Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 29, 2021

© Josephine Matyas

The iconic Mae West Lips Sofa installation, on display in Figueres, is viewed through a fish-eye porthole.

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A surreal trip

Prepare for unexpected visions and odd architecture on a visit to Salvador Dalí’s Spanish strongholds

The GPS was not speaking my language. I had fiddled with the buttons, punched in numbers, methodically spelled out street names in Spanish, but it was a no-go. I abandoned the technology, pulled a crumpled map from the bottom of my daypack and spread it across the passenger seat.

It was late afternoon and I’d been zigzagging my way 90 minutes north from Barcelona and into the heart of Catalonia, the culturally rich region of northeast Spain that stretches from the Mediterranean fishing villages of the Costa Brava to the rugged peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains. The map turned out to be a problematic passenger and negotiating roundabouts proved impossible, so I resorted to that most basic of navigational tools: I charted my course by the setting sun.

And that’s when I really noticed the light. The soft light that bathes the countryside of Catalonia inspired artists of all kinds — musicians, painters, sculptors and photographers. It’s this light and rolling landscape that touched Salvador Dalí — the 20th-century Spanish Surrealist painter with the signature, curled moustache — showing up in many of his creations.

So here was my quest: navigate the roadways and landscapes of Catalonia to connect the dots of Dalí. He was born here, lived and painted here, his greatest creations are at home here in a museum designed for their display, and he died and is buried here. Surely by exploring the villages, seaside and his quixotic museum I could make some sense of the artist that some consider a genius, and others a quack with a paintbrush.

A date with Dalí

Love him or hate him, Dalí is revered across Spain. The gallery he created for many of his paintings, the Salvador Dalí Theatre-Museum (5 Plaza Gala-Salvador Dalí; in his hometown of Figueres, is one of the most visited sites in the entire country. I managed to find it without the help of a GPS or even glancing at a city map — the massive eggs and golden mannequins lining the roofline are a dead giveaway. The museum that Dalí created is said to be the largest surrealist object in the world.

I met my guide Margarita Alburnà outside the front doors of the brightly-painted museum. She was exercising her encyclopedic knowledge by giving me a whirlwind tour of the building that figured so prominently in the arc of Dalí’s life. It was in this building — once a Municipal Theatre — that the young Dalí developed a love of cinema, where he had his first public exhibition at the age of 14. This is also the building that he rescued from ruins, rebuilding it from top to bottom to house a culmination of his lifetime worth of work.

Described as a prankster with a massive ego and a flair for self-promotion, Dalí did not want the museum to be explained. “He was very much ahead of his time. He wanted visitors to experiment and to have their own reactions and experiences. That’s why there is no chronological order to the museum and no explanation of the pieces.”

Enter the labyrinth

So, how do you learn to park preconceived notions at the coat check and open up to Dalí’s peculiar sense of humour and vision? It turns out, according to Alburnà, there was method in his madness. The artist designed the Theatre-Museum to offer others a chance to enter his bizarre world of thoughts, dreams and inspiration.

“Try to imagine, when the museum opened in 1974, there was nothing like this,” she said as we pause in the courtyard at the installation known as Rainy Cadillac. “This was Dalí’s first Cadillac — both Al Capone and President Roosevelt had the same model car. It rains on the inside of the car. It’s said that Dalí designed it this way because he once became very wet waiting for a taxi.”

Dalí is best known for his idiosyncratic works of Surrealism — a presentation of the unexpected, a reversal of expectations, an obligation to shock and disturb. But what’s less known is that he also perfected the meticulous techniques of the Old Masters. The collection spans 22 rooms and includes delicate landscapes, portraits, Cubism and a prolific number of Surrealist pieces that speak to some of his better known obsessions: with eggs, with mathematics and geometry and with the building blocks that make up chains of DNA.

“He is buried in the crypt right below this geodesic dome roof and this massive painting of The Labyrinth,” points Alburnà. “To Dalí, the dome represents the eye of a fly as seen through a microscope. He was fascinated by the way a house fly can see in 3-D.”

Dalí created in all shapes and sizes, from the delicate piece of jewellery depicting a beating heart to the room-filling, wood-and-satin Mae West Lips Sofa, one of the most iconic objects of the 20th-century Surrealist movement.

“Surrealism was a therapy for him — a channel for all of his obsessions and fears,” explains Alburnà. “He was under age 40 when he experimented with Surrealism. Later in life he became intensely interested in Realism and he began to paint like the great masters of the Renaissance. This period coincided with his renewed interest in Christianity. He was determined to reanimate art with spirituality.

“People ask if he was crazy but, no, I think he was a genius. He created in many different mediums including film, painting and sculpture. He aspired to be like Leonardo da Vinci.”

At home by the sea

The road from Figueres to Cadaqués is a great drive. In the final few kilometres through coastal Cap de Creus Natural Park, you have the walls of rock to your right and views stretching to the endless sea on your left. Straight ahead is Cadaqués, another dot in the trail of Dalí’s life in Catalonia. One makes the lingering, twisty trip, switchbacking along treacherous roadways, for one of two reasons: to visit the seaside home so loved by the artist or to get off the beaten path and explore a village that speak is the very essence of the Mediterranean.

Dalí spent long periods of his youth in isolated Cadaqués, surrounded by whitewashed facades and narrow cobbled streets. The small fishing village was where his father was born and it was on family holidays here that Dalí took much of his inspiration from the local landscape. The round rocks piled along the shoreline and the light that bathes the surroundings is reflected in many of his paintings.

Dalí and Gala — the woman who was his wife, business genius and artistic muse — bought several fishermen’s huts in Portlligat Bay, a kilometre north of Cadaqués, and assembled them into a labyrinthine seaside home. The Salvador Dalí House-Museum (Portlligat; includes the artist’s studio, library and living space and is now open by appointment to public visits.

Cadaqués — and the Costa Brava is full of rich and varied colours and textures: the dark greens of the cypress trees, the deep blue-green waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the golden tones of the rock and sand. These colours — softened by the glow of the Catalan sun — were a constant flow of creative energy for Dalí.

Like Dalí, I fell in love with Cadaqués; explored the steep, narrow streets, inflicted my limited Catalan on the shop owners and was bewitched by the magical rays of the sun. In the waning light of another late afternoon, I headed back to the car park. I unlocked the door, slid into my seat and checked to make sure the GPS was turned off. There was no need for whiz-bang technology in this part of the world. The light had touched me — as it did Dalí — but in its own special way. I looked for the setting sun and head due west.

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