From 27 April to 2 September, the Reina Sofía Museum is holding a fantastic exhibition on Salvador Dalí. That is why I’ve been asked to write a post on the adventures of this eccentric and concentric genius, as he would often describe himself, in Madrid, where he lived from 1922 to 1926.
At first I thought I might make a list of all the places that you should visit to discover Dalí’s Madrid one by one, but I’m realizing it’s impossible – it is endless! So, I’ll start from the end. Let’s go back to 1986, when the monument to Newton was finally erected in Plaza de Salvador Dalí, next to the Palacio de Deportes sports arena. As the artist was seriously ill, he was not able to attend the opening ceremony but he did send a telegram to say thank you, with the closing words “Long live the people of Madrid!” Months before that, Mayor Enrique Tierno Galván had visited the artist in Torre Galatea and they got on so well that the mayor returned to Madrid with two gifts: a cane that had belonged to Victor Hugo and a monument for the city designed under Dalí’s supervision and following his sketches. According to the newspapers at the time, they talked about Ramón Gómez de la Serna, his gathering in Café del Pombo, and Federico García Lorca. 60 years had gone by since Dalí left the city, but he still remembered the Twenties (the Roaring Twenties) in Madrid.
This story begins in 1921, when, together with his sister and his father, who had been half-convinced by Professor Núñez of his son’s talent, the artist arrived in Madrid to take the entrance exam to the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts. Despite not meeting the standard requirements, his drawing was so perfect that the jury passed him. What ensued was a series of disagreements between the school’s strict academic discipline and the boldness of such an avant-garde young man. Years later he wrote in Diary of a Genius: “When I was twenty I already knew I would win the great painting prize from the Madrid Royal Academy for a painting that I would do without my brush even touching the canvas. Of course, I won the prize. The painting depicted a young nude virgin woman. I stood over a metre away from the easel and simply splashed the colours onto the canvas. Funnily enough, I didn’t stain a thing. Each splash was immaculate.” Apparently, the only professor he thought he could actually learn from was one who gave lectures in a frock coat, with a black pearl on his tie, who corrected his students’ works with white gloves in order not to get his hands dirty.
During those years Dalí lived in the Residencia de Estudiantes hall of residence, where students from wealthy families stayed while studying in Madrid. There he met Luis Buñuel, Federico García Lorca and Pepín Bello, who described Dalí as a shy and reserved young man, and nicknamed him “the Pole”. Together they used to enjoy jazz nights at the Rector’s Club of the Palace Hotel. In The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí he describes himself as follows: “I looked like an actor in disguise, with my gold top cane, a velvet jacket, long hair like a woman and sideburns that went halfway down my cheeks”…”I hated long trousers and I decided to wear shorts with socks, and sometimes even legwarmers. A waterproof cape that almost touched the ground protected me on rainy days. Today I realise that my clothing looked amazing. People didn’t refrain from commenting on it in front of me and every time I entered or left my room, curious people would flock together to watch me walk by, with my head high”. Today the Residencia de Estudiantes is an interesting cultural space aimed at promoting culture from the first thirty years of the 20th century, known as the Silver Age. It offers accommodation grants for young researchers, artists and poets.
In Madrid, Dalí practised the pointillist, cubist and divisionist styles, and proposed a key concept in his generation – “that which is putrid” – referring to pretentious, overly sentimental and grandiloquent things. He hadn’t discovered surrealism yet and his work was strongly influenced by Juan Gris, Rafael Barradas and Giorgio di Chirico. Cubist Self-Portrait (1923), from the Reina Sofía Museum, and Pierrot with a Guitar, from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, are very representative paintings from this era. The most Dalí-like museum in Madrid, however, does not have any of his works. In order to understand the work of this eccentric and concentric artist you need to visit the PradoMuseum. Dalí, surrealist, radical, precursor of Pop Art and performance, who loved to be on television and adverts, actually aspired to be a classic. A great connoisseur of Renaissance and Baroque painting, his work is filled with hidden references to Rafael, Zurbarán and Vermeer. Once, after showing his friend the writer Jean Cocteau the museum, journalists asked them which artwork they would save if the museum were to be destroyed by fire. Cocteau, to be provocative, said he would save the fire. Dalí, who deeply admired Velazquez, chose the air in the paintings, and especially, the air in Las Meninas.