Inside Spain's Salvador Dali triangle

By Nicola Lamb

Tourists can track work by Spain's enigmatic artist and discover a less travelled part of the country, writes Nicola Lamb.

Paintings such as 'The Persistence of Memory' captivate people's interest. Photo / Supplied
Paintings such as 'The Persistence of Memory' captivate people's interest. Photo / Supplied

FIGUERES

Regions all over the world fete famous sons who have done themselves and their hometowns proud.

But what happens if the local hero done good is famous for bull-horn moustaches, melting clocks and Mae West lip sofas?

Spain's Costa Brava shows no signs of squeamishness at celebrating the life and artworks of its own eccentric genius Salvador Dali.

The surrealist may have been a byword for wacky and a provoking persona while alive, but these days he is a one-man tourist industry in his home region through the Dali triangle trail.

You don't have to be a fan or an art expert to enjoy the trip. You can start, like myself, from a position of essential ignorance and rediscover what it was that inspired you to hang a poster of The Persistence of Memory on your bedroom wall as a long-ago teen.

Within easy commuting distance of Barcelona, the Dali triangle consists of museums at Figueres, Pubol and Portlligat.

The furthest point, Portlligat, is 170km and a two-hour drive from Barcelona.

The Gala-Salvador Foundation runs the main attraction - the Dali Theatre Museum - in Figueres, the Gala Dali Castle Museum in the old town of Pubol and the Salvador Dali House Museum on the coast at Portlligat fishing village. There's also an attached display of Dali-designed jewellery at the Figueres museum, which is not to be missed. The items include the beautiful Honeycomb Heart of diamonds and rubies, lips of rubies and pearls and the breathtaking Royal Heart of gold with a ruby centre.

The main museum in Figueres is unusual in that it opened while the artist was still alive and he had artistic control of it. It also has its own Dali work rather than just housing pieces from his past as an artist.

The museum rose from the ruins of a theatre destroyed at the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Dali was born in Figueres and baptised in the church of Sant Pere, opposite the museum, which he worked on for 13 years. It opened in 1974. The museum is testament to Dali the serious artist, Dali the pop culture entrepreneur and Dali the endless well of ideas.

Covering the outside wall is his famous pattern of bread, many times repeated and eggs on top. There's a replica of a diving suit the showman once turned up in to a party, says our guide.

The exhibition begins in a similar vein with a central courtyard, which features a cadillac "raining" inside, inspired, says our guide, by a wet wait for a taxi. Towering above it is a column of tyres - in homage to Roman emperor Trajan - holding a boat which belonged to Dali's wife, Gala, and an umbrella.

The work feels almost as if it were created to give birth to the question: what does it all mean? No guides or guidebooks were allowed to provide interpretation while the artist was alive, says our guide.

More enigmatic works are inside the museum as are paintings from different stages of his career.

Our guide says surrealism was like therapy for Dali but he could paint in different ways. The treasury room shows paintings in the impressionist, realist and cubist styles. One of the most powerful is of a simple basket of bread that seems to radiate light.

There's also works tracing his interest in perspective, holograms and 3D. One painting - a homage to Mark Rothko - appears to show a naked Gala from the back, but viewed through a lens it reveals Abraham Lincoln. There's a portrait of Beethoven made with squid ink and, in the Mae West room, items are arranged in the shape of her face.

The most fascinating to simply stare at though are his surrealistic paintings. Enigmatic Elements in the Landscape (1934) seems more akin to modern science fiction, even with identifiable elements of Vermeer painting, Dali as a boy in a sailor suit, and the local cypress trees.

There is a mural version of The Persistence of Memory (1931) inspired, says our guide, by melting camembert cheese while he was waiting for Gala on a hot day.

The Poetry of America (1943) shows a map of Africa with an emerging slave. Dali employs emblems of the United States - football players, the colours of the flag, a bottle of Coca-Cola, what appears to be an oil stain and a telephone.

His art constructs may be a bit hit and miss but his best paintings have a clear, bold power.

Throughout his career Dali was inspired by the landscape of his home region. It can be seen in such paintings as The Spectre of Sex Appeal (1932) and The Weaning of Furniture-Nutrition (1934)

In the cupola, under a stunning dome, the visiting crowd walks over a plain grey slab, perhaps distracted by the giant artworks around them and not realising its significance.

It is Dali's tombstone with the crypt directly below.

He was buried here in January 1989, aged 84, effectively becoming a fixture or exhibit in his own museum.

PUBOL

Her memory persists, but the artist's wife is almost invisible.

It was a moment that the word surreal was made for.

There, in the midst of the castle that surrealist icon Salvador Dali bought for his wife, was a burnt-orange Datsun.

The car beloved by students, learner drivers, westies and hoons down the years in New Zealand was simply used by Gala to get around the Costa Brava in the 1970s.

But for a moment, as I looked at it, a jumble of transported context was rumbling around in the muggy heat of a Spanish morning.

