Salvador Dalí

Rehabilitating Salvador Dalí: The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation's ongoing battles

Twenty years after his death, the artist’s legacy has been severely damaged by the proliferation of works and organisations which carry his name

Salvador Dalí died in 1989 but today he is everywhere. His trademark melting clocks and spindly-legged elephants have been used to sell everything from beach towels, clothing and jewellery to lighting installations, moustache brushes and pet accessories. There are thousands of websites claiming to sell “authentic” works by the artist and dozens of “museums” which use his name to attract visitors.

“The artist has become a 20th-century icon, one who many try to exploit for commercial advantage,” says Joan Manuel Sevillano, director of the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation in Figueres set up by the artist himself in 1983. “It is something we have been fighting against since the beginning.”

The foundation is the official custodian of the artist’s estate which includes several properties and the largest collection of Dalí’s work anywhere in the world. It also promotes and protects the artist’s legacy.

“To avoid the trivialisation of Dalí, in the past year alone we have vetoed 11 scripts for Hollywood films, including some for which Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Peter O’Toole and Antonio Banderas had been lined up as possible candidates to play the artist. And we began trademark protection proceedings 24 times to prevent the unauthorised use of Dalí’s name including attempts to sell soap and chocolate bars with it,” says Mr Sevillano.

“We also act worldwide to protect Dalí’s intellectual property, and have brought lawsuits in Spain, the United States and Japan, among other countries. We are currently contesting a number of trademarks that border on the illegal.”

“At the same time we keep a close eye on business initiatives by so-called ‘close friends’ of the artist who claim to have known him; their activities only add more confusion to an already highly complex market.”

Mr Sevillano believes that one of the most damaging aspects of the global Dalí industry is the increase in recent years of the number of self-styled “Dalí museums” which are “quite separate from the great Dalinian institutions, like the one which opened in Berlin last year. The ‘pseudo-museums’ tend to disregard the artistic, cultural and educational aspects of the popularisation of Dalí’s work but still portray themselves as permanent museums, sometimes even claiming a non-existent collaboration with the foundation. We want to avoid a situation where private collections based on mass-produced minor works, luxury merchandising and even memorabilia become points of reference in the art market.” This trend diminishes the artist’s importance says Mr Sevillano and is one of the main challenges faced by the foundation in achieving its primary aim: to restore Dalí to his rightful place in the canon of art history.

The problem with prints

Undoubtedly Dalí’s graphic works are the most controversial part of his output. It was because of the large quantity he produced throughout his career that Dalí fell into disrepute in the late 1970s. The situation was aggravated by a succession of false stories which have appeared in the press over the years, ranging from articles claiming that the artist had been kidnapped by his own staff (at the end of his life the artist was very ill and visitors were generally prevented from seeing him) to suggestions that Dalí had colluded in forging works of art by signing blank sheets of paper on which his graphic works were to be reproduced in the future. “Such reports can not be taken seriously,” says Mr Sevillano. “It is true that Dalí agreed to do several series of graphic works and was captivated by the idea of mass production as an art form that would bring his work to a much wider and more diverse audience. The only real problem with graphic art is not forgery but the printing process and the unscrupulous behaviour of some publishers who claimed at the time to be experts and abused Dalí’s trust by not publishing the number of copies agreed with the artist. People who had been authorised to print 100 works went ahead and printed 500.”

“The idea that Dalí consented to the forgery of his graphic works is completely untrue. He was never less than scrupulous. He was an artist trained in the purest classical tradition and although he pushed the boundaries and broke new ground he had a deep respect for the classic concepts of authorship, authenticity and legitimacy. He proved this by going so far as to denounce one of his personal secretaries for exhibiting a work which he did not consider to be his own.”

The secretary in question was the Englishman John Peter Moore, the first of three personal assistants who were to work for Dalí from 1955 to 1972, a man whose name was tarnished by accusations of forgery and theft. And what about Dalí’s wife and lifelong companion, Gala? According to the artist’s third assistant, the Spanish pilot and photographer Enric Sabater: “Perhaps she was involved in one particular deal at a time when she had become senile and was terrified of dying, but Dalí stopped her.”

“By no means is Dalí an artist whose original works have been forged more often than those of other 20th-century painters, says Mr Sevillano, “partly because his technique is so complex and sophisticated. When forgeries do appear they are so blatant that the foundation is not unduly concerned. There is no problem with the market for his oil paintings.”

What they do

The foundation is responsible for the Dalí estate (with works of art currently valued at E200m) and the properties the artist developed on the Costa Brava which are all run as museums: the theatre museum at Figueres; his former home at Portlligat on the Costa de Cadaqués which is a labyrinthine structure built up from fishermen’s cottages over 40 years, and the Castillo de Pubol, the castle 40 kilometres from Figueres in north-east Spain which Dalí bought as a gift for Gala in 1970. The three museums attract 1.5 million visitors every year.

