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Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalívia Wikipedia

Lessons we can take from Salvador Dalí’s surreal ways of living and working

To celebrate the release of a new book on one of surrealism’s most celebrated figures, we’ve collected some of the life wisdom he has to offer

As a prominent surrealist, Salvador Dalí constantly walked a fine line between genius and exhibitionist eccentricity, but the importance and influence of his legacy is undeniable. The mere sight of his iconic moustache triggers simultaneous images of melting clocks, lobster phones, and unearthly, tactile landscapes. Stories about his real-life are often just as unbelievable (admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the facts from the fiction).

But beneath a chaotic and often-bizarre surface, Dalí was also firmly tethered to reality. To craft an idiosyncratic world with his art, he drew on influences ranging from Velázquez to contemporary pop culture, and he also showed a deep understanding of what it means to be a successful working artist.

A recently-released book by Taschen, Dali. The Paintings, seeks to examine the artist’s oeuvre in relation to these influences. At a hefty 752 pages, it brings in documents such as writing and sketches – many of which are previously unseen – to contextualise his work, from his beginnings as an unknown artist through to the conclusions drawn at the end of a life of curiosity, and beyond.

To celebrate the book’s release, we detail some of the life lessons we’ve gleaned from Dalí’s extraordinary life and work.

“I want only to be Salvador Dalí, I have no greater wish” – Salvador Dalí


Culturally, we romanticise the archetype of the penniless artist. We want to think of artists as being incorruptible truth-tellers on the radical vanguard of culture. But art is big business and commercially-astute artists (such as Jeff Koons) are denounced for being too thirsty to pander to the demands of the market. 

In 1997 David Bowie was heavily criticised for partnering with Prudential Insurance Company and selling off his entire back catalogue in the form of “Bowie Bonds”. At the time, he was condemned for commodifying his art but, in retrospect, it was a visionary move. As an early adopter of the world wide web, Bowie predicted the way that buying and owning music would become devalued, anticipating the fluid nature of file-sharing and streaming. Bowie Bonds are credited as being one of the first instances of intellectual property being used as the underlying collateral of a bond. But Dalí had been trading in “Avida Dollars” for decades. 

Andre Breton, an artist at the forefront of surrealism, coined the term “Avida Dollars” (it’s an anagram of “Salvador Dalí”) as a derogatory nickname for Dalí, whom Breton saw as compromising the integrity of the movement by commercially exploiting his own work. But Dalí was unapologetic. Throughout his career he kept an eye on opportunities to make money, turning his hand to designing the 1969 Eurovision logo and the iconic Chupa Chups lollipops logo. He even appeared in a bizarre advert for Lanvin chocolates (below). 

The surrealist artist possessed an incredibly prescient sense of himself and his brand as a commodity. Known for paying his secretaries in works of art rather than actual cash, Dalí was also notorious for decorating cheques with elaborate drawings alongside his distinctive signature, with the knowledge that his flourishes would bestow value on the cheque beyond the cost of the goods or services he was paying for, and they’d become less likely to get cashed in. Legend has it that he left a trail of hand-embellished cheques framed and hung on the walls of many restaurants he’d frequented over the years. This technique – essentially creating his own currency based on his creative cache – has apparently been the subject of multiple case studies and research projects in business and finance, highlighting the importance of cash flow and trading with goods of a specific, known worth.


Dalí reveled in being himself, famously claiming, “Each morning when I awake I experience again a supreme pleasure – that of being Salvador Dalí.” 

