Spain: Salvador Dalí trail


Spain: Salvador Dalí trail

Spain comes weirdly alive when you let the artist’s ghost show you around

By Nisha Susan  June 16th, 2015

An old American magazine that my grandfather hoarded. That’s where I’d first seen the trompe-l’oeil Mae West that Salvador Dalí had made out of a red sofa, two landscape paintings and two fireplaces. It was the first time I’d seen the word ‘trompe-l’oeil’, a fancy adult phrase for the optical illusions kids took seriously. Here I was, more than 20 years later, at the Dalí Theatre-Museum (Salvador-dali.org) in Figueres, a small town less than two hours from Barcelona. And I couldn’t get the giant sloppy grin off my face ever since I caught sight of the utterly cuckoo roof of the museum. The parapet is studded with huge, beautiful eggs (the Spanish surrealist was obsessed with fertility, our guide Enrique tells us, but who can resist the perfectly eccentric shape of an egg, certainly not Dalí). The south façade of the museum has several intriguing figures that all memorialise outrageous moments from the artist’s life. Like when Dalí made a splashy appearance in a scuba suit at a London exhibition and then fainted from lack of oxygen. Or when Dalí and Gala (Dalí’s lover, wife, manager, muse, obsession) stepped off a ship in New York and greeted the press with rolled-up paintings strapped to their wrists and oversized baguettes balanced on their heads.

Inside the museum there is no map; you wander around as you please. It’s off-season but packed, mostly with French schoolchildren who have come for a quick jaunt across the border. I love museums, but the great ones of the world can leave you with a too-much-homework-and-not-enough-time feeling. Not this one. Built in 1960 by Dalí and the Mayor of Figueres, it’s a 3D scrapbook of someone deeply attentive, deeply distracted. The museum was intended by Dalí not to house his oeuvre, but to be one giant piece of surrealist jolliness. A Cadillac that rains, the nude that becomes Abraham Lincoln when peered at with one eye. Peep through a hole in the wall and all you see is a green, Amazonian jungle.

I was already replete when leaving, but Enrique had told us to set aside a little time to look at Dalí’s jewellery collection housed next door. My low expectations leaked out of the door as soon as I entered. Each of the glass boxes displayed an extraordinary ornament made by the artist, the simplest of which was a pearl-studded ring shaped like a corset and the most elaborate a bejewelled, gently beating set of angel wings. We could have spent hours in this darkened, spectacular cave but we were soon off to have lunch in Cadaques, where Dalí’s father’s home was.

Cadaques, 45 minutes away, is a postcard-pretty Costa Brava town. Blue, white, silent. The only raucous notes are the gulls and a Dalí statue on the waterfront. Enrique tells us that when Dalí’s father chucked him out, both for his juvenile antics as well as for marrying an older, once-married woman, he bought a house nearby. Across parched hillsides and peek-a-boo glimpses of the sea, Portlligat is 10 minutes away. Drive in any direction in these hills and chances are you will arrive at a cliff, the view from which looks mysteriously familiar. You’ve seen this mesmerising view of the sea before — in a Dalí painting or two.

When Dalí and Gala had moved here, it had been a fisherman’s village. Over the decades they built an unforgettable house, little by little. Today, there are a few fishing boats and a couple of small houses, but pretty much the only people around are the ones working at the house-turned-museum. The frosty young woman who shows us the place and rolls her eyes as she recounts Dalí anecdotes told me afterwards that she had studied biology but came back home because she couldn’t find a job. Her grandfather built this house, yes, of course, she knew Dalí.

Though the house is full of the couple’s signature touches (a stuffed polar bear who wears all of Dalí’s medals, a toy snake that drapes the narrow swimming pool, the mirror on one wall reflecting the rising sun at the eastern-most point of Spain so that Dalí could claim that he was the first Spaniard to see the sun every day), it is also domestic. This is where the couple lived and worked, outside of the celebrity that they engineered and understood was essential for the modern canny artist. And it feels like someone lives here still, with Gala’s favourite yellow flowers in the vases and magazine clippings about Dalí collaged near a bathroom.

In his clever studio here in Portlligat are a couple of incomplete paintings sitting just as he had left them when he rushed out the morning Gala died, in 1982. Panicked by her death, and even more panicked by the thought of people descending on his home, he is said to have put her body in his car and driven to nearby Púbol, to the castle he had bought her. She had been living there in her eighties, part of the time with a young lover and with the express understanding that Dalí would not visit without written permission. She had been visiting him the day she died. Local lore goes that people saw a crazed Dalí driving past with the dead Gala in his passenger seat, but since it’s all highly illegal, the official story is that she died in the castle. He never returned to the Portlligat house again.

Dalí knew that showmanship would bring money and power. And quite suitably, he is buried in the museum back in Figueres – a place he built to keep alive his outsized reputation for genius after he was gone. But this quiet place in Portlligat, where he worked for half the year, is the place he haunts.