Since 1997, the foundation has embarked on several major research projects including collaborations on international exhibitions. There have been shows in Chile and Taiwan, retrospectives at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (2006), at the Ueno Royal Museum in Tokyo (2007), as well as an exhibition at Tate Modern in London (2007) showing how Dalí’s paintings and drawings influenced his films, which then travelled to MoMA in New York. This month a major exhibition with loans from the foundation opens at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, the first retrospective for the artist in Australia, spanning his entire career.

Perhaps the most ambitious project undertaken by the foundation is the cataloguing of the artist’s entire output. This research is available online in three languages. Since 2002, the mammoth task of cataloguing Dalí’s engravings has been underway. As part of this, the foundation has organised a show of the artist’s graphic works currently on display at the Castillo de Pubol.

“It is a crucial initiative to reaffirm the artist’s reputation in the field of graphic art and to bring him the recognition that he deserves,” says Mr Sevillano. “It is an area in which there is still a lack of transparency and seriousness, and a market involving many people with vested interests even in some auction houses. We are working hard to track down cases of fraud and are collaborating with police forces all over the world. Another problem is that his graphic works belong to a stage in his life which, like the rest of his later work, has not been studied much—top museums and universities, such as MoMA, Tate and Yale are collaborating with us to change this.”

The foundation also aspires to become the only authority able to authenticate works by Dalí. “We are the only ones willing to apply rigorous scientific methods with the aid of a committee drawn from different disciplines. The art world is full of people who call themselves experts, whose job seems to be to turn up everywhere and apply allegedly infallible methods,” says Mr Sevillano.

Artistic legacy

Antoni Pitxot, director of the theatre museum and a close friend of Dalí’s, believes the artist foreshadowed many of the trends in contemporary art. “Dalí was 50 years ahead of his time. He was the forerunner of all the movements and trends that came decades later—pop art, installations, performance art and artists who use self-promotion to publicise their work. Really, the Dalí theatre museum is no more than a large installation full of objects,” he says.

“He worked in so many fields—painting, literature, drawing, photography, cinema, stage design and interior design. Warhol, who called Dalí ‘master’, frequently worked with him—on his floating cushions, for example—and often visited him at the St Regis Hotel in New York. They organised some great parties together. It was Dalí who gave Warhol the idea of the fixed camera in the Factory. I’m convinced that the pioneer of mass culture wasn’t Warhol but Dalí, who went to the United States and became friends with Walt Disney when he was just starting out. It was Dalí who saw the potential of various media and how to exploit them. He was a 21st-century man and my hope is that he will finally be recognised as such. There is still too much snobbery about his work, mainly due to the superficial way in which academia has treated it.”

Montse Aguer, director of the Centre for Dalinian Studies, an organisation run by the foundation, agrees: “Dalí’s influence on generations of artists is already well recognised: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke and Jeff Koons, to name but a few, artists who combine the cult of personality, interest in new technology, the breaking down of barriers between high and low culture, and especially the use of self-promotion as a platform for their art.”

“Dalí is as famous for his personality as his work,” continues Ms Aguer. “In fact, the two are inseparable. There was a time when his public persona came to overshadow his art. The downside of this was obvious. That version of Dalí failed to show the man as he really was, only his most frivolous side. I believe that when he took his manufactured personality to extremes, it had a negative effect because it made us doubt the private Dalí. It left us with the superficial, opportunistic Dalí.”

“Nevertheless,” says Ms Aguer, “research and analysis of his work have started to change this tendency. People now think of him as an extraordinary artist of boundless imagination and a great capacity to connect with the collective imagination, who was ahead of his time and had immense knowledge as well as incredible technical skill. Dalí was a thinker and one of the few 20th-century artists who really knew how to combine an in-depth knowledge of tradition with an intense commitment to modernity.”

According to Mr Sevillano it is this duality between tradition and modernity which still causes confusion about Dalí. “For the first time, we are confronted with a multi-faceted personality, a superb artist able to connect with the purest classicism but who joins the Surrealist movement and revolutionises it. Then we have the pop artist whose relationship with his admirers is more like that of a rock star with his fans. There are people who collect pictures by Dalí and other people who collect hairs from his moustache. Both groups are devotees but we have to analyse Dalí by looking at both aspects: the icon who communicates with the masses and the mould-breaking artist.”

Mr Pitxot believes that one obstacle remains—the assumption that Dalí’s output after 1940 is inferior to his previous work. “That is snobbery and intellectual laziness. It has not been studied in depth. His work gradually changes, not in terms of quality but in terms of intentions and possibilities. Dalí at the age of 70 had neither the energy nor the resources he had at 30. At the end of his career he produced some extremely interesting works which hardly anyone has researched. In his final period he embraced psychoanalysis, science, and religious mysticism and redefined the frontiers of art, fashion and popular culture in ways that we are only just beginning to understand—his enormous impact on contemporary art has yet to be fully assessed.”

o For information on “Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire” opening at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne on 13 June, see What’s On p12

o For further information on the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation in Figueres:

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 203 June 2009