Dalí and Gaudí: Two Eccentric Catalan Geniuses and the Renaixença

by Norman Berdichevsky (April 2011)

Two eccentric Catalan artists, Antoni (not Antonio) Gaudí and Salvador Dalí (Americans, please note, the accent is on the last syllable!) created a revolution in their respective fields of architecture and painting – and exemplified with their magnificent work the Catalan genius for non-conformism and innovation. These characteristics among many other behavioral traits set the Catalans apart and explain why they are so insistent on maintaining a separate identity from the Castilians even after coexistence in a united Spain for more than five hundred years. Gaudi and Dali are today regarded as geniuses and linked to the turn of the century (19th-20th) “Art Nouveau” and Surrealist movements. Both were initially ridiculed by contemporary art critics for their daring ingenuity. Both were deeply committed to a strong sense of Catalan national identity and were hailed by the new national movement for autonomy as great artists whose work truly reflected all that distinguished Catalan culture, flair, innovation, initiative and pride.

At the beginning of the 1880s, Barcelona was a city of about 350,000 people and had only knocked down its medieval walls twenty years earlier. The new city had ambitious plans for expansion and the inclusions of all the latest technological developments such as electricity, sewage systems, elevators, running water and gas. The city fathers wanted a new city that would rival Madrid, especially in view of the forthcoming World Exposition to be held in the city in 1888.

They were willing to accept the daring and unconventional views of the young architect. Pride in their city, its development, its new industry and the renaissance of the Catalan language and culture all coincided to give expression to the national awakening of “Catalanismo.” The period from 1880 to the end of World War I witnessed the flowering of “La Renaixença”, expressed by a flair for innovation and inventiveness, and a desire to make Barcelona distinct from Madrid.

Although Spain had been united in 1492 by the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon (comprising the Northeast of the peninsula, the region of Catalonia and the Balearic islands) and Isabella of Castille-Leon, the two halves of the kingdom maintained a separate identity, laws, weights and measures and a strong sense of linguistic individuality until they were firmly merged and ruled from Madrid in 1707. Catalan nationalists argue that Catalan is much closer to Latin and has more words of Greek origin than Castillian which absorbed both Basque and Arabic elements. The most politically incorrect remark a foreigner can make about Catalan is that it is a “dialect” of “Spanish”. The international devised language, Esperanto, probably resembles Catalan more than any other national language and this similarity was used as a screen by Catalan nationalists during the early period of General Franco's rule when Catalan was suppressed, frowned upon and practically excluded from any public manifestation or cultural performance.  

As early as the twelfth century, Catalan baladeer-poets, known as troubadours wandered through the region and northward into Provence at a time when the language spoken there was recognized as a Catalan dialect. This vibrant poetic tradition and the use of Catalan by philosophers and historians, the greater achievements of Catalan seafarers and merchants who travelled throughout the Mediterranean and brought their language to Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily and traded with the Orient at a time when Spain still had no overseas experience, colonies or trans-Atlantic ties, all contributed to the feeling that a noble and civilized culture had been submerged by Castille. Catalans regarded Castille as a region that had remained under Arab Muslim rule for much longer and had absorbed a tradition and character traits that deviated considerably from their own much more commercial, literate, cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and tolerant nature. Recently the city council of Barcelona and the regional parliament both passed regulations against bullfighting, long regarded as a primitive Castillian tradition.

The Catalans made a transition to a modern economy and became the dynamo of Spain, outdistancing economic activity in the rest of the country. During that time, Barcelona grew much faster than any other city in Spain. Industry in the manufacture of paper, iron, wool, leather, textiles and processed fish, as well as in the export of wine and cotton led to a new sense of confidence and prosperity.

Barcelona rather than Madrid became the engine of change, progress, industrialization, workers’ unions, the first railways and the first opera. In Castille, the old prejudices against merchants and working with one’s hands still prevailed among an elite out of touch with new developments. Arch-conservatives distrustful of Catalan commercial astuteness even labeled support for the Republic during the Civil War (1936-39) part of what they called a “Judeo-Catalan conspiracy.” Catalonia proved to be the most loyal region in Spain to the ideals of the Republic and was the stronghold of resistance to the Fascist uprising commanded by General Franco.

Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926)

Antoni Gaudi created buildings that lived, “breathed” and moved. He transformed the “modernist movement” of architecture at the end of the nineteenth century into a stunning art form admired throughout the world. No other architect has set his individual mark so clearly upon a city as Gaudi did with Barcelona. 

He was born near Tarragona and began his working life as blacksmith’s apprentice. This experience made him familiar with work in iron which became an important element in designing his renowned intricate ironwork balconies. He studied architecture and maintained a strong sense of his pioneering avant-garde style in spite of ridicule and abuse he received from colleagues and Barcelona’s self styled intellectuals.

After finishing his studies in 1878 at the age of 26 and following several successful commissions for private homes, he was put in charge of the planning and development of what had been the suburb of Gracia.

Gaudi and Dali were both able to take full advantage to this sense of repressed individuality in their art. Gaudi’s most “notorious” (today regarded as “exquisite) buildings in Barcelona such as Casa Milá and Casa Battló along the Passeig de Gracia, the elegant street in the fashionable Eixample quarter of  the city, departed completely from the accepted principles and standards of contemporary architecture. Gaudi refused to accept the discipline of the straight line. His balconies, the walls, staircases and roofs of his buildings all “flow” like the sea. The roofscapes make chimneys and vents into abstract sculptures and geomorphic forms vaguely resembling birds in flight. He was ahead of his time by decades and designed houses with their own parking spaces for the newly introduced automobile.      

Casa Milá (better known as La Pedrera), Barcelona 

None of his houses had regular straight lines. He imitated trees, flowers, beetles, ancient Mexican and Hindu gods, leaves, shells, reptiles, rocks and the landscape of the nearby Montserrat dolomite mountains. All these can best be seen in the magnificent Guell Park in Barcelona. He achieved an amazing synthesis through his combination of glass, wrought iron, wood and stone.

Spain remained neutral during World War I, and the prosperous war years increased Spanish self-esteem and confidence, allowing more daring experimentation in art and architecture. His freedom and individuality appealed to a few wealthy businessmen, mostly textile millionaires, without whose support he would have remained the outcast individual immortalized in the novel Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Rand’s hero, the non-conformist architect, Howard Roark, following Gaudi’s precepts and life style battling the prevailing ideologies of socialism, collectivism and community. He champions egoism over altruism and defends reason as the supreme guide to conduct.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral is certainly Europe’s most unconventional. It became his life’s work, as well as his undoing, and remains unfinished to this day. He lived like a recluse on the building site and was run over by a tram while in deep thought over how to raise more money to keep the project going. He is buried in the crypt and all of Barcelona turned out to honor him at his funeral.


Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)

Salvador Dali was born in Figueres, a Catalonian town close to the French border. He had an older brother also named Salvador who died of gastroenteritis just nine months before the birth of the artist leaving him with the impression that he was the reincarnation of this older sibling, a view encouraged by his parents who took him when he was only five years old to visit the grave of his deceased brother. Of his brother, Dalí said, “We resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections.” He “was probably a first version of myself but conceived too much in the absolute.”  Undoubtedly part of his eccentric behavior later in life must have had its origin in his views of himself as a reincarnated soul.

His father, Salvador Dalí i Cusí, was a middle-class lawyer and notary whose strict disciplinary approach was tempered by his wife, Felipa, who encouraged her son's artistic endeavors. In 1916, Dalí discovered modern painting on a summer vacation trip to with the family of a local artist who made regular trips to Paris. The next year, Dalí's father organized an exhibition of his charcoal drawings in their family home and an exhibition at the Municipal Theater in Figueres in 1919.

In 1922, Dali moved to Madrid, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and lived in student dorms where he met Spain’s preeminent poet Federico Garcia Lorca with whom he had a strong emotional bond and perhaps a homosexual affair. He became interested in cubism and resolved to move to Paris in 1926, where he was inspired by meeting Picasso. For both of them, Paris was the center of the European art world and Dali began to cultivate cubism as his preferred art form.