An old American magazine that my grandfather hoarded. That’s where I’d first seen the trompe-l’oeil Mae West that Salvador Dalí had made out of a red sofa, two landscape paintings and two fireplaces. It was the first time I’d seen the word ‘trompe-l’oeil’, a fancy adult phrase for the optical illusions kids took seriously. Here I was, more than 20 years later, at the Dalí Theatre-Museum (Salvador-dali.org) in Figueres, a small town less than two hours from Barcelona. And I couldn’t get the giant sloppy grin off my face ever since I caught sight of the utterly cuckoo roof of the museum. The parapet is studded with huge, beautiful eggs (the Spanish surrealist was obsessed with fertility, our guide Enrique tells us, but who can resist the perfectly eccentric shape of an egg, certainly not Dalí). The south façade of the museum has several intriguing figures that all memorialise outrageous moments from the artist’s life. Like when Dalí made a splashy appearance in a scuba suit at a London exhibition and then fainted from lack of oxygen. Or when Dalí and Gala (Dalí’s lover, wife, manager, muse, obsession) stepped off a ship in New York and greeted the press with rolled-up paintings strapped to their wrists and oversized baguettes balanced on their heads.

Inside the museum there is no map; you wander around as you please. It’s off-season but packed, mostly with French schoolchildren who have come for a quick jaunt across the border. I love museums, but the great ones of the world can leave you with a too-much-homework-and-not-enough-time feeling. Not this one. Built in 1960 by Dalí and the Mayor of Figueres, it’s a 3D scrapbook of someone deeply attentive, deeply distracted. The museum was intended by Dalí not to house his oeuvre, but to be one giant piece of surrealist jolliness. A Cadillac that rains, the nude that becomes Abraham Lincoln when peered at with one eye. Peep through a hole in the wall and all you see is a green, Amazonian jungle.

I was already replete when leaving, but Enrique had told us to set aside a little time to look at Dalí’s jewellery collection housed next door. My low expectations leaked out of the door as soon as I entered. Each of the glass boxes displayed an extraordinary ornament made by the artist, the simplest of which was a pearl-studded ring shaped like a corset and the most elaborate a bejewelled, gently beating set of angel wings. We could have spent hours in this darkened, spectacular cave but we were soon off to have lunch in Cadaques, where Dalí’s father’s home was.

Cadaques, 45 minutes away, is a postcard-pretty Costa Brava town. Blue, white, silent. The only raucous notes are the gulls and a Dalí statue on the waterfront. Enrique tells us that when Dalí’s father chucked him out, both for his juvenile antics as well as for marrying an older, once-married woman, he bought a house nearby. Across parched hillsides and peek-a-boo glimpses of the sea, Portlligat is 10 minutes away. Drive in any direction in these hills and chances are you will arrive at a cliff, the view from which looks mysteriously familiar. You’ve seen this mesmerising view of the sea before — in a Dalí painting or two.

When Dalí and Gala had moved here, it had been a fisherman’s village. Over the decades they built an unforgettable house, little by little. Today, there are a few fishing boats and a couple of small houses, but pretty much the only people around are the ones working at the house-turned-museum. The frosty young woman who shows us the place and rolls her eyes as she recounts Dalí anecdotes told me afterwards that she had studied biology but came back home because she couldn’t find a job. Her grandfather built this house, yes, of course, she knew Dalí.

Though the house is full of the couple’s signature touches (a stuffed polar bear who wears all of Dalí’s medals, a toy snake that drapes the narrow swimming pool, the mirror on one wall reflecting the rising sun at the eastern-most point of Spain so that Dalí could claim that he was the first Spaniard to see the sun every day), it is also domestic. This is where the couple lived and worked, outside of the celebrity that they engineered and understood was essential for the modern canny artist. And it feels like someone lives here still, with Gala’s favourite yellow flowers in the vases and magazine clippings about Dalí collaged near a bathroom.

In his clever studio here in Portlligat are a couple of incomplete paintings sitting just as he had left them when he rushed out the morning Gala died, in 1982. Panicked by her death, and even more panicked by the thought of people descending on his home, he is said to have put her body in his car and driven to nearby Púbol, to the castle he had bought her. She had been living there in her eighties, part of the time with a young lover and with the express understanding that Dalí would not visit without written permission. She had been visiting him the day she died. Local lore goes that people saw a crazed Dalí driving past with the dead Gala in his passenger seat, but since it’s all highly illegal, the official story is that she died in the castle. He never returned to the Portlligat house again.

Dalí knew that showmanship would bring money and power. And quite suitably, he is buried in the museum back in Figueres – a place he built to keep alive his outsized reputation for genius after he was gone. But this quiet place in Portlligat, where he worked for half the year, is the place he haunts.