would not be the last time Dalí’s infatuation with charismatic leaders would draw him into conflict with his peers. After all, Europe’s youngest General since Napoleon would soon be propelled to power by the Spanish Civil War.
In July 1936 a group of military rebels launched a coup against the so-called ‘Popular Front’ government of left-wing and liberal parties which had been recently elected to power in Spain. The failed uprising descended into a three year bloodbath costing Spain almost half a million lives before Franco’s rebellious ‘Nationalists’ declared victory in 1939. The writer José Luis Castillo-Puche had brothers fighting on both sides. He evoked the fratricidal horror of the conflict when he described it as ‘a direct confrontation between two radically different, fanatical, totally irreconcilable antagonists who had sworn to destroy each other’. Dalí himself would channel that destructive horror in his terrifying ‘Premonition of Civil War’, a masterpiece in morbidity even by his standards.
The Spanish War was on the mind of artists and intellectuals all across Europe. Dalí’s great rival Pablo Picasso was in Paris at the time, where his biographer tells us there ‘was a remarkable unity among intellectuals in support of Republican Spain’. When he heard about the bombing of a Basque market town by German planes sent for Franco, Picasso was roused ‘from melancholy to anger’ and set about painting Guernica for an upcoming exhibition in Paris. Joan Miró too was moved to action, exhibiting alongside Picasso in Paris and even painting an iconic poster for the Republic. ‘Freedom has meaning for me and I will defend it at any cost’, he declared.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Dalí, on the other hand, remained suspiciously silent. His reluctance to pinpoint blame for the war became glaringly obvious in his 1941 autobiography, which George Orwell, who had fought as a volunteer in the war, noted to his disgust ‘astutely avoided taking sides’. Dalí justified his policy of silence in pompous philosophical terms. Picasso was wrong, he said, to regard civil wars as political: they were, simply, ‘a phenomenon of natural history’.
Dalí’s ambivalence seems even stranger in light of Federico García Lorca’s death at the hands of Nationalists in Granada. Few people in his life would figure so prominently nor make their mark as deeply as Lorca. Dalí admitted that when he first encountered the prodigious young poet in 1922, his personality had ‘made an immense impression’ on him. Allusions to Lorca would appear in Dalí’s work long after the poet’s death. Their friendship had been reinforced by a mutual interest in left-wing politics - a passion which Lorca maintained until the end, signing several manifestos and touring the country to bring good-quality theatre to the distant provinces of Spain. As well as being a homosexual in a profoundly conservative society, this overtly political activity would mark the poet out when the military rebelled in 1936.
Dalí with Federico García Lorca, Turó Park de la Guineueta, Barcelona, 1925
In his ground-breaking reconstruction of the poet’s death, Ian Gibson described Lorca as ‘the supreme symbol of the suffering, havoc and death wrought on the people of Spain by the Nationalist allies of Hitler and Mussolini’. Dalí took a rather more neutral view, writing that ‘Lorca did not die as a symbol of one or another political ideology’. Instead, Dalí tells us, ‘he died as a propitiatory victim of that total and integral phenomenon that was the revolutionary confusion in which the civil war unfolded’.
Lorca, in other words, was collateral damage. It is entirely possible that Dalí was unaware of how deeply Lorca was associated with the Republic at the time he was murdered. Nonetheless, his comments show a striking reluctance to apportion meaningful blame for any of the bloodshed unleashed in 1936. Tragically, the argument that Lorca’s death was an unavoidable accident at the hands of uncontrolled elements would be maintained throughout the dictatorship by some of its more embarrassed apologists.
The Civil War had impacted Dalí’s family as well as friends. It seems his sister had been imprisoned and tortured by the Republicans. Their father, who had been sympathetic to anarchist ideas in the past, was now referring to Franco as ‘the glorious Caudillo’. Dalí was convinced that many other people who had been previously sympathetic to the Republic were turning towards the Nationalists. As he describes former anti-clericals and federalists ‘writing to me enthusiastically of the new regime’, one gets the feelings that he was preparing himself for his own change of heart. In light of his family’s horrific experiences at the hands of the Republicans and his father’s resolute shift of attitude, coming out in favour of Franco could not have seemed as implausible as it might once have.
By Spring 1939 the war was over, but it would be nearly a decade before Dalí set foot on home soil once again. When he eventually arrived back from America to his beloved Port Lligat in 1948, the painter wasted no time in embarking on one of the most notorious charm-offensives in Spanish history. Franco had conquered Spain: now Dalí set his eyes on conquering Franco. But what kind of country had he returned to?
