Salvador Dalí Explains Why He Was a “Bad Painter” and Contributed “Nothing” to Art (1986)

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Q: Sal­vador Dalí, Are You a Crack­pot? A: No, I’m Just Almost Crazy (1969)

Sal­vador Dalí Strolls onto The Dick Cavett Show with an Anteater, Then Talks About Dreams & Sur­re­al­ism, the Gold­en Ratio & More (1970)

When Sal­vador Dali Met Sig­mund Freud, and Changed Freud’s Mind About Sur­re­al­ism (1938)

When The Sur­re­al­ists Expelled Sal­vador Dalí for “the Glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Hit­ler­ian Fas­cism” (1934)

A Soft Self-Por­trait of Sal­vador Dali, Nar­rat­ed by the Great Orson Welles

The Most Com­plete Col­lec­tion of Sal­vador Dalí’s Paint­ings Pub­lished in a Beau­ti­ful New Book by Taschen: Includes Nev­er-Seen-Before Works

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.

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  • Marshall Lynn Littleton says:

    I don’t know why he said that? He was the rea­son I became a Sur­re­al­ist. I was a pro­lif­ic artist back in the 1979’s, but most of my work was destroyed by my fam­i­ly while I was off on a job. Most of what lit­tle was left was lost or stolen. I have only a few works left. I would like to try and do it all again from mem­o­ry, I just get so down about things with finan­cial dis­tress. But Sal­vador Dali is still my favorite artist.

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