Poetry Porch: Prose


Dalí: The Man of Many Words
by Patricia Callan

Salvador Dalí was ready to receive his diploma. But before he began the final exam, which would conclude his studies at the San Fernando Academy of Art, he announced: “No one here is qualified to examine me” (Wach 12).

Why would he make such an injudicious statement, even if it might eventually prove to have been true? He had completed all the required artistic assignments in his classes. He was already exhibiting in galleries, winning awards, and selling his works. His mother, who consistently encouraged his talent, had died the previous year. And he was only eighteen. Why not keep quiet and sail through on the merits he had earned? As it turned out, despite Dalí’s low opinion of them, the exam board members felt they were qualified to deny his diploma (Wach 12).

His pretentious claim turned out to be a sign of what was to come: an artist of forthright opinions who would challenge the status quo at every opportunity. Not verbose for his own sake, Dalí used language to guide his search for specificity in questions about subject and methodology. He expected no less from other artists. However, if Dalí could say something in ten words, he would use twenty, in any of the four languages he spoke: Catalan, Spanish, French, and English. Dalí’s meticulous attention to detail in his own work was equally precise in his theories of painting.

He set it all down in his 164-page manifesto 50 Secrets of Magical Craftsmanship. Included are “Ten Rules for [He] Who Wishes to be a Painter.”

    Don’t be afraid of perfection, you’ll never attain it. Begin and learn to draw and paint like the Old Masters. After that you can do as you like; everyone will respect you. If you are one of those who believe modern art has surpassed Vermeer and Raphael, don’t read this book, go right on in your blissful idiocy. Painter, paint! (50 Secrets).

His declaration on how to paint includes a comparative table of artistic masters ranked according to the following: craftsmanship, color, genius, composition, originality, design, mystery, authenticity. Dalí included himself, which leads one to suspect that the chart would place him at the top. Surprisingly, Vermeer was number one, followed by Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Velasquez. He had no use for Manet at that time, and even less for Mondrian, but changed his mind later about Manet (50 Secrets).

There is more advice to the aspiring artist: what brushes to buy, how to regulate deep sleep, what stool to use, how high to roll one’s shirt sleeves. “Painter,” he admonishes, “Don’t drink alcohol and chew hashish only five times in your life if painting doesn’t love you; all your love for her will be unavailing” (50 Secrets). Why does he suggest smoking hashish five times? Why not four or six? He has also stated: “. . . if painting doesn’t love you, all your love for her will be unavailing” (50 Secrets). He speaks of painting as a lifelong love affair. About the masters, he explains that they magnified their love into a transfigured state of being: “. . . the matter of the old masters is so refined, so completely and continually modified by intelligence that it becomes spiritualized to the point of giving us the illusion that that they painted their pictures with elements of heaven . . . .” (50 Secrets). Dalí was not particularly interested in, nor influenced by, religion until later in life. One understands that to him, painting was lover and theology.

A precocious child, he was encouraged in his artistic pursuits by his mother, but his father, who wished his son to be a businessman, was to have said, “My son has a gift for painting and only painting” (Wach 32). Imagine the tension in the household when the son stubbornly refuted the father’s plans. Nevertheless, Señor Dalí engaged the Catalan artist Ramon Pichot to teach his son. The cultured Pichot family became a strong influence in Dalí’s life, opening the worlds of music, literature, and scientific inquiry to the teenager. It was Pichot who persuaded Señor Dalí to allow his talented son to enter the San Fernando Academy of Art in Madrid. Enrolled at the academy, the young man often painted at home, working above and beyond the school assignments, and connecting with a cultural milieu that was interested in exhibiting and selling his art (Wach 38).

A still-life from this period Pulpo y Scorpa (Octopus and Fish) consists of golds and reds that glow from warm to hot. The brash young artist explains that in this painting, he is working purposefully, saying that here, “I remember every detail of my mother’s kitchen” (50 Secrets). Rendering the catch in the colors of his mother’s Spanish kitchen, Dalí captures the brilliance and heart of his life at home. Four years later, he describes the process of finding the correct gold, which he calls his “wasp medium,” by incorporating an alien element:

    I was painting my first basket of bread. During the three months of June, July and August with poppy oil and walnut oil . . . during these three months I did not remove it [the mixture] from the little white bowl . . . each day it grew a little thicker and more viscous. One morning I found a large wasp drowned in it. The color of the oil shining in the sun mingled with the wasp’s yellow and black stripes fascinated me and I did not remove the wasp from my medium. (50 Secrets).

