Salvador Dali was an artist, self-publicist, showman, screenplay writer, poet, and clothing designer. His many occupations and interests took on his own unique style, which he considered to be true surrealism. As a surrealist, he expressed the unconscious mind such as what might be seen or thought of in dreams. Because time does not take on a solid form in the unconscious mind, Dali found the idea of time fascinating and often used the idea in many of his paintings. Dali was awarded the Grand Cross of Isabella the Catholic, the highest Spanish decoration. In December 1936, Dali appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Dali was born to a middle-class family in the Catalan town of Figueres on May 11, 1904. Later in life, he and his wife, Gala, built their home in the nearby Port Lligat, where they would retreat for solitude and a chance to rejuvenate. The nearby scenery of rocks and cliffs often provided the landscape for the background in Dali's paintings.
Although his father and mother did not encourage the youthful Dali to pursue an artistic career, others—such as the nearby Pichot family and his drawing teacher Juan Nunez—encouraged him in his dream career. In the early 1920s Dali went to Madrid to study painting and was drawn to the surrealist movement then attracting the attention of avant-garde artists. Many of his most famous paintings come from the late 1920s and the 1930s. In his paintings Dali would invest an irrational object with symbolic significance, but no matter how bizarre the images in his paintings seemed, the technique and details of the objects were on an academic level of accuracy. For this, Dali was considered a craftsman and a technical virtuoso.
Dali used symbolism in his works referring to time. Many of the forms in his paintings are characterized by a certain fluidity, as if to demonstrate that nothing contained in the human mind is fully formed and rational. Grasshoppers or locusts, of which he had a particular phobia, appear in his works as symbols of fear and waste. Open drawers imply the presence of the unconscious mind, open for thoughts to come and go as they please. In many paintings he depicted eggs, which convey a sense of prenatal hope and love. Also, crutches, which symbolize the fragility of reality when in the mind, are a Dali trademark. The crutches hold up and support reality so it can keep its form.
In the 1930s, Dali spent time in Italy studying the art of the Renaissance. Many of his paintings show the influence of great painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Velazquez. Later in his career, Dali took a step toward mysticism. This step was influenced by the 1945 dropping of the atomic bomb in World War II, which engendered ideas concerning nuclear physics and the universe being made from particles. Many objects in his paintings would take fragmented forms as Dali tried to show fragmented parts of an object coming together to create the one object as a whole.
Dali not only wanted to show the unity of substance, but he also spent time during this era focusing on a spiritual theme. The iconography of Christianity provided him a range of highly charged imagery. Many paintings focused on intermediaries between heaven and earth as representations of the spirituality of substances. To him, God was a concept that could not be grasped, and so he painted angels, heaven, and objects reaching up to the skies, such as elephants on long spindly legs.
One of Dalí's most famous works is the Persistence of Memory, painted in oil on canvas in 1931. As is often found in surrealist works, there is a common image that is in some way irrational, such as the watches that appear soft and fluid in this painting. This idea of soft watches subverts the notion of a rule-bound order in nature and also focuses on the human preoccupation with time. Dali claimed that the idea for this painting came while meditating upon the nature of Camembert cheese one night after dinner while Gala had gone out with some friends for the evening.
The background is composed of the Port Lligat scenery that he often depicted, and the painting took him only a few hours to complete. Dalí's dormant head, an image reoccurring from earlier paintings, such as the 1929 Lugubrious Game, is present in the painting underneath the center watch. In the bottom left corner are ants, a common symbol for Dali of death and decay. In this case a watch covered with ants indicates that time is being devoured and is melting away, a sign that time is relative and not fixed.
Dalí's Crucifixion, a 1954 oil on canvas, holds a hypercubic cross in which the body of Christ acts as the ninth cube in a grouping of cubes. This phase in his paintings indicates his turn toward mathematical conceptions. This idea of cubes may reflect the influence of Cubism, which was in vogue during the period when he was a student in Madrid. In that analytical phase, he arranged fragmented shapes in parallel formations in his paintings.
The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, painted in 1959, is another significant work of Dalí's. This painting came from a series in which Dali decided to paint historical images metaphorically, in celebration of his fatherland. In this painting, earlier techniques are combined with a representation of his particle period, which stemmed from his thoughts on quantum physics and of small particles forming the matter in life.
The painting includes Saint James, the patron saint of Spain, and it is photographically precise. Columbus is depicted as a young adolescent to represent America as a young continent. The banner he carries has a painting of the Blessed Virgin on it in the form of Gala, Dalí's wife. Dali often painted Gala and used her to represent the Virgin Mary in his paintings. In his famous painting The Last Supper, Dali used Gala's face for the face of Jesus. At the front bottom center of this painting is a small sea urchin with an odd halo around it. This symbolizes the other planets that America would some day explore. With the passing of time since Dali lived and painted, admiration and interest in Dalí's artistic creations has not diminished.