Not so very long ago, Salvador Dalí was the most famous living painter in the world. When the BBC's Arena came to shoot an episode about him in 1986, they asked him what that exalted state felt like. "I don't know if I am the most famous painter in the world," Dalí responds, "because lots of the people who ask for my autograph in the street don't know if I'm a singer, a film star, a madman, a writer — they don't know what I am." He was, in one sense or another, most of those things and others besides. But we can safely say, more than thirty years after his death, that Dalí will be remembered first for his visual art, with its vast seas and skies, its impossible beasts, its melting clocks. And what did Dalí himself believe he had contributed to art?
"Nothing," he says. "Absolutely nothing, because, as I've always said, I'm a very bad painter. Because I'm too intelligent to be a good painter. To be a good painter you've got to be a bit stupid, with the exception of Velázquez, who is a genius, whose talent surpasses the art of painting." In other words, when Dalí's ever-present detractors said he was no Velázquez, Dalí's wholeheartedly agreed.
Over the past few decades, appreciation of the distinctive combination of vision and technique on display in Dalí's paintings has won him more official respect (as well as a lavish new collection published in book form by Taschen), but the debate about to what extent he was a true artist and to what extent a calculatedly eccentric self-promoter will never fully simmer down.
Dalí also claimed to owe his life to painting badly. "The day Dalí paints a picture as good as Velázquez, Vermeer, or Raphael, or music like Mozart," he says, "the next week he'll die. So I prefer to paint bad pictures and live longer." That he had already entered his ninth decade by the time Arena came calling suggests that this strategy might have been effective, though he wasn't without his health troubles. In his first public appearance after having had a pacemaker implanted that same year, he declared that "When you are a genius, you do not have the right to die, because we are necessary for the progress of humanity." Dalí's kept his askew arrogance to the end, even through the controversial final years that saw him sign off on the large-scale production of shoddy lithographs of his paintings. About the people who made them and the people who bought them, Dalí had only this to say: "They deserve each other."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.