Interview with Antonio Pitxot on Dalí: Portrait of the artist as a young man

The artist's long time friend sheds light on the artist as he was, ahead of the Hayward Gallery exhibition on his early works


An exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London (3 March to 30 May) throws light on the extraordinary eclecticism of Salvador Dalí’s early work of the 1920s. Co-curated by British art historian Dawn Ades and Anna Beristain, curator at the Reina Sofía and trustee of the Gala-Dalí Foundation, one hundred paintings and drawings are on show. We speak to Antonio Pitxot, director of the Teatro-Museu Dalí, Figueres, longtime friend of Dalí and fount of knowledge on his life and work.

Mr Pitxot, you were close to Dalí and spent many hours in conversation with him. I believe that he liked to use anecdote in his conversation.

Most definitely. When I made a comment about a person, Dalí would always reply with some story from his own experience. He had a way of choosing the telling detail, with a deft touch that brought the person to life before your eyes. Dalí was a very precise and physical person, not at all abstract. When he spoke about somebody or something, he always tried to put his thoughts into concrete, tangible imagery.

Dalí gave fascinating titles to his pictures, enigmatic and detailed. Take, for example “Dalí at the age of six, when he thought he was a girl lifting the skin of the Mediterranean to watch a sleeping dog”—a title both charming and mysterious.

That picture caused a row because the dog was borrowed from a work by a neo-gothic artist. One day, the experts found out and kicked up a tremendous fuss. Dalí was most amused because he had never tried to conceal the fact.

The important thing is the idea of lifting the skin of the sea.

The idea that the sea has a skin which can be lifted, and that underneath you never know what you will find. Dalí was always at his most poetic when referring to the sea. He once wrote a poem—which hardly anyone knows about—to mark an exhibition I was staging in Barcelona. It was about the battle of Constantine.

I had asked him to do something for me because, naturally enough, I felt in need of support. He said I did not need any help, but he would write me a poem anyway. He spent two or three months dictating, bit by bit, a long poem on the battle of Constantine, full of Roman centurions and convoluted ideas; even Cleopatra came into it.

Each day, I would read him what he had dictated the day before, and he would completely change the sense and introduce new ideas. Then we would speak of the sea. At one point in the poem, he says the sea is full of blood. I remember him insisting on the point because he was so sure about it: many bloody deeds have taken place in the sea. He liked the idea that so much had gone on under the skin of the sea. Think of the blood in “La pesca del atún”. He had seen the sea full of blood when they were fishing for tuna.

Among the Foundation’s acquisitions are various works from the 1920s. Why are they not being shown in London?

We were asked for them, but we do not lend any of the works we have purchased, only works from the bequest or from our own collection.

Why is that?

Because we want our own museum to benefit as much as possible from owning those works. They are our chief asset, given that we do not receive any subsidy from public bodies. We want the public to come and see our more recent acquisitions in situ at the Museum Dalí.

“Dalí: the early years” is a very thorough introduction to the artist’s formative period. In those years, he assimilated and transformed a great wealth of stimuli. Does this exhibition have anything new to say about Dalí’s experimentation and growth as an artist?

The exhibition covers the first twenty-six years of Dali’s life, from 1904 to 1930. It has been said that the first twenty-five years of this century contained, in essence, all that was to follow. And certainly, we are still feeding on the memory of that period, as this exhibition proves. It was followed by a rehash, a reconsideration of what had gone before. We see it in Dalí.

Until 1930, he was the prototype of the creator, the great artist who lives the creative process step by step, behaving like a strange athlete, making great leaps far beyond his own limitations, then drawing back and beginning all over again. Dalí made many leaps of this kind. When he perceived what he took to be an avant-garde development, he would pursue it with total commitment, later drawing in his horns and retreating into a rigorous Neo-classicism.

One of the works on display is “The bread basket”, loaned by the Morse collection, which dates from 1926. It is a painstakingly neo-classical in its treatment of the subject, academic to an extreme. And yet, in the years 1922 to 1924, he had already been experimenting with what the experts call neo-cubist ideas, though futurist is really the correct term.

