Figueres, Spain: The Dali Theatre-Museum and Surrealism

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We didn’t know what to expect when we set out on our drive to Figueres, the town in Catalan, where Dali was born. “Where, if not in my own town, should the most extravagant and solid of my work endure? The Municipal Theatre, or what remained of it (from the Spanish Civil War), struck me as very appropriate, and for three reasons: first, because I am an eminently theatrical painter; second, because the theatre stands right opposite the church where I was baptized; and third, because it was precisely in the hall of the vestibule of the theatre where I gave my first exhibition of painting,” says Dali about the choice of its location.

The Dalí Theatre-Museum is the largest surrealistic object in the world. Within this theater ruined by civil war, Dalí created a place to discover a provocative, mystical, and thoroughly enchanting Dali, impassioned by science—the Dali of the final period of his life. He lived in the tower of this Theatre-Museum, where he died in 1989 from heart failure and is now laid to rest in a crypt under a geodesic dome. The idea of bringing together his work in the old theatre of Figueres excited Dalí, and he dedicated himself to the task for over a decade, collaborating in it and designing the smallest details, until it became reality in September, 1974.

Salvador Dali worked hard to establish an image of an eccentric and paranoid genius. He followed the rules of marketing a product – himself and his art. And the name of his game, in his own words, “It is not important what you do as long as you are in the headlines.” “I want my museum to be like a single block, a labyrinth, a surrealist object. It will be totally theatrical…the people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.” It was Dali’s wish that his pilgrims begin their journey from a queue around his spiritual center, into a contemplative place, where each person could glimpse new vision, concepts, and thought. And we allowed Dali to take us on his phantasmagorical trip.

One of the most visible elements of the museum is the transparent grid structure in the form of a geodesic dome crowning the building, an idea by Salvador Dalí which was realised by the Murcian architect Emilio Pérez Piñero (1935-1972). The dome has become not only the emblem of the Theatre-Museum but also a symbol for the town of Figueres itself. On the walls of the old theatre, the mannequins welcome us between the remains of the burned beams, the “grotesque” monsters, the eight bas-reliefs, and metaphysical washbasins that seem like angels. Four flowerbeds form the letter “G” for Gala, the muse, wife, and love of Dali’s life.

Within and without the maze-like warren, we notice the repetition of several images and devices that give us clues into the thinking of this enigmatic artist:

Moorish Architectural Details

Salvador Dali told the world that his ancestors were descended from the Moors who invaded Spain in 711, and that this was where his love for all things grandiose came from. Dali is neither a Spanish nor a Catalan name, and has almost completely disappeared throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Insisting on Arab lineage, Dali claimed the date of the connection to the Moors who invaded Spain in AD 711. “From these origins, comes my love of everything that is gilded and excessive, my passion for luxury and my love of oriental clothes.” Dali even liked to think that the readiness of his skin to go almost black in the sun was another Arab trait. (last photos in the gallery, below, demonstrate Casa de las Conchas in Salamanca and Moorish architecture in Toledo, both of which the Dali Museum appears to reference). It seems that Dali was right to claim Arab blood–or, at least, Moorish.

The surname occurs regularly throughout the Muslim world, and there are several Dalis in the Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. In Spain’s Muslim past, there is the noun dali, from the Arabic for a guide or leader.

The Egg

Dali connects the egg to the prenatal and intrauterine, used to symbolize hope and love.


During his early years within the Surrealist movement, Dalí sought an object that embodied a number of the concepts and problems that preoccupied him and other Surrealists, but also satisfied his specific requirement of being profoundly figurative rather than abstract. That the artist chose bread as a sort of personal device or emblem, similar to his famous moustache, points to an acute awareness of the potential for the art and artist’s personality, to become an object of mass consumption, to be “eaten” or “devoured” by the consumers of art and celebrity. Dalí described this phenomenon in terms of what he deemed the “cannibalism of objects,” presumably pertaining to the perpetual cycle of consumption requisite to high capitalism. By making a very careful comparison of this same object in both his sculpture and painting we “can study all the history of painting right there, from the linear charm of primitivism to stereoscopic hyper-aestheticism.” Plaster loaves of bread also adorn the exterior of the crimson building, reminding us at once that we are in the house of a Surrealist and in Catalan, where the flag is crimson and yellow.

The Diver

The journey into the depths of the subconscious that Dali feels is important to life of integration. He takes this journey through his work and the same awaits the visitor who allows himself to become responsive to his Theatre-Museum.


In his paintings and sculpture, we find several figures with drawers protruding where there is usually a torso. The psyche, Dali believed, could only be revealed to us by psychoanalysis. “The only difference between the immortal Greece and contemporary times is Sigmund Freud, who discovered that the human body, purely platonic at the Greece epoch, nowadays is full of secret drawers that only the psychoanalysis is capable to open.” These drawers represent the psyche, which each of us may open, in our own time and place.


Few artists have had a greater impact on 20th century art than Salvador Dali. He is widely acknowledged to be a pioneer – and the living embodiment – of Surrealist art, a bold movement that emerged in Europe in the 1920’s and flourished for generations thereafter, embracing not only fine art but literature, music, philosophy, psychology, and even popular culture. Surrealism attempts to express the workings of the subconscious and is characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition of subject matter. Among surrealism’s most important contributions was the invention of new artistic techniques that tapped into the artist’s unconscious mind. Leader André Breton was explicit in his assertion that it was, above all, a revolutionary movement. Freud’s work with free association, dream analysis, and the unconscious was of utmost importance to the Surrealists in developing methods to liberate imagination. They embraced idiosyncrasy, while rejecting the idea of an underlying madness. Salvador Dalí explains it this way, “there is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”

Whether working from pure inspiration or on a commissioned illustration, Dali’s matchless insight and symbolic complexity are apparent. Above all, Dali was a superb draftsman. His excellence as a creative artist will always set a standard for the art of the twentieth century. As an artist, Salvador Dali was not limited to a particular style or media. The body of his work, from early impressionist paintings through his transitional surrealist works, and into his classical period, reveals a constantly growing and evolving artist. Dali worked in all media, leaving behind a wealth of oils, watercolors, drawings, graphics, and sculptures, films, photographs, performance pieces, jewels and objects of all descriptions. And most importantly, he left for posterity the permission for us to explore all aspects of his life, in turn facilitating the ignition of our own artistic expression.

The Theater-Museum houses the single largest and most diverse collection of works by Salvador Dalí, the heart of which was from the artist’s own collection. In addition to Dalí paintings from all decades of his career, there are Dalí sculptures, 3-dimensional collages, mechanical devices, a living-room with custom furniture that looks like the face of Mae West when viewed from a certain spot, and other curiosities from Dalí’s imagination. The museum also houses a small selection of works by other artists collected by Dalí, ranging from El Greco to Marcel Duchamp, and a gallery devoted to the work of Dalí’s friend and fellow Catalan artist Antoni Pitxot, who became director of the museum after Dalí’s death.

Painting is an infinitely minute part of my personality, says Salvador Dali. After the tour of his Theatre-Museum, we know first-hand that he is more than painting…he’s a shaman, an actor on life’s stage, a sleight-of-hand trickster, and a psychic who re-unites us all with our own creativity. Dali teases us to learn more about him and ourselves through this remarkable piece of architecture. You may not like him, his art, or this building…but, you can’t ignore the oeuvre of work embodied here and its impact on your senses and thinking about art.

Photography by Stephanie Chambers: with permission from the Dali Museum in Figueres Spain to photograph the art and architecture.