The clown prince

The clown prince

Remembering Salvador Dali, the eccentric genius who seemed to play games even after his death 30 years ago

Salvador Dali died of cardiac arrest in Figueras, Spain 30 years ago, on January 23, 1989, aged 84. “He will have a permanent place in the history of art,” wrote John Russell (The New York Times / January 24, 1989). “He wanted to systematise confusion and to discredit the world of everyday reality. He did this in his paintings, but also in life… When Dali hallucinated in the late 1920s, the whole world hallucinated with him.”

By all accounts Dali was, for more than half a century, one of the best-known and most bitterly contested figures in international art.

Once a hungry and starving artist, he rose to become a spectacular star, flaunting his flamboyant personal trademarks such as a Mephistophelean moustache, a smoking hat and gold-headed cane. His deliberately constructed personal life and work ethic respected no one, nor followed any of the natural laws of time, space, gravity, decency or propriety. 

Dali matched his eccentricities with an exceptionally rich artistic harvest. He continually infested his art with a seductive charm. Art critic George Kent found that Dali’s haunting dreamscapes and hypnotic perspectives “had a compelling trance-like quality: washed by a cold stellar light, they seemed to obey a mysterious logic that flowed from another universe.” Dali and other surrealists, according to Kent, had “roamed the dream landscape with the butterfly nets of their imagination. Discarding conventional logic, they pronounced rubbish beautiful, and disorder, the most elegant form of organization.”

In his hey days, Dali supposedly developed a unique but weird routine. While seven months of the year — day in, day out — he painted, “the rest of the time he devoted to a carnival of craziness.”  

Dali & Gala

Dali’s life was intrinsically and inescapably linked to his marriage to Helena Ivanovna Diakonov (known as Gala). The two met in the Catalan town of Cadaqués in 1929. She was elder to him by a decade, and was already married to eminent surrealist poet Paul Eluard. She was herself known to be an intellectual, a talented writer, and a conceptual artist ahead of her time. It was love at first which led her to abandon everything for Dalí — “a very young artist who nobody knew at that time, (living) in Catalonia in the middle of nowhere.” The two married in 1934, and almost immediately she became the dominating partner and his obsessively ambitious art promoter.

Dali's portrait of Gala titled 'SPHERES'.
He immortolised her in many of his works. 


She, on the other hand, allegedly coerced him to maximise earnings at the expense of artistic integrity. She was often denigrated by observers as a megalomaniac mistress of hype,money grabber, ‘Spider Woman’, and “one of the nastiest wives a major modern artist ever saddled himself with.” Notorious for having a strong sex drive, Gala also had the dubious distinction of having numerous extramarital affairs throughout her life.

Dali apparently was aware of all her activities but still remained steadfastly faithful to her.

Dali with Gala, his wife and muse


In his Secret Life, he wrote: “I would polish Gala to make her shine, make her the happiest possible, caring for her more than myself, because without her, it would all end.” Their childless marriage lasted almost 50 years and withstood many ups and downs. It ended with her death in 1982. Two years later, Dali suffered serious burns when a fire broke out in his bedroom.  The ailing 80-year-old artist who was living in virtual seclusion took time to recover. He breathed his last five years later, in 1989. 

Paternity claim

Dali’s surreal tale did not end with his death and burial. Twenty-eight years after he was laid to rest in the inner court of Dalí Theater-Museum in Figueras, an uncanny development took place on July 20, 2017. 

On that night, the remains of Dali were exhumed from his resting place. This was on the insistence of Pilar Abel, a tarot card reader who fought a decade-long legal case claiming herself to be Dali’s daughter. She alleged that her mother and Dali had an affair way back in the 1950s, and that she (Abel) was the outcome of that dalliance.  She demanded her right to a part of his vast estate worth millions of dollars. Abel said she was searching for her identity and "just want the truth to be known." She further argued that the resemblance between her and the artist was so marked that “the only thing I’m missing is a moustache."

Abel pursued hard with her legal suit till the judge gave the go-ahead for DNA tests to attest her claim. Accordingly, a small team of select officials and lawyers were allowed to be present when the tombstone, weighing more than one ton, was raised from Dali’s grave with the help of a pulley. At around 10:20 pm, the casket was opened and coroners extracted the requisite biological samples — hair, nails, teeth, and two bones from Dali’s remains.

There is nothing abnormal about Dali. He is simply antinormal.

An interesting discovery came to light: even after 28 years below the ground, Dali’s moustache had miraculously remained intact! “His face was covered with a silk handkerchief, a magnificent handkerchief,” revealed Narcís Bardalet, the embalmer who tended to Dalí’s body after his death in 1989 and assisted with the exhumation. “When it was removed, I was delighted to see his moustache was intact … (like clock hands at) 10 past 10, just as he liked it. It’s a miracle.”

On September 2, 2017, after the DNA test failed to prove Abel’s claims, the samples were reunited with the rest of Dali’s remains. The Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation issued a statement confirming the final act. “The mortal remains of Salvador Dalí have been reburied and lie beneath the dome of the Figueres Theatre-Museum. The procedure was the same as it was last July and was once again designed to preserve the master’s privacy and memory.”