The fact is that the first avant-garde influence on Dalí was that of Italian Futurism. Some time around 1920, my uncle, Pepito Pitxot, brought him a 1914 Boccioni catalogue from Paris. Young Dalí was then immersed in a fascinating exploration of impressionist and post-impressionist painting. The Boccioni catalogue was Dalí’s first contact with a form of artistic expression in which the idea itself is more important than the sensation evoked by the image, as was often the case with post-impressionist experimentation.

For the first time, Dalí understood that there were ways of conveying very exact and concrete things with pictorial or graphic forms and details. His first experiments based on Italian Futurism were conducted before he was twenty and, from that moment, all his potential began to unfold. In Madrid, where he lived from 1922 to 1926 at the Residencia de Estudiantes, he was already in touch with Buñuel. And both of them received the latest news of what was happening in Paris—of the incipient surrealist movement, which began in 1925 with Breton, Paul Eluard and others.

Dalí had put out feelers in that direction, and he also received support—something which has never been acknowledged—from Joan Mirò, who in later years seemed very much opposed to the Dalí personality cult. At this time, though, they were closely associated, and Mirò helped Dalí a great deal.

Here at the Foundation we have letters to prove it: letters from Mirò to Dalí and letters from Mirò to Dalí’s father, telling him of his son’s artistic and intellectual calibre and persuading him to give Dalí every opportunity to develop his talents: if he would send young Dalí to Paris, Mirò would do all he could to open doors for him. This exchange took place in 1924 or 1925, towards the end of Dalí’s stay at the Residencia de Estudiantes. In the following years, Dalí also got to know Mirò’s dealer, Pierre Loeb, and met many other people. Then, in 1929, Gala and Paul Eluard came to spend the summer in Cadaques. Dalí had already met them in Paris. In Cadaques occurred those mysterious things that can be described only as an irresistible attraction, and Gala and Dalí’s lives became joined for the rest of their days.

What exactly happened in that summer of 1929?

Gala stayed with Dalí and together they travelled in the south of Spain, to Malaga and Marbella. Meanwhile, Paul Eluard went off to the Universal Exhibition in Barcelona.

Little is known of this trip to the South.

Very little. I know that there were instances of the strange and increasingly provocative behaviour they cultivated, though Dalí was more reserved and prudent in his actions than was Gala. Together they scandalised the inhabitants of Marbella, engaging in entertaining behaviour that was highly eccentric at that time.

Had Dalí travelled to other places before he moved to Paris in 1929?

I know that he made a trip to northern France with his sister and aunt, in 1926. There are contrasting versions of what happened: Dalí told some ironic stories, and his sister denied them. We shall never know the truth of the matter. They went to Normandy, or somewhere thereabouts, to find the place where Jean-François Millet, author of “L’Angelus”, was born and had worked. Since childhood he had been fascinated by the great French painter and wanted a first-hand impression of where he had lived. He told me he saw the house in which Millet was born, a typically northern French farm deep in the countryside.

Dalí’s friends while he lived at the Residencia in Madrid were not painters like himself. One was a poet and the other was to become a film director. What drew them together?

He was in touch with many, many people, but his two greatest friends were Lorca and Buñuel. Perhaps I am not the right person to judge, but I see Buñuel as an impulsive Aragonese plunging headlong into the unknown; Lorca, on the other hand, with his Arab and Andalusian roots, was a poet of great depth and feeling, a guardian of tradition.

There was clearly some opposition between these two tendencies, and Dalí was more akin to Buñuel. Lorca was torn apart by this, to the extent of feeling he had to embrace novelty in some way. This explains why he made his trip to New York and wrote “El poeta en Nueva York”. Although, it is the work of a great poet, there is a sense of violence in the way new elements have been introduced. Basically, Lorca was more at home with the traditions and emotions of his native setting. I am certain that, given time, Lorca would have pioneered something revolutionary himself, but Buñuel was his superior in audacity and, in this respect, Dalí was more forceful, too.

