Salvador Dalí eating a sea urchin during a boat trip on October 11, 1959, at Cap de Creus Image Credit: © Descharnes & Descharnes sarl

Salvador Dali: The Memories is the first major exhibition in Dubai and this region showcasing the life and work of one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century. Dali is as well-known for his surrealist paintings as he is for his eccentric appearance, statements and actions. This show goes beyond the flamboyance and drama of the Spanish master’s life to delve deeper into the influences, incidents, relationships and spirituality that inspired his work.

Through the carefully selected works, the show also traces the development of the surrealist movement, which began in Paris in the 1920s and attempted to go beyond the constraints of the rational world to interpret the working of the subconscious mind.

The artworks, sourced from private collections around the world, include a rarely exhibited original painting by Dali; a large collection of lithographs by the artist, and a selection of intimate photographs from the archives of photographer Robert Descharnes, a close friend and collaborator of Dali.

Dalí and Gala in Es Poal, Cadaques, 1958. © Descharnes & Descharnes sarl

A highlight of the show is a unique interactive wall providing interesting information about Dali, ranging from childhood photographs to a virtual tour of his first retrospective in the United States.

The exhibition has been organised by UAE-based Alpha Soul with support from Emirates NBD. It is curated by Dilyara Kamenova, founder of Alpha Soul in collaboration with guest curator Nicolas Descharnes, an international expert on the life and works of the artist and son of Robert Descharnes.

“Alpha Soul is dedicated to enriching the spirit of Dubai by promoting art, classical music, world class speakers and partnerships with leading academics, private collectors and art professionals from around the world. We are excited to showcase for the first time in this region such a large collection of the finest works of Dali and photographs by one of his closest associates,” Kamenova says.

The show has been divided into sections relating to different aspects and influences in Dali’s life and work. The first section features the interactive wall providing an overview of key moments in Dali’s life and career, and 60 photographs carefully selected by Descharnes from his father’s archive of 60,000 images that reflect Dali’s moods, environment, process and elements of his daily life.

A Shower of Jasmine, 1954, oil on canvas. © Descharnes & Descharnes sarl

The intimate photographs capture the private and public persona of Dali and include portraits of Dali, carefully staged by the artist, showing himself posing with symbolic elements such as a dodecahedron, dandelions, a rhino horn and references to his iconic works like his lobster telephone.

“Dali was 46 years old when my father, who was in his twenties met him in 1950. So his photographs were taken after Dali was hugely successful and was calmer and more spiritual. My father spent every summer with Dali and Gala in Cadaques, documenting their daily life and often travelled with them. His photographs reveal the way Dali’s mind worked and the eccentric public performances he staged as well as his beautiful relationship with Gala and their life in the fisherman’s barrack in Port Lligat, and the art hubs of Paris and New York,” Descharnes says.

The centerpiece of the show is an exquisite oil on canvas painting, A Shower of Jasmine from 1954. Unlike a typical surrealist Dali painting, it shows 10 realistic, delicate, white jasmine flowers on a dark background. The painting has been displayed in public only twice — in New York in 1954 and Brazil in 1998.

“This work is a surrealistic tribute to beauty wrapped in Dali’s mystery right from its enigmatic title, to the symbolism embedded in the colour, number and arrangement of the flowers,” Descharnes says.

Gala’s Castle, 1974, Drypoint etching with pochoir stencil. © Descharnes & Descharnes sarl

One section of the show is dedicated to the entire set of 80 prints that Dali published in 1977 as a homage to Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos series from 1799, where he mocked the foibles of human beings and the superstitions and customs of the day. In his edition, titled Les Caprices de Goya, Dali reinterpreted Goya’s etchings, adding colour and new imagery and changing some of the titles to give them his surrealist twist.

The last section tells the story of surrealism and of Dali’s own journey through two sets of graphic works — Memories of Surrealism, a set of prints that Dali was commissioned to create in 1971 based on his own memories of the surrealist movement; and After 50 Years of Surrealism that Dali was commissioned to create in 1974 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of surrealism in art.

These works trace the history of the movement starting from the early influence of Dadaism, and the artworks are filled with signature Dali motifs such as melting clocks, crutches, elephants with long spindly legs, eggs, and cubes. They include Surrealist Self-Portrait of Dali with Butterflies, with the butterflies being a poetic allusion to maturity and other key works illustrating his growing interest in science, spirituality and nuclear mysticism.

The artworks reflecting the artist’s personal experiences include ‘Flung out like a fag end by the big-wigs’, which is about his expulsion from art school; and another where a burning giraffe thrown out of a window alludes to his expulsion from the surrealist group in 1939.

They also include, Picasso: A Ticket for Glory, a quirky reference to his first visit to the US in 1934, financed by a loan from Picasso; and Freud With Snail Head, which recalls Dali’s first meeting with Freud, whose book, The Interpretation of Dreams, and theory about how the unconscious mind governs our behaviour deeply influenced him and other surrealists. Besides being a symbol of the internal world, the snail shell with Freud’s head inside it also references Dali’s memory of seeing a snail on a bicycle outside Freud’s house during this meeting in London in 1938.

Every work in the show speaks about the genius of Dali and offers plenty of food for thought to the viewer.


Dali’s life and career

Dali was born in Figueres, in Catalonia, Spain in 1904. His family’s belief that he was a reincarnation of their older son, also named Salvador, who had died nine months before, and his mother’s death from uterine cancer when he was 16, led to his obsession with themes of decay and death in his work and his desire to delve into his subconscious and depict his memories and dreams in his mystical paintings.

Dali’s artistic talent was evident at an early age, and he went to study art in Madrid, but was suspended and then expelled from the art academy in 1926 for disrespecting his teachers. The same year, he travelled to Paris where he met Picasso. He also met the surrealists in Paris, who appreciated his ‘paranoiac-critical’ method of accessing the subconscious for greater artistic creativity, and he officially joined the group in 1929.

Dali also met his muse Gala in 1929. She was 10 years older to him and married to surrealist poet Paul Eluard at the time. Dali’s father disapproved of this relationship and threw him out of the house. So the couple rented a small fisherman’s cabin in a bay at Port Lligat near the Catalan resort of Cadaqués. Later he bought the cabin as well as other neighbouring cabins to build his much-loved villa by the sea, where he did most of his work. He married Gala in a civil ceremony in 1934.

Disagreements on political views led to him being expelled from the surrealist group in 1939, and while the Second World War raged in Europe, Dali moved to the US in 1940, becoming a catalyst for New York’s development into a major art centre. There he worked with various media, designing jewellery, clothes, furniture, stage sets and retail store windows.

After returning to Spain in 1948, the couple followed the ‘Dalinian cycle’ of spending autumn and spring in Paris, winter in New York and summer in Port Lligat for the next three decades. During this period, Dali became interested in optical effects, science and religion, blending Christian iconography with images of material disintegration inspired by nuclear physics, in an approach he called ‘nuclear mysticism’. He also remarried Gala in a Catholic ceremony in 1958. Heartbroken by Gala’s death in 1982, Dali passed away in 1989.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

Salvador Dali: The Memories will run at the Conference Hall, Building No. 4, DIFC, until April 22. It is open to the public from 10am to 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays and from 1pm to 10pm on weekdays. Tickets are priced at Dh160 for adults and Dh120 for students and Emirates NBD card holders will get two tickets for the price of one.