Gerald Brenan was an English writer who moved to Spain in the 1930s and left at the outbreak of war. He returned one year after Dalí in order to travel through the country and see how it had changed. ‘The picture that emerges is a depressing one’, he wrote. ‘Spaniards of all classes and all political ideologies are discouraged and exasperated’. Corruption, guilt, starvation, executions – this was a country still reeling from war.
Franco arriving in San Sebastian in 1939. Image: Pascual Marín CC BY-SA 3.0
It was a world away from the cosmopolitan Paris of the 1920s and the roaring New York of the 1930s in which the aspiring artist transformed himself into the world’s most famous Surrealist. Having overthrown the Second Republic, the Francoist state had wasted no time in repealing its progressive legislation. The rights of women and workers were out: duty to the family and the fatherland in. In 1959 Spanish bishops decreed against young couples walking arm-in-arm, and the police were permitted to caution against kissing in public well into the 1970s.
The church enjoyed extraordinary privileges. Ecclesiastical representatives on the film censorship board had the unique prerogative of vetoing any film they deemed subversive. It’s little wonder that Dalí and Buñuel’s l’Age d’Or - with its outrages shots of a woman fellating the toe of a statue and a man throwing a Bishop out of an upper storey window - did not receive its commercial premiere in Spain until 1978. Dalí’s autobiography, ‘a striptease act performed in pink limelight’ as Orwell had put it, was banned outright.
Dalí could hardly claim to be a model citizen of this reactionary new order. Never prudish, his life’s work had been inspired by themes of sexual shame: impotency, masturbation, and a possible fear of homosexuality. With the coming of wealth and fame the legendary voyeur had found new outlets for his erotic urges, developing a habit of surrounding himself with an entourage of young, pretty sycophants. How exactly would the shameless Salvador Dalí find his feet in the puritanical environment of Franco’s Spain, where even the works of his idol Freud had been banned?
Luckily, the painter had ample experience in the art of re-invention, having already declared his rebirth as a classicist in the renaissance tradition. Back in Spain, he stressed his Catholic credentials and repudiated his past transgressions. If he had behaved so badly before, he said, it was only because he was looking for enlightenment the wrong way. Now all he was interested in was the ‘spiritual means to ecstasy’, the straight-and-narrow. He blamed Buñuel for the anti-clerical elements of their collaborations. ‘Reason forces me to be Catholic’ he reassured a journalist from Figueres. ‘Spain will be an example for the world and a quarry for Catholicism’. Dalí’s father was thrilled that the journalist had chosen to avoid the frivolous anecdotes of his son’s life in order to stress his fidelity to Spain’s renewed mission to save the world from its own sins.
S. Dali, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, 1958-9.
For many Spaniards the Franco regime froze reactionary attitudes for four decades. For Dalí, it heralded new horizons. He branded himself a ‘nuclear mystic’ and began combining atomic and religious themes in his paintings. He must have been greatly emboldened by a visit to the Pope to show off his latest work in 1949. His wife Gala suddenly found herself reincarnated as an unlikely Madonna in many of his enormous canvasses. Imperialism also became an important new theme. In The Discovery of America, Dalí depicted Christopher Columbus stepping ashore the New World, three caravels behind him, and the omnipresent Gala looking on in her recurring role as the Virgin Mary.
The Hispano-American Biennial in Art was declared open on Columbus Day 1951. Franco presided over the opening of the exhibition himself, as befitted the most significant event in Spanish art to take place under his dictatorship so far. Dalí must have seen an unparalleled opportunity for self-promotion when he opened his invitation to the event. When his work opened to the public at the end of the Biennial in February 1952, the crowds packed in to see his latest creations. Of particular interest was St John of the Cross (below), in which the nuclear-mystic had painted his medieval predecessor hung over the jagged cliffs of the Costa Brava.
The press hailed Dalí as a patriot of the first order. He was rapidly achieving stardom in Spain. Meanwhile, his statements about Franco were reaching new levels of sycophancy. In a lecture before the elite of Madrid society humbly entitled ‘Picasso and I’, Dalí pondered over the nature of genius. He proposed that Spain’s greatest minds were engaged in a constant struggle against the ambivalence and averageness of their countrymen. Francisco Franco, however, had risen to the challenge. He alone had triumphed in ‘imposing clarity, truth and order in the country’ at a time of complete anarchy, disorder and confusion.
