Dali Theater Museum Review Essay

While visiting new cities, taking a day trip is a great way to maximize your experience. During our recent trip to Barcelona, we found such an opportunity to take a small group day trip to the Salvador Dali Theater and Museum in Girona, as well as his beautifully and personally designed house in Port Lligat, along the enchanting northeast coast of Spain. As a student of art, and a lifelong fan of Dali, I was exuberant for this excursion, and it did not disappoint!

Starting out at the tour office in downtown Barcelona, just a few blocks walk from our hotel, we met up with the other eight or so fellow tourists. Everyone in our group was English-speaking, so the guide introduced herself in our native language and explained the details and timeline of the tour. She was extremely friendly and answered any questions we had before departing, as well as throughout the day!

Around every corner – another masterpiece.

The drive itself takes you around beautiful coastal areas while the experienced tour guide narrates along the way, telling the history of the areas you’re traversing as well as interesting and unique facts about Dali himself. We were quite impressed with her knowledge of the artist as well as his museum and home.

The Dali Theatre and Museum

After about a two hour ride, we arrived at the astounding Dali Theatre and Museum in Figueres, Girona. Opened in 1974, it naturally houses the largest collection of his works. Adorned with large sculptures of eggs atop the parapets, and pink-hued walls covered with loaves of bread, it is surrealism personified. Take a minute to admire the uniqueness of the external façade; it is just the beginning of the amazing artwork sprung from Dali’s imagination.

Upon entering the museum, our first experience was quite mesmerizing. A 1941 Cadillac, complete with a non-sentient passenger, has been transformed into a rainstorm – on the inside. A quirky coin-operated attraction, Dali’s vision for this piece was a comment on how he could never seem to get a cab when it was raining! From there you’re free to roam the museum itself, and upon entering, you’ll find yourself in the presence of one of his most famous works, “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea”. Although, at first glance, what you’ll most likely see is the bust of Abraham Lincoln instead of his much beloved wife, Gala.

Dali’s surrealistic impression of his muse – Gala.

Quick note: You’ll see Dali’s wife Gala represented frequently within his works. She was his muse, and lived in the house that he built on the coast in Cadaques, where she died in 1982.

Dali used any medium, even Cadillacs, to express his genius.

Make sure to meander through every corridor and hallway in the museum, every wall conveys Dali’s genius and, perhaps, eccentricities. Another famous piece is the Mae West room, where a couch and other objects turn into her face once you ascend the short staircase at the back of the room to view it from its intended perspective!

This unique museum houses not only his largest collection, but some of his most prolific works, including Soft self-portrait with grilled bacon (1941), Poetry of America—the Cosmic Athletes (1943), Galarina (1944–45), Basket of Bread (1945), Leda Atomica (1949), Galatea of the Spheres (1952) and Crist de la Tramuntana (1968). In addition to the main gallery, the structure dedicates a room to Dali’s unique optical illusions and anamorphic art, as well as his final complete painting, The Swallow’s Tail, created in 1983.

At the center of Cadaques, at Dali’s Statue.

As we walked through the winding hallways there was history at every turn. From early sketches to sculptures, it was hard not to feel a sort of drunkenness in the midst of his genius, every viewpoint was just one more indelible impression to take home with us.

Quick note: Make sure to look up as you make your way through the different areas of the museum, not all the art is hung on the walls!

Which do you see – Lincoln or Gala?

In addition to Dali’s paintings, the most recognizable of his works, we visited the adjoining gallery of jewelry designed by his artistry. Glittering and thought-provoking, this small gallery lets you view these priceless pieces up close behind glass. Truly not to be missed!

After we took our time to take in all that the museum has to offer, we ventured outside to grab a bite to eat at the small café across the street where we got a couple small sandwiches from a welcoming owner. After relaxing outside, it was time to keep going… on to Cadaques!

Always remember to look UP!

Dali House in Port Lligat, Cadaques

A short drive from the museum is the quaint coastal city of Cadaques, where you can see a cheeky statue of Dali (a great photo op!) and find delicious food while you dine right next to the shoreline. Located on the Costa Brava on the Mediterranean Sea, the town is quiet with a serene and classic stretch of white-walled shops and restaurants against a mountainous backdrop.

Walking down the winding roads to the water, the view is breathtaking from the rocky shore, and despite the chilly weather, we buttoned up our coats and happily sat outside to enjoy our lunch.  After a few glasses of wine, some sardines on toast, and meeting a friendly local cat, we made our way back up the misty streets and rejoined the group for the short ride to Dali’s house.

Meeting a new friend in Cadaques.