In 1929, he met a young Russian girl, Helena Diakonova, known by her nickname of Gala who was ten years his senior and would from that time on become his muse, inspiration, model and girlfriend. She was born in 1894 in Kazan, Russia and was sent by her parents to a Swiss sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. There she met the French poet Paul Eluard whom she married in 1917 and, under the influence of her husband, she entered the avante garde Parisian Surrealist Movement.

The Last Supper by Salvador Dalí

In the summer of 1929, Gala and her husband together with some friends visited the young painter, Salvador Dali, at his studio in Portlligat, a small village on a bay on the Costa Brava near the Catalonian city of Cadaques. A museum is of the artist’s work is located there now and it is where he painted The Madonna of Port Lligat, Crucifixion and Sacrament of the Last Supper (above) in which the bay is portrayed. During that short stay, Gala and Dalí fell in love and she took a vow: “We will never again be apart.”

Dali’s decision was in part motivated by his eccentric behavior and expulsion from the Academy of Fine arts by insulting the faculty, claiming they were not competent to judge his work. The content of his paintings was considered shocking. It reflected many of Freud’s theories such as the erotic themes in The Great Masturbator, The Spectre of Sex Appeal, The Lagubrious Game and even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity with his many versions of “Soft Watches” (The Persistence of Memory).

All of them created a sensation and made the public aware of the links between art and science on the one hand and art and the subconscious on the other. His The Discovery of America shows Columbus’ voyage as the prelude to the landing on the moon. His hallucinatory images were way ahead of his time and even in the field of politics, Dali was undoubtedly the most prescient painter in Europe. His ominous Horseman of Death, painted in 1933 portrays a gruesome skeleton on horseback with his arm extended in a Nazi-like salute.

Dalí and Gala, having lived together since 1929, were married in 1934 in a civil ceremony. His relationship with her, eccentricity, bohemian lifestyle, and leftwing associations with atheists had become intolerable for his father who broke all relations with him. In spite of this, the artist refused to openly condemn fascism as had many in his surrealist group of friends leading most of them to break off with him.

The Spanish Civil War resulted in Dalí looking for a safe haven as his work was certainly considered “leftwing,” very unconventional and even sacrilegious by the Franco regime. He was regarded as a skilled draftsman but his genius lay in the composition of striking and bizarre images in his surrealist work although some of his techniques imitated those of Renaissance painters such as Velazquez. Dalí's expansive artistic talents stretched over film, sculpture, and photography, and he often worked in collaboration with a range of artists in a variety of media.

His pencil thin moustache, a clever trademark was superseded by his penchant for the “gilded, excessive and bizarre.” He attributed his love of luxury and oriental clothes to a self-styled “Moorish-Arab lineage.” His eccentric manners and attention-grabbing publicity stunts increased with his settling in the United States at the beginning of World War II. They brought him greater notoriety than his artwork to the dismay of those who held his work in high esteem and to the irritation of his critics.

Although Dalí retained his penchant for notoriety, he returned to Catholicism and even married Galia in a Catholic ceremony in 1958 and eventually returned to Franco's Spain, the only significant exile who had fled the country and been associated with the republic. After his wife’s death, Dali lost the will to live. In 1982, King Juan Carlos awarded the artist a title of nobility Marqués de Dalí de Púbol. To show his gratitude for this, Dalí later gave the king his final drawing after the king had visited him on his deathbed.

During the 1970s, the Dali-Theatre-Museum was inaugurated. It remains one of Spain’s most visited museums and houses a large collection of his works. The most comprehensive collection of his paintings however is to be found in Saint Petersburg, Florida at the Salvador Dali Museum due to the generosity of American businessman Reynolds Morse and his wife who first met Dali during his American stay in 1943. Morse became fascinated with the eccentric artist and began to buy up his work. Estimates place Morse’s purchases of Dali’s paintings at about $5 million. Their market value today is close to $500 million!

In spite of his wandering, eccentricities and shifting artistic and political views, Dalí returned home and is buried in his native Catalonia a stone’s throw from the home where he was born and grew up. Both he and Gaudí owed part of their artistic flair to the heritage of the Renaixença of the preceding century.


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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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