Dalí recognized that he had a tendency to obsess over such events and spent a winter trying to duplicate the experience, accidentally accomplishing it when a wasp fell into a glass of yellow chartreuse. He put great store in such coincidence, “I am mindful of the coefficient of divine viscosity, which is the enigma of organic matter . . . which was revealed to me by a wasp descended from heaven to sacrifice itself and thereby sweeten my life as a painter” (50 Secrets).

Another of Dalí’s obsessions was Millet’s The Angelus, so universally beloved that copies hung in European, and American, grammar school classrooms for a time. Millet’s composition frames a couple stopping work in an open field for a moment of prayer, their devout posture and demeanor implying a Christian message of piety. Dalí was fascinated by the pair, insisting on an evident sexual tension between them. He elaborated on this theory for years. The Louvre, finally succumbing to his repeated insinuations, consented to x-ray the painting. The examiners found, under the basket of potatoes between the two peasants, that there had been a small coffin. Millet had painted over it, no doubt in order to sell the painting as an example of pastoral benevolence (Wach 78). Dalí would create several of his own interpretations of The Angelus.

Dalí’s Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s The Angelus, painted between 1933 and 1935, now in the collection of The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, is one of the artist’s responses to the Millet painting. The influences of surrealism and Freud are apparent in this interpretation. The woman’s body, made of bricks, towers over the man’s, and indicates female sexual power, calling forth an image of the artist’s unconscious response to his own fears. The derivation from the original results from what Dalí called his “paranoiac-critical” focus, which stimulates a probing into the resistances that surround the self (Wach 78).

In a more allegorical manner, he states, “Every painter must have a wife and a mistress. But all three must live together, and love in the most perfect harmony . . . . With your legitimate wife you must begin to cohabit at the age of twelve [as Dalí did] and at this moment she will be exactly 1300 years old. Her name is Painting, her cheeks are fresh as a rose, her breasts are the roundest that has ever been given you to contemplate . . . And you must know that she will never age” (Secret Number 12, 50 Secrets). If one thinks that Dalí is encouraging adultery as a rare form of harmony, one will be amused by his struggle in an irreconcilable conflict: “I avow that Painting loves me more than I love her and she is often put out with me for each time that I neglect her a little to write . . . [and] I write only about her” (50 Secrets). He continues:

    For Painting cannot be satisfied with words, which the wind sweeps away. She wants you, my dear friend, to possess her at least three times a day, and not a single night will she fail to slip into your bed. (50 Secrets).

Dalí admits that Painting is his life, living and loving her, writing and expounding on her finest qualities and the limits thereof of others to fully appreciate them as he does. Dalí’s father’s words were prophetic, although not as he had intended when they were uttered in frustration: “My son has a gift for painting and only painting.” Fortunately for us, the son also had a gift for writing. Now artists can avail themselves of his prodigious commentary about technique and the analysis of art in the seventeen notebooks kept by the collector A. Reynolds Morse at The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Over the course of forty years, Morse notated every transaction and every word of every conversation he had with Dalí. The notebooks have not yet been published, but once they are, the world will be able to read more, many more, words from Painting’s most ardent lover.

Copyright © 2016 by Patricia Callan.


Dalí, Salvador, and Haakon M. Chevalier, trans. 50 Secrets of Magical Craftsmanship. Dover Fine Art, History of Art, 1992.

Morse, A. Reynolds. “Seventeen Notebooks, Commentary by Salvador Dalí.” Manuscript. St. Petersburg: The Dalí Museum, 2016. Not yet published.

Wach, Kenneth. Salvador Dali: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Salvador Dalí Museum. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996.

The Dalí Museum. www.thedali.org

Dalí, Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s The Angelus thedali.org/exhibit/archeological-reminiscence-millets-angelus/

Dalí, Pulpo y Scorpa www.wikiart.org/en/salvador-dali/still-life-pulpo-y-scorpa

Millet, Jean-François The Angelus L’Angélus, Musée d’Orsay