In 1929 Salvador Dalí met Gala, the woman who would become his wife, muse, agent and collaborator. He was young, only 25, and just starting out as an artist. She was 35 and married with a child. In early photos, Salvador Dalí could almost be mistaken for Gala’s child. But over time, the balance shifted. He aged dramatically, growing puffier, rheumier and more ludicrous by the year. She, by contrast, was a glacier: unchanging, coolly elegant. People sniped that there was something vampiric about their 53-year relationship.
The art historian John Richardson described Gala as a “demonic dominatrix” who turned her husband into “as much a monster of hype and megalomania as she was.” André Breton, founder of Surrealism, thought Gala was a corrosive influence on the many artists she befriended. In their accounts, and others, Gala comes across as a parasite who hitched her ambition to Dalí and drove him to become a caricature of himself. Poor Dalí, they suggested, was bewitched. Lurid anecdotes abounded. Dalí had bought Gala a castle in Púbol, Catalonia, where she entertained her lovers. He had to get written permission to visit.
An exhibition at the National Art Museum of Catalonia, in Barcelona, tries to piece together Gala’s side of the story, recasting her as not simply a muse, but a writer, conceptual artist and performer ahead of her time. It displays a selection of Dalí’s paintings, photographs of them together, and some of Gala’s letters to family, friends and lovers, as well as a diary that was recently unearthed from her castle in Púbol. The diary is self-consciously literary, and a letter to the artist René Crevel reveals that Gala claimed to be working on a novel – though no manuscript has been found.
The idea is that while Dalí was the face of the enterprise, Gala propelled it. Dalí certainly recognised her contribution, signing some of his paintings “Gala Salvador Dalí” (which gave the exhibition its title). Can Gala, having produced no art that we know of, really be considered an artist? Perhaps not. But this exhibition does show how much Salvador Dalí – and his art – depended on her forceful personality, for better or worse.
Salvador Dalí, “One Second Before Awakening from a Dream Provoked by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate” (1944)
Dalí made hundreds of drawings and paintings of Gala. That he worshipped her is clear. He was sexually fascinated by her but, by his own account, was afraid of sex (he was allegedly a virgin when he met Gala). So he tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, her affairs. Ian Gibson, Dalí’s biographer, has argued that he was pathologically timid and developed an exhibitionist persona as a protective device.
Salvador Dalí, “The Madonna of Portlligat” (1949)
This painting is based on Piero della Francesca’s “Madonna and Child with Angels and Six Saints”, with Gala as Madonna. No one could describe Gala as virginal, or maternal for that matter. She neglected the child she’d had with her first husband, the French poet Paul Eluard (she had no children with Dalí and had to have a hysterectomy in 1936 due to complications with uterine fibroids). Still, Dalí often tried to reconcile his art and lifestyle with his Catholicism. He took this painting along to an audience with Pope Pius XII, who was apparently rather taken with it. Salvador and Gala has to get special dispensation from the Pope to marry because of Gala’s previous marriage.
Salvador Dalí, “Gala Placidia. Galatea of the Spheres” (1952)
Dalí enjoyed improbable mash-ups. Here, Renaissance art meets atomic theory. After Hiroshima, Dalí became fascinated by nuclear physics and the idea that matter was, no matter how solid it seemed, in essence discontinuous, made up of distinct atomic particles. This painting depicts a bust of Gala through a matrix of spheres suspended in space. The vanishing point, where the spheres flow to infinity, is her mouth. In Greek mythology, the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with Galatea, a beautiful statue he’s created, after Aphrodite brings it to life.
Salvador Dalí, “Portrait of Gala with Two Chops Balanced on Her Shoulder” (1934)
Sometimes, a little boy appears in Dalí’s paintings. In “The Spectre of Sex Appeal”, the boy looks at a hideous, propped-up assemblage of festering flesh. And here he is again, in an image where Gala basks happily in the sun, a pair of lamb chops on her shoulder. In his book “The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí”, published in 1942, Dalí satirised people’s attempts to read the painting. “The meaning of this, as I later learned, was that instead of eating her, I had decided to eat a pair of raw chops…The chops were in effect the expiatory victims of an abortive sacrifice – like Abraham’s ram, and William Tell’s apple.”
André Caillet, “Gala with Elsa Schiaparelli’s shoe-hat inspired by a Salvador Dalí design” (1938)
The lamb chop was subsequently made into a hat by Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian designer. Another Schiaparelli creation – again from a design by Dalí – was this shoe-hat. With her fashionable clothes, her penchant for fluffy toys, tarot cards, glass eyes and bird skulls, Gala was a kind of female dandy, beloved by fashion designers.
Eric Schaal, “Salvador Dalí and Gala working on the ‘Dream of Venus’ pavilion” (1939)
Dalí fed the idea that he and Gala collaborated with each other, but there’s no evidence that Gala ever told Dalí what to paint. In the male-dominated Surrealist movement, though, Gala more than held her ground. A photo shows her playing chess with the Surrealists, the only female in view. She and Dalí were only too happy to be photographed together: the exhibitionism of their “private” life was itself a kind of performance art. On that project, at least, they worked as equals.
Gala Salvador Dalí. A Room of One’s Own in Púbol National Art Museum, Catalonia, until October 14th