When a friend of mine showed Dalí a painting made by my chimpanzee Congo, he studied it carefully and then announced that, ‘The hand of the chimpanzee is quasi-human; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally an-ee-mal’. This was an astute response because the hand of the chimpanzee was, indeed, struggling to make some kind of order out of the lines it was placing on the paper, creating a primitive form of composition, while the lines of Jackson Pollock deliberately destroy any form of composition, creating a uniform, overall pattern. This comment of Dalí’s says a great deal about what happened to surrealism after its birth in 1924. In his first manifesto Breton defined surrealism as ‘pure psychic automatism’ – a phrase that applies perfectly to what Pollock did when he flicked paint onto the canvas. By that definition, Pollock would seem to be the ultimate surrealist and Dalí, by comparison, would look more like an Old Master. But, although Dalí may have used the painting technique of an academic artist, his imagery was anything but traditional. For Dalí belonged to that special kind of surrealist who painted traditionally, but whose moment of creative surrealist irrationality came before the painting began, when a wildly irrational, unconscious idea flashed through his brain.
Dalí was, without question, the most skilful, most accomplished of all the surrealists. In his early work he was also the most darkly imaginative and inventive. Sadly, after he was expelled from the movement by Breton, he eventually lost his way and some of his later works can only be described as religious kitsch. He also enjoyed acting the fool in public, a device that made him well known to a wide audience. As a result, he became the most famous of all the surrealists in the public mind, to a point where he could boldly make the public proclamation that ‘I AM surrealism’. However, these later aberrations should not be allowed to overshadow the fact that, in his early days, he created some of the greatest surrealist paintings ever made.
Dalí was born in Northern Spain in 1904, making him slightly younger than most of the other key surrealists. (Arp, Breton, de Chirico, Delvaux, Duchamp, Ernst, Magritte and Man Ray were all born in the nineteenth century.) His birth was a strange experience for his parents. Three years earlier his mother had given birth to another Salvador Dalí, a much loved baby who sadly died in 1903. When she gave birth to a second baby nine months later he was given the same name, as if to bring the first Salvador back to life. As a child, the second Salvador Dalí was often taken to see the grave of the first Salvador Dalí and stood there staring at what appeared to be his own name engraved on the headstone. Later, as an adult, Dalí would declare that his notorious excesses were the result of his attempt to prove, over and over again, that he was not his dead brother.