Genius or clown? Salvador Dali in his full splendour
Now a major new Paris exhibit aims to reinstate that legacy, putting Dali's media stunts – burying himself in banknotes, signing books wired to a brain monitor, even ad campaigns – on equal footing with his surrealist painting.
"We wanted to show Dali in his full splendour, from one end to the other of his career," said Alfred Pacquement, director of the Pompidou Centre modern art museum, which hosted the last major retrospective on the Spanish artist in 1979.
Co-produced with Madrid's Reina Sofia museum, the show opening for four months on Wednesday brings together more than 200 paintings, sculptures, along with drawings, writings and television clips from the 1920s to the 1980s.
"Until now, the mainstream critical judgement was that there was a good Dali – the Dali of surrealism – up until the end of the 1930s, and that after that he went bad," said Jean-Michel Bouhours, co-curator of the show.
"He made money, he shot advertisements – worse still he became a political reactionary", who failed to take sides during Spain's Civil War.
"But today we have enough distance to be able to stand back and look at the whole of his oeuvre."
Visitors enter the show via an egg-like space – containing a 1942 photograph depicting Dali curled up in foetal position, a reference to his claim that he remembered his life in-utero.
From his childhood in Catalonia – haunted by the presence of a dead older brother whose first name he inherited – the show charts Dali's formative years in Madrid, until he found a spiritual home with the surrealist movement.
"By 1928, the pre-surrealist Dali is in place, with elements like headless bodies, severed hands, sexual symbols," Bouhours said.
The following year he unveiled his seminal film Un Chien Andalou, produced with Luis Bunuel, earning a nod from the influential French surrealist leader Andre Breton.
With the 1930s came fame – with solo exhibitions in Paris and New York – and his most emblematic paintings such as The Persistence of Memory with its melting watches, or cult objects like his lobster telephone or lip-shaped sofa.
In 1939, Dali was expelled by the Communist-linked French surrealists after making ambiguous comments on Adolf Hitler and failing to denounce fascism in Spain, where he later extolled General Francisco Franco for restoring "clarity".
Yet, the curators stress, his 1936 Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), in which a grotesque figure devours itself in a cannibalistic circle, comes across as a powerful anti-war statement.
Fleeing World War II in 1940, Dali and his wife Gala settled in the US where he had already begun dabbling in entertainment, designing the outlandish "Dream of Venus" pavilion for the New York world fair the year before.
Returning to Spain in 1948, Dali turned obsessively to two new themes – religion on the one hand, and the world post-Hiroshima – coining the term "Nuclear Mysticism" to define his work.
But this was also when he embraced television to reach a wider public, taking part in tv game shows, and two or three times a year staging buffoonish media events which he called "happenings".
Ahead of his time
Ad campaigns made the cut as well – for Braniff Airlines in 1967 or Lanvin chocolate in 1968, and were included in the Paris show.
Incensed by his willingness to cash in on success – in 1965 he began selling signed sheets of blank paper for $10 – the surrealist Breton nicknamed him "Avida Dollars", an anagram of his name meaning "Eager for Dollars".
"These works were long seen as marginal, perverse side of his art," said Thierry Dufrene, another of the show's curators. "But today, after [Andy] Warhol, things have come full circle.
"He was greatly ahead of his time," agreed Bouhours. "He understood the power of mass media to explore the irrational nature of the world.
"As early as 1934, he was using pre-Pop language. Dali wasn't just a follower of Pop Art, he was one of its inventors." – Sapa-AFP