Salvador Dalí’s Muse—Gala
Richard P. van Pelt, Ph.D. • January 27, 2020
The Modern Masters, Picasso, Dalí, Miró, Chagall and Matisse all created art for the ages. Picasso’s most famous paintings, include Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, Guernica or Women of Algier. Salvador Dalí’s most famous paintings include Persistence of Memory, Swans Reflecting Elephants and Soft Constructionwith Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War). Each of the works of these Masters had inspirations.
To be an artist, one had a muse. Or many muses. Pablo Picasso’s muses were very well-known, though equally transitory. Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot and Jacqueline Roque were among the numerous phases of his muses. Each new muse brought new inspiration. Among the Modern Masters, Marc Chagall’s name is inexorably tied to his beloved Bella, who was his inspiration until her death. She was truly his lifelong muse. Salvador Dalí was under the constant influence of his muse, Gala. Dalí was more like Chagall in his devotion to his Gala. She, on the other hand, was more like Picasso—though much, much more. She had her own inspirations—young, virile, numerous and transitory.
Dalí’s Muse: Gala
Elena Ivanovna Diakonova was born in Russia in 1894. Her commonly used nickname was “Gala”. In 1912, at the age 18, she contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Switzerland for treatment, where she met fellow tuberculosis patient, 17-year-old Paul Éluard. Two years later they were both pronounced cured and sent home—Diakonova to Moscow and Éluard to Paris. The outbreak of World War I that year kept them physically, though not emotionally, separated. They married in February, 1917, and had a daughter the following year.
Éluard longed to be a poet—a dream he realized as a leader of the Surrealist movement, which arguably began in 1918 upon the conclusion of the Great War. He and Gala befriended the leaders of the movement, including Louis Aragon, Max Ernst and André Breton, who wrote the Surrealist Manifesto, published in 1924. Max Ernst moved in with Éluard and Gala, engaging in a ménage à trois from 1922 until 1924.
Surrealism was not just a style or school. It was a movement, but unlike other artistic movements, this one was a broad-based social phenomenon. It was founded not on the next phase in the history of art, but rather on a philosophy that envisioned a global revolution that was to change the very foundations of modern civilization. The movement was run like a cult in many ways, although one of the principle tenets was that to succeed, rationality and rules should be specifically rejected. The rejection of the rational had strong overtones in the social and political areas. Proponents rejected societal structure and customs in their pursuit of freedom.
This led to many surrealists aligning themselves with communism or even anarchy. Not surprisingly, this organization based on the rejection of organization led to a fractured movement, with numerous splits and schisms. The leaders were radicals in the truest sense of the word. Breton himself was a friend of, and collaborator with, Leon Trotsky—one of the principal architects of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, which began in 1917 and concluded in 1923.
Dalí joins the Surrealists
Stories have a tendency to intersect. Within that Surrealist framework, Salvador Dalí travelled to Paris where he met the Spanish painters Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. Arguably, his first Surrealist piece was Honey is Sweeter than Blood in 1927. His full transition to surrealism was highlighted by his two 1928 oil
paintings, with sand on panels, entitled Baigneuse and Baigneuses where he, like the others, alternately inflated and deflated body parts.
Dalí was somewhat of a late-comer to the Surrealist scene, and was certainly the junior member when he did actually join in 1929. Aside from Picasso, he was influenced by Joan Miró, poet Paul Éluard and painter René Magritte. He quickly established himself as the principal figure of a group of surrealist artists grouped around Andre Breton, who was something of the theoretical “schoolmaster” of Surrealism.
The introduction of Dalí to Paul Éluard also meant an introduction to Gala Éluard, who found Dalí too interesting not to pursue. The Éluards travelled to Spain in 1929 to meet with the young Salvador Dalí. Dalí both painted a portrait of Éluard, Portrait de Paul Éluard, and took up with his wife in the same year. Gala’s marriage dissolved, and she moved in with Dalí until they married civilly in 1934. As devoted as Salvador was to her, she was not to him as her two greatest pursuits were sex and money, with the latter being required in great measures to provide the former. Dalí was the means to the end—in terms of the money, certainly not the sex. She had numerous affairs throughout the balance of helife, including with her ex-husband, Paul Éluard.
Surrealism Ousts Dalí
With Surrealism so aligned with communism, and noted communists, and with the movement being run like a cult, straying from the prime tenets of belief was not tolerated. As the 1930s wound down, World War II was ramping up. That meant the dramatic rise of fascism and fascist leaders including newly-victorious Spanish revolutionary, General Francisco Franco. In Italy it meant Benito Mussolini and in Germany it meant Adolf Hitler. Dalí stated that he had a pathological fascination with Hitler, which finally made him persona non grata in the Surrealist Movement. There were other aspects of Dalí that troubled the Surrealists prior to his expulsion.
The life of a true communist was to be an ordinary part of the masses, not to rise above, particularly in areas of marketing—mass marketing. Dalí was a master entertainer throughout most of his life, eventually designing magazine covers, advertisements and appearing on television and movies. He easily blended his art with entertainment, which in the eyes of his detractors made him a commercial artist, and not a genuine one. His motivators, not to mention Gala, did not suit the Surrealists, so the ties were severed—Dalí was deemed a counter-revolutionary. That is to the Surrealist Movement,
though not to the style used in his art. He declared his supremacy when he said that “The only difference between me and the Surrealists is that I am a Surrealist.”
Memories of Surrealism: Ultra-Surrealistic Corpuscular Galutska, 1971
Etching, drypoint and lithograph in colors on Japon paper—quintessentially Dalínian work with Gala at the center. His Memories of Surrealism series features his most iconic symbols throughout—crutches, clocks, butterflies, not to mention Gala and Dalí himself.
Gala—the Dominating Muse
In that sense Dalí was now on his own. He was not alone. Gala was ever-present. She was a constant source of inspiration to Dalí, serving frequently as his model and his driving muse. Yet it went far beyond that because she was his manager, his contract negotiator, his editor, his publicist and his financial manager. She ostensibly kept his focus on his art as she took care of the rest.
After 50 Years of Surrealism: L’Amour Sacré de Gala, [Sacred Love of Gala],1974
Hand-colored etching on BFK Rives wove paper
Gala was his strength where he was weak. Dalí had many weaknesses, and she had many strengths. He was fearful of sex, and she was anything but. She was his senior, not only in age, but in control. She was his liege, and he was her subject. He provided her the means to live in a lifestyle she desired, and she had many desires. Theirs was a truly unique relationship that was doomed to failure—yet it survived, even blossomed. When she needed a place to entertain her lovers, he provided her the means to her castle, literally. Located 50 miles from his house in Portlligat, Dalí was prohibited from going to The Castle of Púbol without her written permission.
While they married civilly in 1934, they, amazingly, desired a church wedding, but had to wait for a long-sought papal dispensation in 1958 to finally marry within the Catholic Church. She died in 1982 at the age of 88. Dalí died seven years later.
After 50 Years of Surrealism: Le Château de Gala, 1974
Hand-colored etching on Arches paper