La Vida Secreta, the book in which Dalí describes episodes from his youth, has always been taken by biographers as a primary source, even though some of the dates appear to be unreliable. Did Dalí discuss those years of insatiable artistic and intellectual curiosity with you?

Dalí was never very bothered about the rigours of chronology, but he remembered everything in so tangible a way. If he was a year or two out, it should not prevent writers from arranging things in the right order. He told me all sorts of things about his youth. He saw his early experiences as fundamental, as any person would. According to some art critics, Dalí is only important in the context of Surrealism, whereas he had already built up a great wealth of innovative ideas before teaming up with the Surrealists, and these concepts he subsequently contributed to the surrealist movement. He used to tell me how astonished Breton, Aragon and the others were when he arrived in Paris with his theories and his paranoiac-critical system. You only need read his novel La femme visible, which is quite breath-taking in its richness and wealth of ideas.

How do you assess Salvador Dalí’s place in twentieth-century art. He is the only great artist of this century who has not been studied in depth.

I think the great diversity and eclecticism of Dalí’s fundamental principles, often interpreted as diffuseness, has made him difficult to analyse, understand, or even accept.

His profound knowledge of history, art, ideas, philosophy and psychoanalysis, his great leaps forward and subsequent withdrawals into a more classical idiom, often within a very short time span, have made him suspect in many people’s eyes. An artist who follows a definite line and keeps within certain bounds is much easier to accept.

Dalí, however, always did the opposite of what people expected. He adopted a provocative and contrary attitude, and this made him more difficult to understand. In some quarters, he was strongly disliked, because he was dangerous, even in political terms.

It will be many years before we all come to a proper awareness of Salvador Dalí’s true worth. I believe him to be the great creative genius of this century, without any doubt. The longer I live, the more clearly I see that Dalí has been the driving force behind all the ideas that have come to fruition in the world of ideas and creativity this century, albeit at a certain remove.

He has probably been more influential as a thinker than as an artist.

He had some really surprising ideas and even cultivated scientific connections. I have been present at long conversations between Dalí and people of extraordinary intellectual ability such as Ilya Prigogine, Renè Thom and Luis Powels; they all had considerable respect for him. For family and personal reasons, I first became interested in Dalí as a child, and felt a strong attraction to him as a personality and as an artist. But, as time goes by, what impresses me more than anything else is his extraordinary influence in the realm of ideas.

He once spoke of himself as a thinking machine.

Yes, that is entirely right. The thinking machine is a phrase from Quevedo, our great Spanish philosopher. Living close to him was an extraordinary experience. His life was one of the most impressive performances you could ever imagine.

After the Hayward Gallery (3 March-30 May), the exhibition will be shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (28 June to 20 September) and at the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía, Madrid (14 October to 16 January 1995). It is sponsored by the Banco de Bilbao e Vizcaya.

What is the Gala-Dalí Foundation

The Gala-Dalí Foundation was created in 1983 to run and administer the Teatro-Museu Dalí in Figueres, the small Catalan town near the French frontier where Dalí was born. Its board of trustees is made up of representatives of the Spanish State, the Regional government of Catalonia, the municipality of Figueres and the municipality of Cadaques, plus the patrons for life, nominated by Dalí himself or coopted. The chairman is Ramon Boixados and the secretary, Lluis Peñuelas.

The Teatro-Museu is run without any public funding but on the sales of tickets and the proceeds of the shop. It is the most popular museum in Catalonia, with 526,793 visitors in 1993, in part at least because it sees itself as kind of dramatic experience, in keeping with Dalí’s own spectaculer life-style. In July and August it stays open until 10 pm, which makes it unique among Spanish museums in actually suiting the hours Spaniards keep. It offers its visitors champagne, while the fountains and the floodlights play and and loud music rings out.