Dali would have been pleased to have, accidentally, shaken up visiting Antipodean senses.

His own, far more imposing, cadillac was parked in a nearby garage.

Castle Gala Dali in Pubol was an 11th-century keep and gardens bought as a gift to the artist's then 74-year-old wife as he was working to open his own museum in Figueres.

Although portraits of Gala, 10 years older than her husband, are throughout the castle and she is buried there, her presence seems diffused through his and submerged by it.

Dali's eye suffocates the space even in a place where he could only visit on her invitation, and he brought presents when he did.

The garden is watered by sculptured, long-legged elephants. Busts of Wagner, painted in different shades, frame an open-mouthed fish gurgling water into a shallow rock-bottomed pool.

Inside, a talon-clawed glass-topped table provides an overhead perspective of a stuffed white horse below.

A comic lion's mask sits on top of a wardrobe. In the hall, a throne for Salvador's use in dealing with media is planted under a Dali-painted ceiling. A traditional tapestry has been graffiti bombed with a giraffe on fire.

Gala covered the radiators and Dali painted false radiators over them.

There are pictures of Gala - solemn, in profile, with a mane of cascading black hair - looking younger than her years. Only one, in which she is seated on the floor next to a young man playing piano and she is laughing, gives a hint of her as an individual.

The house is less cluttered and more open than the couple's home in Portlligat.

Our guide offers details: She was Russian and married when she met Dali. She was his muse and the emotionally strong member of their partnership. She also entertained young men at the castle.

Dali once fell down the stairs to the crypt where she was buried in 1982 and was seen there crying.

The most reflective piece at the castle is perhaps the least surreal.

It is a statue of Venus in the garden, placed at the end of a leafy corridor - a glimpse of white amid the green and brown.

Dali, says our guide, "wanted it to be viewed from a perspective of being distant".

PORTLLIGAT

The artist filled his home with curiosities.

At the sunny, white-splashed fishing village of Portlligat, locals mix with tourists outside Salvador Dali's old waterside home.

Small boats nest on long sea grass. A family sits on the rock wall watching a child whack a stick in the shallows. A boy sucks on an ice block on a slate seat.

But there are also those who could be there only for Dali.

A blonde-haired woman in a bright green dress with purple toenail polish clatters in her heels behind an Alsatian down the stony street beside the Dali museum. An auburn-haired woman in purple cuddles a white kitten while waiting for buyers of tiny nodding turtle nic-nacks.

A teenager with the best mullet since '82 and a man parading in a white singlet and black leathers look to still be roadying on a rock tour that time never ended.

A tall, thin man strides by in a blouse of red and green circles. "I'm flamboyant and I'm here to see Dali," observes the person next to me in her best, dramatic "Eurotrash" accent.

There's a lot of people-watching to be done at Portlligat because the museum allows only small groups of people in at about half-hour intervals. It's essential to book ahead and once you've bought your ticket you sit and wait for your party to be called.

It's entirely appropriate: Dali's labyrinth of small rooms with connecting staircases is a squeeze. You first come face to face with a stuffed polar bear, a collection of canes, a stuffed owl with small birds in its talons, an old phone and a lip-design sofa decorated in green leaves. In the library there are stuffed swans and an eagle.

Other rooms are crammed with objects. There's a signed adidas rugby ball from a victorious village team, a studio room, a small cage in Dali's bedroom for captured crickets because he liked to hear their chirping at night.

The museum opens out into an oddly shaped building with an egg on top and a terrace. Weird clumps of what appear to be junk turn out to be a lying giant. There are sculptures of the backs of human heads and another egg in an eye-shaped hollow. The most baffling exhibit of all surrounds a phallic-shaped swimming pool, fake snakes, dolls and Pirelli tyre signs.

Dali and his wife Gala were "obsessed with mortality", says the young museum guide. Since she says the house is in exactly the state they left it, living in it must have been a curious experience.

It seems they spent a lot of time turning their lives into a museum. The house and grounds are so self-awarely packed with collectibles and art works it's hard to consider the place as a comfortable home.

It is vintage Dali: a dash of artistic genius, scattergun ideas, self-consciously bold and baffling statements. Class rubbing shoulders with kitsch. What it isn't is a mundane home.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines operates 12 times a week from Auckland and daily from Christchurch to Singapore, and then to Barcelona direct with four flights a week departing on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; and an additional three flights a week via Milan on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Special fares are sometimes available mid-year for travel departing in October and November.

Where to stay: The Hotel Majestic and Hotel Omm are both fine hotels in the centre of Barcelona's shopping and tourist area. While on the Dali trail, accommodation options include Terraza at Roses and the quiet resort of Mass Salvi.

Further information: See spain.info

Nicola Lamb travelled to Barcelona and through Spain courtesy of Singapore Airlines, Spain Tourism and Rail Europe.

- NZ Herald

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