In 1929 Dali was thrown out of the house by his father, since he was hanging around with crazy Surrealists in Cadaqués and had started an affair with a Russian woman. From one day to the next being homeless, Dali was rescued by the fisherwoman Lidia who he confirmed to have an equally paranoid brain as himself.
Lidia owned a run-down fishing hut at the beach of Portlligat, nearby the bay of Cadaqués, Dali purchased from her with an advance by the Vicomte de Noailles on the painting William Tell. It was to become Dali’s and Gala’s domicile and creative retreat up to Gala’s death in 1982, interrupted only by the period in American exile during the Second World War. For Dali Portlligat nearby the Cap de Creus, where the Pyrenees plunge into the sea in a dizzy delirium, was a place of planetary melancholy and the only delightful spot at the same time, where he could paint and exist. ”The mornings are full of wild and bitter joy, in a cruel way analytical and structural, and the dusk often is full of morbid sadness, and the olive trees which are shiny and full of life in the morning, fade to an immovable grey, like lead. The gentle morning wind draws smiles of little, joyful waves onto the water, and very often, due to the rocky islands which turn Portlligat into a kind of lake, the sea is so calm that the dramas of the evening sky are reflected in it.”
Dali has been working on his house for more than 40 years which has grown like a biological structure.
The 22 sqm large hut erected with dry stone walls served as entrance hall, dining room, living room, bedroom and studio. In the middle of the room a milk tooth of Dali was hanging from the ceiling attached to a thread. Over the years Dali acquired other neighbouring huts and connected them with terraces to a labyrinth-like structure which represents, so to speak, a Surrealist obsession turned into architecture. ”Our house has grown like a real biological structure, with cellular sprouts. Every new impulse in our lives is represented by a new cell, a room. The core was the paranoid delirium of Lidia who had presented us the first cell.” With the completion of the swimming pool in 1971, the metamorphosis of the house was finished, in 1974 it experienced its most glamorous period as centre of the Catalan hippie culture. Who appeared to be beautiful enough to Dali, was invited to wild parties by him.
Who puts the effort into driving the serpentines up to the peak El Pení, coming from the Empordà, is rewarded by the view over Cadaqués with its dazzling white houses. Due to its location, cut off from the back country, Cadaqués was accessible by boat only for a long time, and therefore remained one of the most authentic coast places of Catalonia. A dusty potholed road goes to the neighbouring bay of Portlligat from there. One enters a barren moonscape, where scattered olive trees brave the Tramuntana, only inadequately protected by low-rise terraced walls of piled slates. Here at the end of the world, two huge eggs can be caught sight of behind a hill between silvery olive groves, overlooking terracotta colored roofs. The epicentre of Surrealism, the studio of Salvador Dali, is reached. After Dali’s death in 1989 the house was refurbished and is a museum in the meantime, accessible to the public. For capacitiy reasons an advance registration is necessary, as only small groups of eight persons can be guided through the labyrinth-like complex at a frequency of every ten minutes.
At the little square in front of the museum the visitor is already expected by old friends on Dali’s paintings. The well, with Gala in the foreground balancing a cutlet on her shoulder, and the cypress growing in the skeleton of a boat.
The tour starts in the so-called reception room of the bear, which is guarded by a taxidermy polar bear mount. The animal was a present by Edward James to Dali, who shared the Surrealist’s enthusiasm for taxidermy. The bear holds a lamp, serving as umbrella stand at the same time, behind it an owl, the symbol of wisdom, eyes the visitor. Turning to the left, one reaches the dining room and, connected to it, the library, well equipped in Dali’s lifetime. The different levels of the floor visualize the history of this part of the house. They are the first fishing huts Dali had established his studio in at the beginning of the thirties. At the end wall of the dining room there is a chimney designed by Dali, the table is dominated by two candelabra of wrought iron shaped after his design. Russian Matryoshkas and crustaceans like sea urchins, clam shells and starfish show the different handwritings of Gala and Dali. It was Gala as well who made her beloved dried flowers hung in all over the house. The library is dominated by a large-scale wooden bookshelf that is running alongside the wall above the chimney. Dali was particularly interested in the humanities and natural sciences, every evening he studied books in the library in search of new inspirations for his art.