His flagrant self-love was publicly condemned by the novelist and critic George Orwell, who responded to Dalí’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, with a critical essay entitled Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí. Orwell described the autobiography as “a strip-tease act conducted in pink limelight” and assassinated Dalí’s character, describing him as “an unmistakable assault on sanity and decency.” But the trajectory of Dalí’s ambition was undeterred. The self-proclaimed “cosmogonic genius” launched his autobiography by revealing that at the age of six he wanted to be a cook, and at seven he aspired to be Napoleon. “Since then,” he later said, "my ambition has steadily grown, and my megalomania with it. Now I want only to be Salvador Dalí, I have no greater wish." In case any more clarity was needed, he wrote a book in 1963 about his own work and practices simply titled Diary of a Genius

His self-love also extended to his sexual practices, another area of his life in which he lavished a great deal of affection on himself. As a young child, Dalí’s disciplinarian father showed him a book of images of untreated sexually transmitted diseases. If it was meant as a deterrent, it worked. Dalí’s chronic horror of castration and female genitalia meant he remained a virgin until he was 25 and, despite his many same-sex encounters (including a relationship with the poet Federico García Lorca), and his passionate marriage to Gala, the artist tended to prefer auto-eroticism to penetrative sex. His famous masturbation-related artworks include the controversial “Hitler Masturbating” (1973) and “The Great Masturbator” (1923). 


Dalí may be known primarily as a surrealist, but he was actually a restless experimenter, working in many different styles and mediums throughout his career. As a young man, he shamelessly appropriated elements from other movements, including impressionism, pointillism, cubism, fauvism, purism and futurism with great skill. His habit was to borrow from artistic trends, incorporating aspects of these schools into his own work, before ridiculing them and, ultimately, moving on. Salvador Dalí: The Paintings is a testimony to his spirit of inquiry and experimentation, and his desire to “tease out the secrets of great works.”

Dalí continually diversified. From the 1940s, he broadened the scope of his creative practice, working on a number of projects such as designing dresses with Elsa Schiaparelli, creating film sets for Alfred Hitchcock, and commercial graphic design projects (including the aforementioned iconic Chupa Chup lollipops logo). The diversity of his work speaks of his creative curiosity and agility, as well as his embrace of popular culture alongside high art.


Dalí suffered from a pathological aversion to ordinariness. His innate exhibitionism almost proved fatal in 1936 when he delivered his lecture at the London International Surrealist Convention dressed in an antique diving suit, inexplicably holding a billiard cue and accompanied by two Russian wolfhounds. It was a gesture meant to represent the mystical act of diving into his own subconscious – taking a swim in Lake Salvador, as it were. But the stunt backfired when he began to suffocate in the soundproofed helmet and, believing it was part of the performance, no one intervened.  

The incident didn’t deter him and his grandiose ways continued. A 1941 newsreel documents a party he threw at the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey, California, called A Surrealistic Night in an Enchanted Forest. The party features a real lion cub and a monkey, and a fish course served in satin slippers, followed by a main course of live frogs (both presented to a perplexed Bob Hope).

Years down the line, his houses and events became gathering points for a coterie of other upcoming stars, including (but by no means limited to) David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, and Ultra Violet. Dalí would dress this eccentric crowd – dubbed his “Court of Miracles”, or transvestites by Spanish newspapers – and take them around as his entourage, gaining himself a reputation for riotous behaviour. 


Dalí, in many respects, was way ahead of his time. Countless acts throughout his life could be considered performance art, placing him among the vanguard of the movement, but he also envisioned concrete artworks made from technologies that barely even existed yet. In 1973, he met a 25-year-old Alice Cooper and spent six months rendering the singer as a hologram (a complex technology that was then still in its infancy). The result is “First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain”, a groundbreaking artwork now housed in the collection of the Dalí Museum in Figueres. 

Before that though, he also created remarkable optical illusions, such as “Dalí Atomicus” (1948), a black and white photograph by Philippe Halsman, which shows the artist suspended in the air with three cats, water arcing from a bucket, and various items of furniture. The theory – “jumpology” – was that jumping while a photograph is taken distracts the subject, revealing their true spirit. However, in a pre-Photoshop world, it was easier said than done. The eventual photograph required 26 attempts and utilised clear wires to suspend the various objects.