Dali’s lasting commercial impact
A brief insight into the commercial world inspired by the great surrealist
Portrait of Salvador Dalí, Paris (Carl Van Vechten)
Many remember Salvador Dalí as someone who spent much of his life promoting himself and, simultaneously, creating surreal masterpieces that have had a lasting impact within the art and commercial world. He relished courting the masses and was more widely recognised, especially in the United States, than any other Spanish painters, including Picasso. His artwork was often sensational and marked in controversy. This was evident early in his career, for example, when Dalí exhibited a drawing titled, “SacredHeart” which featured “Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of My Mother.”
He was one of the few artists who seemed to thrive in publicity and the wealth he acquired during his lifetime. All of this evidently mattered so much to Dalí that, sporting his famous upturned moustache he would endorse multiple products for French and American television commercials. Nonetheless, he would often have emotional reticence. “Compared to Velázquez, I am nothing,” he said in 1960, “but compared to contemporary painters, I am the biggest genius of modern time.”
Dalí’s work, however, would fail to amuse some his contemporaries, and consequently several art critics would comment that he peaked artistically in his mid-30s but then gave himself over to exhibitionism and greed. Robert Hughes of The Guardian went on to dismiss Dalí’s later works and even stated that they resembled “kitschy repetition of old motifs or vulgarly pompous piety on a Cinemascope scale.”
Whether he was flaunting his perfectly waxed moustache or flaunting his pet ocelot, Babou, he successfully cultivated an recognisable image within the creative industries and established himself as a marketable commodity.
By the time of his death on January 23, 1989, Dalí had fashioned himself as a multimedia artist, writer, and international celebrity.
Dalí’s Lobster Telephone (1936), Tate Modern
Controversial: Dalí’s 1939 painting: The Enigma of Hitler. Salvador Dali, Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain, CC BY-SA
Dalí’s Surrealism: background and relevance
Initially, the Surrealist movement began as a collaborative affair. In 1918, French poet, Pierre Reverdy, published an essay, The Image, in which he proposed a distinctive style of writing that would juxtapose “two more or less distant realities” connected by the imagination. So, the end product would not copy the world, but, rather, be a different reality altogether.
Sigmund Freud served as an inspiration to the writer André Breton, who extended Reverdy’s idea in his manifestos, which were published in 1924 and 1929, which encouraged artists to abandon rational control of their creativity. Vivid imaginations, dreams, and the unfathomable would promote a new surrealist style that was massively expressive in nature, something that had “the actual functioning of thought”.
Dalí channelled these ideals and became one of the most famous personalities in the world of visual art and culture. His Lobster Telephone (1936) exemplified these very ideas- the chance collision of objects from two completely different realms. It gave audiences the opportunity to imagine holding a lobster in the palms of their hands and speaking into its tail while feeling the rocky texture of the exoskeleton.
The Lobster Telephone was not the only famous household item that Dalí produced. When CocaCola was promoting its beverage that drew parallels with actress Mae West’s curvy body in 1916, Dalí went a step further and turned the star’s lips into the famous red settee that allured the sitter as if the seat was ready to kiss and bite as soon as someone sat on it.
Salvador Dalí; Green & Abbott / Mae West Lips Sofa / 1938
The Enigma of Desire, My Mother, My Mother, My Mother, 1929
Dalí convinced the world that it was fantastical because of everyone’s individual thought process and psyche. Where Freud compared the lives of the bourgeois families to Greek tragedies, Dalí suggested a more free-flowing and positive approach. The painting above, titled “The Enigma of Desire, My Mother, My Mother, My Mother” (1929), exudes eroticism and is indebted to Freudian psychology. Dalí’s mother is portrayed here as a monumental rock with the words “Ma mère” written into the caverns on its surface.
First exhibited at Dalí’s solo exhibition in Paris in 1929, it hung in the consulting rooms of a Zürich psychiatrist, until its sale by Christie’s in 1982. Dalí also shared somewhat of a pathological fascination with Hitler. But, when he painted The Enigma of Hitler in 1939, it showed that, even for a surrealist artist, making his vision public could be a dangerous thing, so much so that even his Surrealist colleagues were troubled. The painting featured a portrait of Hitler on a tiny postage stamp beneath a dripping telephone. The work proved to hardly be something that called for a celebration of the ruthless fascist leader.
This also led many members of the Surrealist group to sever ties with Dalí as most of them were outraged at his latest work.
The political inklings and choices that Dalí made over the years were not the only reasons for his falling out with his contemporaries. It was believed that Dalí had reduced Surrealism to just mere popular entertainment. It is true and undeniable that Dalí benefited from the mass market for his works. When he arrived in the United States in 1934, he dove deep into the entertainment industry by designing multiple magazine covers and also participating in the television show “What’s my Line?”. He also produced multiple advertisements for products, ranging from perfumes and lipsticks to pain relief medicines.
Even the great Alfred Hitchcock commissioned Dalí to create a dreamscape for the finale of Spellbound in 1945. By this time, Dalí had been incorporating even wilder ideals into his artwork, notably the melting clocks, repressed landscapes, and burning giraffes.
The contemporary culture that has developed with the world of art, advertisement, and marketing, has a lot to do with Dalí’s wit, personality, and talent. Despite his peer’s concerns, he successfully merged the world of art with the world of entertainment.
There is no doubt that Dalí was a multi-faceted person. Whenever required, he turned himself into an actor, entertainer, painter, or marketing machine. His powerful artworks were a result of dedicated research, a unique vision, and the will to impact the art world like no other. Even so, Dalí himself seemed to have been aware of the impact that he would have as, in 1920, he wrote, “I will be a genius, and the world will admire me. I will be despised and misunderstood, but I’ll be a genius, a great genius, I am sure of it.”
He remains one of the most recognisable and widely discussed artists that we have seen in the last century, and there remains a need to understand and uncover his impact, not just in the art world, but the contemporary marketing and advertising industry as well.
Walt Disney and Salvador Dalí on a boat, Spain (1957) © Walt Disney Family Foundation Collection
Suggested selected readings on Dalí for more information
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental
Bradley, Fiona. Surrealism: Movements in Modern Art. London: Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd, 1977.
Dali, S. (1944). Hidden Faces. London: Peter Owen Limited.
Dempsey, A. (2002). Art in the modern era. United Kingdom: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,Publishers.
Descharnes, R., & Neret, G. (1998). Salvador Dati. South Korea: Taschen.
Durozoi, G. (2002). History of the surrealist movement. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.