Gala Dalí’s Life Wasn’t Quite Surreal, but It Was Pretty Strange

Salvador Dalí‘s “Gala Placidia. Galatea of the Spheres” from 1952, for which his wife, Gala Dalí, was the model and muse. A new exhibition in Barcelona examines Gala as someone willing to play those roles, but also as a person eager to forge her own path as an artist.

BARCELONA, Spain — In 1969, Salvador Dalí, the Surrealist painter, gave a derelict castle to his Russian-born wife, Gala, as a present. She welcomed his generosity but also set rules for her new home in Púbol, a village in Catalonia.

Gala stipulated that her husband could visit the castle only if he had received a written invitation. “Sentimental rigor and distance — as demonstrated by the neurotic ceremony of courtly love — increase passion,” an acquiescent Dalí later wrote.

Credit...Fundación Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres

The peculiar visiting ritual ordered by Gala is a well-known anecdote. But much else about Gala’s life, ambitions and desires remains unclear or subject to conflicting accounts, which probably explains why it has taken until this month for a museum to devote a full exhibition to her, even though she shared — and shaped — the lives of several key artists of the Surrealist movement. The exhibition, “Gala Salvador Dalí. A Room of One’s Own in Púbol,” runs through Oct. 14 at the National Art Museum of Catalonia, in Barcelona.

The show presents Gala as someone willing to play the secondary role of muse and model, but also eager to forge her own path as an artist. Gala “always felt more comfortable in the shadows but, like Dalí, she also wanted to become a legend one day,” said Montse Aguer, the director of the museums of the Gala-Salvador Dalí foundation, which co-organized the show.

Gala, born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova in Kazan, Russia, in 1894, had a stepfather who read her the poetry of Mikhail Lermontov and introduced her to other great Russian writers. The family moved to Moscow, where they lived comfortably and moved in intellectual circles, but, when Gala became unwell with suspected tuberculosis at age 17, she was sent to a sanitarium in Switzerland to recover.

There she met and fell in love with a young Frenchman called Eugène Émile Paul Grindel, who was unsure about whether to become a writer. Gala encouraged him, and he went on to publish poetry as Paul Éluard. Today, Éluard is remembered as one of the founders of the Surrealist movement.

After returning to Russia, Gala again displayed her single-mindedness. She persuaded her parents to let her cross war-torn Europe to Paris, and also got the parents of Éluard to allow her to move into their family home with their son. The couple married in 1917.

Alongside Éluard, Gala embraced the Surrealist movement — in more ways than one. She had a love affair with Max Ernst, who also painted her. She was a close friend of René Crevel and René Char — two leading French Surrealist writers. She also served as a model for Man Ray, the American artist and photographer. Her relationship with some other prominent Surrealists was often tense, however, notably with the French writer André Breton and with the Spanish film director Luis Buñuel.

In 1929, the Éluards traveled to Spain and visited a budding artist called Salvador Dalí. A love-struck Gala left Éluard and their daughter to join Dalí in his fisherman’s house outside the town of Cadaqués.

Dalí and Gala married in 1934. Over five decades, Dalí made hundreds of drawings and paintings of Gala, showing his multifaceted wife as the Madonna, as an erotic figure, or as a dark and mysterious woman. Dalí also started signing some paintings “Gala Salvador Dalí,” showing the couple’s strong bond. But there is no evidence that Gala ever used a paintbrush or told Dalí how to compose his works.

Gala liked to read Tarot cards, but she was also a savvy businesswoman who knew how to attract gallerists while keeping Dalí away from people she distrusted. In a diary entry in 1939, the novelist Anaïs Nin recounted how Gala would assign specific tasks to her and to other people to help her husband during their stay together in the house of Caresse Crosby, an American patron of the arts. Gala’s talents as a publicist did not go unnoticed: Giorgio de Chirico, the Italian painter, asked her to become his agent, too.

But as much as admiration, Gala provoked a mix of fear and fascination. In a male-dominated society, she also found few allies among women. The American art collector Peggy Guggenheim, in her memoirs, described Gala as “handsome” but “too artificial to be sympathetic.” Others denigrated her as “a money-grabber,” said Estrella de Diego, a professor of art history at Complutense University in Madrid and the curator of the show in Barcelona. But if Gala was driven by money, Ms. de Diego asked, then why did she abandon the established Éluard and the glamour of Paris for Dalí, a young painter living in a village?

The Barcelona exhibition raises as many questions as it answers. Several of the 315 displayed items come from the Púbol castle, including some of the clothing that also made Gala a fashion icon, dressed by the likes of Christian Dior and Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian designer who made a famous hat for Gala shaped as a high-heeled shoe. As the Dalís grew old, their relationship became more tense, and they struggled to confront death, Ms. de Diego said. Gala died in 1982 and was buried in Púbol, in a crypt designed by her husband to resemble a chess board. (Dalí built his tomb alongside hers, but he then left Púbol two years later after getting injured in a fire that swept through his bedroom in the castle. Instead, he was buried in 1989 in his own museum, in his hometown, Figueres.)

The exhibition shows how Gala found her place within a Surrealist movement that otherwise made little room for women. Ms. de Diego noted that Breton, the group’s leader, had even decreed that a Surrealist female artist could not also be a mother.

Still, Gala attended several of the group’s reunions, took part in their collaborative drawing sessions and other Surrealist experiments, and also made some Surrealist objects of her own, though only photographs of those survive. The show also features several photographs of her working with Dalí on projects like “The Dream of Venus,” an early example of an art installation he made for the New York World’s Fair of 1939.

Gala also pursued her love for literature. Crevel, the poet, wrote about Gala preparing a novel, but it was never published and no manuscript was ever found, although a diary, in which she had written about her childhood in Russia, was discovered in the Púbol castle.

Gala wanted the castle to be “a place of silence and nostalgia, designed for a lady looking for her lost Russian youth,” said Jordi Artigas i Cadena, the project coordinator for the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation. She apparently enjoyed the castle’s remote location and surrounded the property with her favorite flowers and plants. Dalí decorated the interior specifically for his wife, encrusting some ceilings with a “G” coat of arms in her honor. Every room of the castle offers “clear evidence of a couple who needed each other to move forward and accomplish things,” Mr. Artigas said.

Gala’s accomplishments might not be those of her husband, but the Barcelona exhibition goes a long way toward putting them on a more equal footing. She should also be appreciated as a guiding force for other Surrealists, “a woman who clearly knew what she wanted for herself and others,” Ms. de Diego said.

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