Salvador Dali’s house and museum in Port Lligat was designed by the master himself, a labyrinth of passageways and rooms so unique we were astounded at every turn. Built on the water in a remote fisherman’s village, it stood as Salvador and Gala’s main residence until 1982. Purchased in 1930, Salvador and Gala began building onto their initial space until it reached two stories and six connecting cottage spaces where they showcased their surrealistic tastes. He was especially drawn to the light and the landscape of this beautiful location, as well as it’s distance from the busy city streets.

Upon arriving at the small road that leads to the house, we came upon the calming and serene view of the port to the left of the path. The house itself is stark white, a striking contrast against the grey skies that day, while also quite minimalistic at first glance… on the outside!

The entry of his home brings you to the beginning of the whimsical experience ahead – a large bear figure holding a lamp in a sitting area. Though this initial living space, as well as other areas, are roped off to the public, most of the house is open for exploration where you can take as many photos as you like! We were free to roam the whole of the house, including the impressive pool area at the rear, where the famous sitting area showcases a reinvented Mae West lips couch surrounded by Pirelli Tire placards.

Dali’s interesting perspective was everywhere – even the pool!

One of the most fascinating rooms within the Dali house was the round room, another living space designed as a domed circle, and while appearing cozy and colorful with couches and pillows surrounding the sphere, we made sure to stand in the center for its best feature. While in the middle of this circular space, start speaking out loud… you’ll hear your own voice echo against the walls! It’s a quirky and slightly mind-bending experience. As soon as you move to the periphery, that echo effect disappears. Quite astounding (and fun)!

Dali’s echo room – a beautiful sitting area in the center of the home.

The main bedroom features two separate and colorful beds, decorated in pink linens and small overhead canopies, its window facing the calming port waters. We could imagine the view each morning as they rose to see the calming view. As you meander, you’ll find yourself winding through the small halls and staircases, one of which leads down to a room where his paint and other supplies are shelved. Near this deeply historical display is his actual art studio, complete with a wall-mounted mechanism that allowed his canvases to be lifted and lowered into the floor as he painted. The guide informed us that, still sitting in this space, his last incomplete work hangs from the lift. As with almost all windows in the Dali house, his studio faced the shore of the port to capture the best light.

A peek into Dali’s equipment storage – left as it was the day he died.

After meeting back up with the guide, who continued to narrate our experience with the history of the dwelling, she enhanced our visit by discussing interesting features and unique anecdotes about the owners, both Salvador and Gala.

Moving past the impressive and eclectic interior, we made our way out to the pool area to take a walk around the water feature as well as the additional pieces and spaces he’d created. At the rear of the pool is a covered sitting area full of plush and colorful cushions. It was all we could do not to sit down and relax for the rest of the day!

As an art enthusiast, I had one request at the end of the day – that I would have the time to sit on the shore of the port and sketch out a picture from what would’ve been Dali’s point of view. I’d brought paper, but at the time the bus from Portlligat to Barcelona was no longer parked at the entry, and not being able to access my sketch pad I was quite dismayed!

After hearing of my disappointment, our genial and compensating tour guide surprised me by hunting down a blank piece of paper and a pen so that I could complete my mission to sketch where the great artist sketched. Sitting along the stone above the calm waters while I drew the scene before me is one of my most cherished memories of travel.

Sketching the view from Dali’s perspective.

If art moves you, if history intrigues you, take the time to visit this area of Spain and experience Dali in person. Though his work is seen throughout the world, there is nothing like actually seeing his collection in a museum he designed.

There is an indescribable feeling when walking the halls where he lived for more than 40 years, to see the studio where he crafted his timeless art, and to sit on the shore where the light inspired him. Watching the landscape disappear out of site as we made our way back to Barcelona was closure to a lifetime of admiration that I will never forget.

With his manicured moustache, cape and cane, Dalí was all about extravagance and grandeur. Austerity had no place in his work and life, so making a pilgrimage to his museum feels particularly noteworthy these days.

The museum in Figueres is just one of three in the area dedicated to Dalí. The artist renovated and furnished a fisherman’s cabin at Portlligat on the Costa Brava, and a castle at nearby Púbol for his wife, Gala, where today, visitors to the castle can view her Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin gowns.

The three museums are unusual in that they are not publicly subsidized, a rarity in Europe. Instead, they are financed through visitor entrance fees and revenue from international exhibitions, copyright and image licensing, as well as publication royalties. Entry tickets cost €7 to €12 depending on which of the three museums is visited.

Together, this so-called Dalinian Triangle drew more than 1.4 million visitors in 2011, the most since the museums opened in 1974, leading to a net profit of €4.7 million, or $5.8 million. Visitor numbers last year increased 7.6 percent from 2010.