Franco was reportedly delighted by these remarks. Ultimately, however, they tell us more about Dalí’s emotional mind-set than they do about his politics. The sincerity of his religious conversion and the depth of his political conviction may be impossible to ascertain, but Franco clearly exercised an extraordinary magnetism on his imagination. His whole life Dalí had also striven to conquer, to rise through the confusion. He was driven, like Franco, by unbending ambition and absolute self-assurance. After all, his first name was Spanish for ‘saviour’. ‘Salvador Dalí, as his own name indicates, is destined to save modern painting from sloth and chaos’.
The two self-ordained saviours would go on to meet each other on numerous occasions. Dalí’s conclusion was that Franco – the man who had 20,000 Republicans executed after his wartime victory – was ‘a saint’. Such flattery would not be in vain. In 1964, he was awarded the Grand Cross of Isabella the Catholic, an extraordinary honour. But as the Spanish elite showered its favourite artist with praise, many critics began to question whether he would ever produce anything to rival his early masterpieces. Dalí was developing a reputation as a showman, one of whose staple routines was singing the praises of Francisco Franco.
The flattery would culminate in a sad and sorry episode which dashed whatever credibility Dalí held onto by 1975. Contrary to pleas for clemency from Pope Paul VI, an ailing General Franco called for the execution of five suspected terrorists. They would be his last victims. As European governments recalled their ambassadors and protestors attacked Spanish embassies across the continent, Dalí judged the moment ripe for provocation. As far as he could tell, ‘the hostility of the other countries has made him [Franco] thirty years younger in a second. He’s a wonderful person’. The terrorists should be ‘liquidated like rats’, and if he had it his way he would have executed three times as many. He then expanded on his view of politics. ‘Personally I’m against freedom…freedom is shit.’ Perhaps Dalí’s professed love of authoritarianism stemmed from a fear of what might happen to him if war broke out again and the many people he had upset got their hands on him. He showed every sign of being a man terrified of what the future of Spain held. For one thing, he had never attended church with such regularity.
Even the prayers of the Divine Dalí couldn’t keep Franco around forever. The Generalissimo died in bed on the 20th November 1975. His successor, King Juan Carlos, played an enormous role in returning democracy to Spain. Dalí’s worst nightmare had come true, but he had little to fear after all. The first democratically elected government even held an exhibition in his honour. King Juan Carlos offered to lend Dalí his private jet so that he could attend the opening, but in the end he was too ill to do so. In 1989 the atheist son of a republican notary died the 1st Marquis of Dalí de Púbol, a man proud of King and Country.
In 2016, at the request of Madrid’s progressive mayor, a group of historians drew up a list of 256 public spaces in the Spanish capital. The council wanted to know which parts of the city were named after individuals associated with the dictatorship so that they might one day be changed. Listed as a candidate was the Plaza Salvador Dalí. Clearly, Dalí’s cosy relationship with the dictatorship has not been forgotten.
The occasional newspaper article about ‘Dalí the Fascist’ or ‘Dalí the Spoiled Genius of Franco’ ensures that he may never be entirely forgiven, either. Yet tentative steps have been taken in Barcelona where, in 2014, a square was renamed in his honour. As for twenty-first century Francoists, there is simply nothing to forgive. The National Foundation for Francisco Franco describes Dalí as the ‘The Spanish Leonardo Da Vinci’ and accuses the democratic powers-that-be of hiding his pro-Franco, pro-Spain, and pro-fascist views.
Dalí wasn’t quite the selfless Francoist the extreme right would have you believe. The relationship between Dalí and the Dictator was, ultimately, one of mutual convenience. Having the world’s most famous surrealist as an informal ambassador for the regime was no small asset: his eccentricities could be forgiven. As Franco’s granddaughter realised for herself - perhaps whilst listening to him pontificate about the complexities of painting arses - Dalí ‘lived in his world – a culturally exceptional world’.
Fascist or not, his pathetic flattery of a cruel dictatorship for no better motive than personal gain, will be the epitaph that Salvador Dalí truly deserves.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Adrian is currently completing his PhD at Edinburgh University, specialising in the Spanish Civil War. In the Winter 2018 issue, Adrian wrote a fascinating article about the Civil War and how it resonates today in Spain.
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