This is Part Five of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:
- Introduction & Background
- The City of Barcelona
- Museums of Barcelona
- Architecture of Barcelona
- The Museum of Dalí
One of the most visited museums in all of Spain is not in any major city. Indeed, it is not even close to one. This is the Teatre-Museu Dalí (the Dalí Theater and Museum), which can be found in Figueres, a small town—with about 45,000 inhabitants—located in the north of Catalonia, just 24 km (15 miles) from the French border.
The train ride from Barcelona to Figueres lasts about 2 hours. The route passes through another of the jewels of Catalonia: Girona, capital of its eponymous province. Though I only glimpsed the city through the window, its form has stayed with me. The cathedral stands proudly over the city, which is splayed out on the hilly ground surrounding the River Oñar. (Though it doesn’t look especially big, this cathedral apparently has the widest gothic nave in the world.) The city is visibly well-preserved, retaining the chaotic cobblestone of its medieval period. One of the city’s most iconic sights—reproduced in calendars and posters—are the colorful “hanging houses” that surround the River Oñar, reflecting brilliantly in the calmly flowing waters. A visit to this precious city is high on my list for my next trip to Catalonia.
When I wasn’t gazing out the window of the train, I was busy reading the poetry of Federico García Lorca. This is one of Spain’s greatest poets, who was also a great friend of Dalí, whom he met while the two were living in the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid. Indeed it is rumored that the two had a love affair. In any case, though they worked in different mediums, Lorca and Dalí undoubtedly influenced one another, pushing each other into surrealism. Lorca’s poetry is the closest verbal approximationto a Dalí painting, which is what made it so good to read on the way to Figueres. Sadly, their friendship was cut short: Lorca was killed at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War—executed by some fascist soldiers. Dalí was deeply saddened by this; but it did not prevent him, later in life, from cozying up with Franco.
Finally the train arrived. Figueres does not present such an immediately striking aspect as Girona. Indeed, if not for the Dalí Museum probably few people would visit this sleepy town. Dalí chose it for his museum because it was here that the painter was born. Nevertheless I was soon charmed by the city. As I walked from the train station towards the museum I passed a park where some sort of school festival was taking place. Dozens of children in matching costumes—as flowers, as cars, as construction workers—waited on the sidelines as groups took turns dancing in the center. The group I saw had a costume of a giant van, worn by two teachers, which they raised into the air. It all seemed appropriately absurd for Dalí’s hometown.
The line for the museum stretched far into the neighboring plaza. Luckily it was a sunny day. I took the time to examine the attractive Church of St. Peter, a fine gothic structure that sits next to the museum. The building of the Dalí Museum itself is visually absorbing. In Dalí’s childhood the building was a theater, where the young Dalí himself once had an exhibition. But this building was mostly burned down during the Spanish Civil War. Its remains were renovated to construct this museum under Dalí’s own supervision and guidance. He furnished the museum with his own personal collection, which is why it has the largest number of original Dalí works of any museum in the world. He also chose to be buried here, under the stage of the original theater. (His body was recently exhumed to check if he was really the father of tarot-card reader Pilar Abel, as she has been claiming for years. Her fortune-telling failed her, it seems, for DNA evidence revealed that he was not the father.)
The rebuilt theater now bears the clear mark of Dalí’s taste. Its red exterior is covered in rows of fleshy knobs. The roof is topped with alternating eggs and golden statues that look like Oscar awards, except that they have their arms upraised. One side of the building is shaped to look like a castle’s turret, while on the other side is a giant glass dome that crowns the old stage. One enters through the original theater façade—topped with the same golden figures; and below them statues of knights with baguettes resting horizontally on their helmets. A scuba diver stands guard above the entrance. Outside in the plaza is a surrealist sculpture: a towering, playing-card figure who grows out of a tree trump, and whose robe contains several other sculptural busts and friezes. The visitor is thus well-prepared for what waits inside.
Soon after entering, one comes to the courtyard. In the center stands the statue of a busty and curvaceous woman, her pose looking like some ancient fertility goddess. She is standing on an old cadillac, inside of which, at the driver’s seat, a dummy sits surrounded by artificial plants. High up above all this, suspended on a pole, is a small sailboat. Meanwhile, more golden statuettes raise their arms in nooks in the courtyard’s surrounding wall.
From there one can walk under the glass dome, onto the old stage. On one wall is a giant mural of a faceless torso standing in front of a landscape, his head cracking like an egg, a tree growing on his chest. On another wall a man with a cubic skull is climbing, suspended above one of Dalí’s famous paintings, concisely named Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20m is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln. You might be surprised to learn that this image, when seen from afar, looks like Abraham Lincoln; but from up close one sees a woman looking out at the sea. Dalí achieves this effect by using large squares of color that, from afar, function like pixels. This painting is just one of the many examples of Dalí’s fondness for visual puns and for optical illusions, of which the museum is full.