“This is a remarkable figure because 2011 was the highest record ever, even higher than in 2004, during the centennial,” Ms. Parada said, referring to the 100th celebration of the artist’s birth.

It was “particularly positive because it occurred over a period of general crisis in economic activity,” she added.

Joan Casellas, an art critic who lives in nearby Les Escaules, said: “Dalí, I think, was more famous and popular than Picasso. He touched the imagination of the public.”

Dalí was born in Figueres in 1904 and returned there later in life after earning recognition abroad as an artistic genius. The flamboyant artist would tool around the region, his equally glamorous wife in toe, and proclaim his “love of everything gilded and excessive, my passion for luxury,” according to his biographer, Ian Gibson, in “The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí.”

In 1974, he chose the town’s theater, which had also held one of his first exhibitions but which was left in ruins after the Spanish Civil War, to construct a carnival of his creations. He lived there, adding on and remodeling, until his death in 1989. His crypt, marked with a modest engraving, can also be visited at the museum.

Today, museum visitors at Figueres embark on a wild ride through nearly two dozen rooms, past Surrealist cornucopia and whirligigs, paintings, sculpture, theater set designs, sketches and photography.

Highlights include the artist’s bed, shaped like an oyster and framed by marbled sea serpents; Mae West’s couch of lips and a fireplace depicted as her nostrils; a limited edition Cadillac (said to be one of Al Capone’s getaway cars) in the theater courtyard and tottering atop it, a rowboat with plastic molded like water dripping from its underside. Sculptures resembling bathroom sinks and golden Academy Award mannequins ring the ivy-covered court yard.

The newest, and arguably most decadent, addition here has a separate entrance leading to a darkened annex, but one gracefully lit by islands of glass casings. Opened in 2001, the Dalí Joies, or jewels, exhibits 39 objects based on original drawings and designs by the artist from 1932 to 1970. The collection includes ornaments, medals, and crosses.

In putting together his jewels collection, according to a text accompanying the exhibit, Dalí said his designs were “of pure beauty, without utility but executed marvelously,” and were “appreciated in a time when the primary emphasis appeared to be upon the utilitarian and the material.”

The pieces drip indulgence: a broche, inspired by Mae West in 1949, fashioned out of rubies, forming sensuous lips, and pearls, forming teeth; another pendant, called “The Royal Heart,” which Dalí created to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, is of a gold-encrusted heart, topped by a crown, and with 46 embedded rubies and 42 diamonds that pulse like a beating heart. There is the 18-karat “Tree of Life” necklace with cascading golden leaves and stems extending toward dangling sapphires.

Visitors will have to endure a long wait to see these works, if one Saturday afternoon in July was any indication. The line to enter the Theater-Museum zigzagged through the courtyard and narrow alleyways alongside the building and into the street, as if mirroring Dalí’s original building design. While it is possible to reserve tickets online, they appear sold out weeks in advance.

One visitor, J. Moliere from New York, who was waiting more than an hour to get in, was not discouraged by the lines. “I’ve seen interviews with Dalí before, and he’s just everything, ebullient, fantastic, everything rolled into one,” she said. “I wanted to see his works up close finally. So, I’ll wait.”

The managing director of the foundation, Joan Manuel Sevillano, said: “Long lines to enter the museum have been commonplace since the early days. It’s important to us that Dalí’s heritage is known widely, but we also have to be clear how best to manage that.”

The Theater-Museum, which can accommodate 650 people, often opens its doors at night, an idea Dalí himself promoted, allowing up to 500 visitors inside as late as 12:30 a.m.

The foundation, originally conceived and devised by Dalí himself in 1983, with trustee board members from the public and private sectors, governs the museums. “I can say that the Dalí foundation did its homework long in advance, and we’re escaping this crisis, thankfully, unscathed,” Mr. Sevillano said.

Dalí’s appeal, whimsy and imagination, according to the Figueres Tourist Information Office, have been a boon to the region, even though studies have found that most tourists stay in Barcelona or on the Costa Brava, with only a small percentage staying in Figueres.

“Without Dalí and the museums, it would be impossible to have so many visitors per year,” said Cristofer Gallardo, a spokesman for the Office of Tourism. “We remember that Dalí once said that everything he touches turns to gold. We think that that is true, because thanks to Dalí, millions come here.”

But whether Dalí’s high-flying antics in the art world provide a bona fide and welcome distraction from the country’s financial worries is hard to say.

“I don’t see the Spaniards doing anything especially exotic these days, since the national state of mind is nearer to depression than ecstasy,” said Edward Hugh, an economist who lives near Figueres. “But I can understand the pride they take in Dalí and especially the Catalans, since he comes from the region.”

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