The collections go back in part to the creation of the museum, and half of these were given by Dalí to Figueres and half directly to the foundation. The other part comes from Dalí’s bequest to the Spanish State, which has been divided between Figueres, the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid and the projected Contemporary Art Museum in Barcelona.

The museum buys works by Dalí which appear on the market and is opening an extension in May, where the first display will be of the thirty-seven paintings and fifty-four drawings they have acquired in the last four years. They are particularly pleased to have bought the 1932 drawing called “The paranoiac metamorphosis of Gala’s face”, auctioned by Sotheby’s, Monte Carlo in 1991. This depicts his wife’s face as it merges into an object. Early, unpublished works of the 1920s predominate, many of which are watercolours and drawings of book covers Dalí designed for his poet friends. There is also one very large work, “Hommage to Meissonier”, which is one of Dalí’s rare experiments in action painting, of 1965. The top floor is devoted to Dalí the illustrator and his work for the cinema and theatre. Along with his sets for Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” are his drawings for the classical Spanish play, Don Juan Tenorio, for Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote.

The houses at Pubol and Port Lligat where Dalí and his wife, Gala, lived are being restored, to be opened in the summer of 1995 as museums of the artist’s highly theatrical life, with his furnishings, studio, clothes and personal effects

Reproduction rights

All reproduction rights to Dalí’s work belong to Demart in virtue of an exclusive contract which Dalí signed with his secretary Robert Descharnes. This ends in 2004. There are also some earlier contracts which the artist signed with foreign publishers for editions of the Vida secreta. Demart is located in Switzerland; fiscally it is based in the Netherlands and it is run by a Canadian trust. The proceeds from the commercial exploitation of Dalí’s work accrue to the Gala-Dalí Foundation.

Dalí prints: worth the effort?

Prints, by or not by Salvador Dalí, are among the most fraught topics in the art world. A huge output, much of it of low artistic merit, coupled with rumours of fakes, forgeries and thousands of sheets of blank paper signed by the ageing artist, have conspired to inspire low confidence in this part of the artist’s oeuvre.

Neither Christie’s nor Sotheby’s in London sell prints by the artist, with the exception of very early etchings produced in the 1930s which seem to have more claim to authenticity.

What is not generally made clear is that the problem is two-fold: whether Dalí himself actually had much of a hand in the many hundreds of prints produced throughout his career to which he added a signature, or whether in fact they are largely “reproductive”, i.e. produced by photo-mechanical or even photographic methods. Second, how to identify the large numbers of unauthenticated editions with fake signatures which have covered the walls of dubious galleries over the last thirty years and have frequently been the subject of court cases.

In general, there is little agreement currently on which prints are by the artist’s own hand. Some experts think none at all, others think only the early work, while a few give credence to the whole body.

A new catalogue raisonné of the prints 1924 to 1980, published by Prestel this month, aims to end much of the controversy surrounding the second issue. The book is written not by art historians, but by two “specialists in the field of art world investigation”, Lutz Löpsinger and Ralf Michler. It provides catalogue details of just over 1,000 prints considered by the authors to be genuine, the result, they say, of thirteen years of detective work, “frequent contact with national and international police authorities including Interpol”, and so on.

The book has the backing of Robert Descharnes, Dalí’s long-time secretary and current chairman of Demart Pro Arte, the company that holds all the right to Dalí’s intellectual property.

Löpsinger and Michler present good information on forged signatures, signing sessions and so on. The catalogue section of the book is actually based in part on a previously published book by Charles Sahil. What the book fails to spell out explicitly is that, even when downright fakes are removed from the oeuvre, the fact that so many of these prints are not original in any meaningful sense, makes their artistic and indeed commercial importance pretty marginal—and rightly so.

Eds. Ralf Michler and Lutz W. Löpsinger Salvador Dalí, catalogue raisonné of etchings and mixed media prints, 1924-80 (Prestel, Munich, 1994) 264pp. 973 b/w 79 col. ills. £80.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Portrait of the artist as a young man'