By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dalí Historian-Writer
Was Salvador Dalí crazy? Literally mad? Such a pointed and provocative question was asked more than a few times in Dalí’s lifetime. Some continue to ask it today. While the answer might be a bit complicated, it’s at the same time really quite simple:
Ahh, but he was crazy like a fox: clever, cunning, calculating.
Of course, replace “crazy” with “eccentric,” and you’ve got a different story. Dalí was in fact eccentric, and that came from two distinct yet partly overlapping places.
It’s well-established that Dalí railed against his parents’ attempt to treat him as if he were the first Salvador born to them. Dalí’s ill-fated brother, also named Salvador, was born a couple of years before the artist, and died tragically of meningitis.
The first Salvador Dalí, left, and the future art world titan.
The second Salvador – the one destined to world fame – endeavored to aggressively establish his own unique identity, resisting attempts to view him as a kind of “replacement” for the Salvador who came before him. Thus were planted the seeds of Dalí’s early eccentric behavior.
Robert Descharnes noted that Dalí described it as “the double need to liken himself to his dead brother and at the same time to free himself from the absolute impossibility of being someone else. From this duality has come his exhibitionism, as a need to assert his own personality.”
As Dalí himself explained it: “All the eccentricities which I commit, all the incoherent displays, are the tragic fixity of my life. I wish to prove to myself that I am not the dead brother, but the living one. As in the myth of Castor and Pollux, in killing my brother, I have gained immortality for myself.”
As Dalí grew older and began to develop a style and following as a young artist, he also understood that his apparent “madness” – his unabashed eccentric ways – could serve him well. It set him apart from the pack. It got him noticed. It was a kind of self-marketing strategy: act like a crazy man, get talked about, get people wondering – then bring it home with talent impossible to deny.
It reminds me of how people like Elton John and Lady Gaga got their start in the music industry. John with his outlandish and garish outfits, headgear and glasses, Gaga with her bizarre and creepy look and even that now-iconic, Dalí-inspired “meat dress.” And Liberace with his ermine collared capes and signature piano-installed candelabra. And other public figures who understood implicitly that the old show biz saw, “You gotta have a gimmick!” was invariably true.
The key to it all is that real, irrefutable talent must underpin the antics, or it all descends to a quickly forgotten flash in the pan footnote in artistic history. Dalí, of course, had talent in abundance.
“The only difference between me and a madman,” Dalí famously proclaimed, “is that I am not mad!” I don’t think anyone explained that provocative statement better than author Descharnes:
“He meant he shares with some madmen a tendency to hallucinations, visions, and obsessions, but that unlike the madmen, he is fully aware of the line which separates the real world from the imaginary. Also unlike a madman, (Dalí) is able to control himself with intense mental gymnastics, and directs the disturbances of his spirit and his life until he can free himself of them on his canvases or through some exhibitionistic action.”
It was a really rather brilliant declaration – puzzling on the surface but actually pretty descriptive of his plan. He would create a sensation by keeping the world guessing: was Dalí truly mad? Or was it all a put-on – a ploy to get noticed, to get on the front page, to get people talking about him?
What we know for sure is that people are still talking about him. And always will.
[Images used under Fair Use provisions for journalistic purposes only]