To look at a Salvador Dalí painting is to wonder about the mind that painted it. A visit to the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain, gives visitors a chance to look into that mind.
That doesn’t mean, though, that you will understand Dalí’s thinking any more than you did going in. I certainly didn’t.
It’s called a “theatre-museum” because it was built on the ruins of a municipal theatre, and was entirely designed and decorated by Salvador Dalí himself. He certainly was a theatrical character, so this project suited him.
Wow moments in the Dalí Theatre-Museum
Entering the museum, the first “wow moment” was in the interior garden. In the middle of a small space with a few trimmed hedges stands a vintage car – a Cadillac, I think. A large naked woman wearing a Roman headdress poses stiffly on the hood. The car’s interior looks positively nightmarish: the “people” seem to have been frozen in place and time, engulfed by creeping ivy.
Looking around, I noticed the trunk of a palm tree (I thought), followed it up with my eyes, expecting to see palm fronds, and saw that it was topped by a large ship, about the same size as the car, hanging over me. Gold, blank-faced, naked statues looked down on me from the walls above. Nightmarish indeed. Are we above ground or under water?
The next major space is inside, and its size and complexity forced me to stop and study its details. The ceiling drew my attention first. Its references to Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel ceiling again seem to indicate nightmares, as does the enormous wall painting: a human torso, missing a face.
After those massive, immersive artworks – whole spaces in which viewers literally enter the work – the rest of the museum seemed positively tame.
Don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of surrealistic, hallucinatory images, but their smaller scale (paintings, jewelry and installations) couldn’t affect me in the visceral way those first two spaces did.
The Dalí Theatre-Museum exhibits 1500 of Dalí’s works, ranging from his early works in impressionist and cubist style to the classic surrealistic pieces he moved to later. It was all fascinating, though the small gallery rooms could have been better organized. I would have liked to see the paintings in chronological order, so that I could see Dalí’s development as a painter. Instead, the paintings are arranged haphazardly, as far as I could tell, with an early cubist painting next to a masterpiece of surrealism, for example.
One room gave another glimpse into Dalí’s mind. Entering the dimly-lit space, I could see what looked like one of his famous lip-shaped sofas in front of me. To the left, I saw a sculpture on the floor resembling huge nostrils. Above the nostrils hung a pair of abstract paintings or photographs. Dangling from the ceiling all the way to the floor were two bundled tangles of light yellow strands.
Joining the line across the room, I realized what all of this was: the line led to a small staircase up, then a small staircase down again. At the top, people were stopping to look through a large lens, down at the lip-shaped sofa.
The sofa is part of an installation called Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used as an Apartment. Again I wondered at Dalí’s mind, that could create such a thing.
On the way to that staircase, by the way, I passed a sculpture in a glass case in a corner that seemed almost an afterthought in that room. I found it very disturbing, yet fascinating: a woman’s head, but with an ear where the nose should be, and a nose where the ear should be. What was Dalí thinking when he made that?
Were both of these representations of women some sort of comment on women? What was he saying? It seems to me that he reduced them to their constituent parts, rather than seeing them as whole persons. And it’s not even a positive view of those constituent parts.
At the same time, I know that he was very much in love with his wife, Gala. She didn’t treat him terribly well, though, as I learned from my visit last year to the Gala Dalí museum in Púbol. She required him to write her a letter and request permission before he could visit her. She also had a series of much younger lovers that he probably knew about. Did her treatment of him lead him to create these fragmented images?
Bringing the children?
I’m generally in favor of taking kids to art museums, but not making them spend too much time in them. I’m not so sure about this one, though. For a sensitive child, some of these images might just be too nightmarish. Also, if you’re particular about your child seeing nudity, you would not be able to avoid it here.
On the other hand, a kid who doesn’t tend to nightmares would enjoy it just for the strangeness of it all. My daughter, who loved art from a young age, would have loved exploring this museum as early as five or six years old.
Teenagers, however, are another story.
Besides my husband, I was traveling with three teenagers. One, a girl of 16, found it all fascinating, but felt we spent too much time in the galleries. I asked her for a review as we left the museum:
I find weird things interesting.
It’s, like, mystery and mystery for me is fun because I have to figure it out. Once you figure it out in art it’s, like, interesting.
The other two, boys of 14 and 18, were much less enthusiastic. After the first two bigger spaces, they just lost interest. They quickly found chairs in the big central hall and spent the rest of our visit playing on their phones.
The 14-year-old’s only comment was “I don’t like weird art.”
My son, who is 18, gave it an even harsher review:
Art? This was the worst I’ve ever seen … horrible … disturbing … wrong.
Of course, you could argue that Dalí’s art is successful if people find it that disturbing. Should art always be pretty? I certainly don’t think so.
Visiting the Dalí Theatre-Museum
We did not book our tickets ahead, and that was definitely a mistake. We ended up waiting in line – in August in Spain at midday – for perhaps 45 minutes. We managed to keep ourselves entertained, but booking ahead would have allowed us a much quicker entry.
The area has three Dalí-related museums. Besides this one, you can visit the Gala Dalí Castle Museum in Púbol, in the house Dalí bought for his wife, Gala. He did all the interior design, including the furniture, and also the garden.
The third is the only one I haven’t been to yet: The Salvador Dalí House in Portlligat, where he lived for most of his life. You have to reserve tickets for this museum ahead of time, and I couldn’t get any when I tried a few days before we wanted to go.
Don’t try to see all three museums in one day. This man’s mind was truly bizarre, and too much insight into his mind just might affect your mind, or at least cause nightmares. In any case, driving between the three would cut into your museum time, since they’re all in different towns.
Instead, book a room somewhere nearby and take your time, dipping into his warped view of reality and back out again to enjoy the lovely Spanish countryside of the Catalonia region.
Have you been to any of these museums? What did you think? Add your comment below!
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