Paintings and sculptures and other installations are found in the exhibit floors surrounding the courtyard and theater. These are impressive more for their cumulative effect than for their individual merit. The museum has none of Dalí’s masterpieces. But seeing so many works by Dalí—silly surrealist assemblages, Bosch-like doodles, and even a series of portraits of his mustache—gives the visitor a sense of the great artist’s witty and whimsical humor. One friend describes it as like “walking through Dalí’s head,” and this does capture the powerful impression of personality that pervades the space. This personality is irreverent, restless, even impatient, perhaps somewhat immature, certainly self-absorbed, but undeniably brilliant and sharp.
Some works do stand out for comment. One of my favorites is his Soft Self-Portrait with Grilled Bacon, an image of a melting mustachioed face, barely held up by several wooden crutches, sitting on a platform next to a strip of bacon. Another is The Specter of Sex-Appeal, a painting that is dominated by the huge form of a grotesque woman—her legs ham bones, her body pillows and blankets and bags, her head dissolving into the rock behind her. This specter, too, is held up with wooden crutches—one of Dalí’s motifs—and is gazed upon wonderingly by a young boy in a sailor’s outfit. Galatea of the Spheres belongs to Dalí’s scientific period, when he became deeply interest in physics and mathematics; thus the image of Galatea (a mythical sea nymph who, like so many women in Dalí’s works, is really his wife Gala) is broken into manifold colored spheres that float in space. Leda Atomica belongs to this same phase, and also takes a mythological subject (Leda, a woman raped by Zeus in the form of a swan) and transforms it into an allegory of atomic physics, with everything floating mysteriously in space without contact.
Apart from paintings there are many memorable exhibition spaces. The most famous of these is a room full of furniture—a couch, a fireplace and mantel, two pictures hung on the wall—that looks like the face of iconic blond Mae West when seen from a certain angle. There was a long line to walk up the raised platform, and I didn’t want to wait. Instead I moved on to see some of Dalí’s visual experiments, such as his stereoscopic art. These consisted of two similar images, often differing in a small detail like color, separated in a glass enclosure, so that the viewer must look at each image with one eye. The idea, I think, is that the brain would blend the images from each eye together to form a mental composite; but most often I just found these confusing. One room was furnished like an elaborate bedroom. A tapestry on the wall bore the image of Dalí’s most famous painting, the Persistence of Memory. Next to the bed was the skeleton of a chimpanzee, painted gold.
When I finished explored the main building of the Dalí Museum there was still more to see. In a separate location, though quite nearby, is the collection of jewelry that Dalí designed. He was something of a Renaissance man, you see, or at least that is how he liked to fancy himself. Now, I am not normally very fond of jewelry; indeed I rarely even notice it. But this was easily one of my favorite parts of the museum. The fine draughtsmanship one finds in his paintings is also seen in the exquisitely detailed gold and silver shapes that wrap around the sparkling gems. Dalí’s penchant for bizarre forms also translates well into this medium: a flower with arms for petals, an elephant with long spindly spider legs, a four-legged arthropod whose legs are elongated arms with hands on each end. You don’t normally see this sort of thing at Zales.
I was absolutely famished by the time I left the museum, so I went to a restaurant in town and ordered a classic Catalan dish: butifarra (a type of lean sausage) with white beans. It was delicious. Then I got on the train and read Lorca all the way back to Madrid.
I left the Dalí Museum with mixed feelings. The museum is undeniably impressive. Like the Museu Picasso and the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, the Teatre-Museu Dalí gives the visitor an opportunity to immerse herself in the work of a great artist, noting how his style evolved and how it remained the same, witnessing the mind of a brilliant painter grow and change over the years. Indeed, even more than those two museums, the Dalí Museum in Figueres gives one the sense of really meeting and getting to intimately know the artist, since every inch of the building is reeking of his personality.
Yet getting to know Dalí makes one realize that there are many reasons to dislike the man. Besides his tolerant attitude towards Fascism in life—a political shortcoming that Orwell famously decried him for—Dalí was personally off-putting. His narcism is grating, even from a distance. Now, I am willing to tolerate a certain amount of vanity from brilliant people; but Dalí could be positively (and literally) onanistic. This may or may not have negatively affected his art, but it is undeniably unpleasant. Egotism aside, Dalí was often superficial. He was the pioneer of “shocking” art—gestures, meaningless in themselves, only meant to upset conventional opinion. Oddity for the sake of oddity, vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity, the prototype of so much contemporary pop culture. He was also drawn to cheap wittiness, such as his love for visual puns (of which the Mae West room is an example). It is in the nature of puns, verbal or visual, to be cheap and empty, since they actively erode meaning rather than create it. Thus, much of Dalí’s art produces little more than a snort or a chuckle, and then is quickly forgotten.
All this may be true. But it is also true that Dalí was one of the great artists of the previous century, as even a cursory acquaintance with his work makes clear. His technical ability is undoubtable. More importantly, his visual genius, even if it strayed into shallow waters, was so fertile that he added greatly to our collective imagination. And for every time that Dalí is grating, there is another in which he is undeniably charming. For this reason, the Dalí Museum in Figueres is without doubt one of the best museums in Catalonia, and in all of Spain.
The Dalí Museum is quite a trek from Barcelona, which makes it a somewhat inconvenient day-trip. But there is another beautiful site that is quite a bit closer to Barcelona, which is what makes it such a popular destination: Montserrat.