Salvador Dalí and Man Ray, Paris, by Carl Van Vechten
(public domain photo)
Did you hear about his little number at art school, for his final exam?
“Choose a period in art history and tell us about it,” the tribunal told the young dandy. He had shown up for the exam in a gaudy sportscoat with a gardenia in the lapel.
“No,” he said. “Since all the professors of this school are incompetent to judge me, I’m leaving.” And he walked out of the hall.
That was the end of his school days, of course. They expelled him permanently. He was twenty-two and had been enrolled for five years, usually ignoring the classes, once actually getting kicked out for leading a student revolt. That last term he failed Lithography, Color and Composition, and Drawing from a Model in Movement. He did get an “A” in Art History.
How could a young man act that way? Who did he think he was?
“Why, I was Salvador Dalí,” he would answer. “I knew it already then.”
What did he know?
He had gotten started very early as an artist. At nine he was already drawing and receiving instruction from a painter friend (Ramón Pitchot) of the family. At twelve his dad enrolled him in a drawing course. He painted too and proudly handed out his works to his relatives after each summer vacation. Some were imitations or copies of the reproductions he saw in his father’s books. But he was fascinated too by his teacher’s Puntillist style and he soon began to experiment with color and ways of applying the paint.
“My experiments led me to cover my canvasses with a thick layer of material that would catch the light and create the sensation of relief and material presence. Then I decided to glue stones to my pictures and paint them.”
“Stones keep falling from our son’s heaven,” his dad used to say.
Dalí’s father (1925), painted while Salvador was still enrolled at the Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. Salvador Dali Cusí was a formidable character with a strong influence on his son.
When Salvador was fifteen he and a group of friends published a magazine called Studium which was printed on wrapping paper. Dalí was in charge of a section called “Great Masters of Painting”. He wrote about his admiration for El Greco, Dürer, Goya, Michelangelo and Leonardo. Dalí could write as well as he could paint.
His dad wanted him to study law (Dalí, Sr. was a lawyer and a notary) but he did not stand in the boy’s way. He took him to Madrid for the entrance exam of the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, which the boy easily passed, then moved him into a room at the famous Residencia de Estudiantes. There Salvador made friends with other geniuses like Federico García Lorca and Luis Buñuel, who were studying literature and philosophy. There was a lot going on in the world of art and thought and they were all excited about it.
Though for a long time Dalí kept to himself and stayed in his room. One of his classmates said he was “literally sick with shyness”. “Salvador was the most inhibited person that I had ever met,” wrote Juan Bello, who later became his good friend.
Did he learn a lot from his fellow painter classmates?
No. “When I started out at the Academia, “ he said years later, “I felt superior to almost all of them. They were just discovering Impressionism [superseded two decades earlier by other movements in art], which they interpreted as an invitation to a sloppy kind of freedom…You go to a school like that to learn the formal discipline of oil painting and academic art, [not to horse around].”
He made this statement years later after he had become known for his classical technique. In fact, at the time, he was experimenting with every kind of style, as he had been doing since he was twelve and would continue to do for years.
Here is a Post-cubistic self-portrait:
He worked day and night, filling his little cell at the Residencia with paintings and drawings, talking excitedly with his great friends about the latest ideas in art, literature, and psychology. The Spanish poet Rafael Alberti remembered him years later:
“They told me he worked all day, sometimes forgetting to eat or arriving late at the lunchroom.When I visited his room, a simple cell like Federico’s [Lorca], I almost couldn’t enter, I didn’t know where to put my foot down since the entire floor was covered with drawings. Dali had a formidable vocation and at that time, though he was only twenty-one, he was an unbelievably good draftsman. He could draw anything he wanted to, real or imagined: a classical line, pure, perfect calligraphy, which though it reminded you of Picasso’s Hellenistic period, was no less admirable….”
By graduation time at the Academia Dali had already exhibited many of his paintings. His first individual exhibition was at the Galeria Dalmau in Barcelona 1925 while he was in his senior year. There were landscapes, portraits, drawings and paintings in several styles: Cubist; Purist; Post-Cubist. But there were also a few with a new atmospheric realism, with strange, isolated figures. The portrait of his father (above) was there. He had painted that a year earlier.
Picasso went to see the exhibit and especially liked this one. How could he not?
His second indvidual show was just a year later at that same gallery in Barcelona. Among them was this Girl from Behind Looking out the Window, which generations of Spaniards have preferred to later Dali extravagances.
These masterpieces were still experimental. Dalí had not yet found the subjects and style he became famous for. But this basket of bread had something eery about it, something striking about the light that seems to emanate from the bread itself, that caused much admiration. “It looks like a Zurbarán,” they said. Actually, now we know that it looks like a Dalí.
Basket of Bread (1926) (Fair use image)
So these were some of the young man’s achievements before he appeared for that final exam. He knew he could do this well and better. He believed he was doing something original and important, and he had the support and admiration of his father and his great friends and painters. Though by then he had overcome some of his shyness, he had to down a big glass of absinthe before walking into the examination hall and pulling off his little skit before the professors. Anger helped him too. Some of the professors had failed him, mainly because he had cut so many of their classes. He believed that he could use his time better by pursuing his own ideas than going to class. Unfortunately, this is the attitude of many losers in college and the professors have little patience for it. But this time…
The clown was right. He was a genius.
The cockeyed photos of Dali’s paintings are my own, taken at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, where they are on permanent display and where photos without flash are allowed. Except for the portrait of Dalí’s father. I photographed a reproduction of that in a sidewalk exhibit in Madrid.
My sources for most of the information are: Dalí by Dawn Ades, ABC, S.L., 2004, and Dalí Jóven, Dalí Genial by Ian Gibson, Santillana Ediciones Generales, S.L., 2004