Three taxidermy swan mounts are sitting on the shelf, once they used to swim in the bay of Portlligat, in his painting Leda and the Swan Dali has borne witness to his admiration for the swan as creature of mythology. While working, he made Gala reading books: ”While painting, I ask Gala to read the great writers. I don’t listen to her, but let sink myself into the noise of her words (…)”
From the studio Dali had the best view over the bay.
From the library one steps out to the terrace which is enclosed by whitewashed rocks. All the house was whitewashed anew every year, the lime paint was made following a formula by Dali using steeped agaves in order to achieve a brilliant blueish white. A window reveals a view over the entire bay of Portlligat. ”The clean flies of Portlligat that fly along behind the leaves of the olive trees are dressed as by Balenciaga, they are beautiful and adorable.”
On the way to the studio one passes the former kitchen the floor of which is designed with black and white tiles in a chequerboard pattern, inspired by Vermeer van Delft. Winding stairs, narrow openings and cave-like corridors make it impossible to reconstruct the building history in this part of the house, the viewer feels like running after Dali’s convolutions of the brain on the way to enlightenment, until he finally reaches the sanctum sanctorum. The studio is one of the most sober rooms of the house, a window with view over the bay, and one to the north flood the room with daylight. The entrance door designed by Dali in the form of a truncated isosceles triangle underlines his interest in mathematics and geometry. All painting utensils are laid out ready, his stool and easel are standing there unchanged. The studio is dominated by a neo-classical plaster sculpture equipped with a fencing mask, a red cape and an American football by adidas. Dali had a hidden mechanical lift built in by means of which he could sink large-scale paintings in the floor, thus being able to take an ideal painting position and transport the completed pictures easily off later on. Here Dali worked in a disciplined and meticulous way from sunrise to sunset, to use the daylight in its full capacity.
Next to the studio there is the room of the models, a Surrealist cabinet of curiosities with tools, optic devices, busts and puppets, Dali needed for his work. His stereoscopic works of the seventies show his interest in the laws of optics. The living area is divided into three open rooms on different levels connected with each other. The yellow room is called after the seating bench upholstered with yellow fabric, in the past this room had served Dali as studio, before he moved to a larger room due to space constraints. Since then the yellow room was a living room, the most striking object is a lamp in the form of a snail the brand Tiffany integrated a clock in. Dali always associated the snail with the cranium of Freud. At the wall there is a mirrow in a black wooden frame, which was applied in an angle exactly calculated in order to enable Dali to watch the rising sun from his bed. As the Cap de Creus is the most eastern corner of Spain, Dali always pointed out that he was the first to see the sun rising over the Iberian peninsula. Via the room of the birds which is dominated by a birdcage populated by canary birds back then, after seven steps of a stairway one reaches the bedroom.
Wrought iron beds with red and blue day blankets and a canopy in the same color are guarded by an imperial eagle with a ring in his bill. A circular bricked chimney, designed by Dali himself, is the artistic highlight of the lateral wall. At older age he had a secret door built in there to get directly to the patio without exhausting climbing stairs. Besides this bedroom there are no other guest rooms in the house. Although Dali and Gala were excellent hosts, a guest never stayed overnight in their house, as their privacy was sacrosanct to them. Passing through Gala’s small simple bathroom, one reaches the room of photographs. Gala has pasted all available press photos that were published featuring Dali and herself into the glass doors of the built-in cupboards. The pictures show the couple with famous persons of contemporary history, such as Harpo Marx, Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck and Picasso. Also the cover of the Time of 1936 with the photo of Dali, taken by Man Ray, is shown.
To the oval room Dali got inspired by the shell of a sea urchin, it was the last room of the house to be conceived. It was mainly reserved for Gala and her guests, and can be reached only via the dressing room and the room of the photographs, it’s the only room which has a door. The closed door causes a hermetic isolation, with the dome-shaped curvature of the room creating a reverberant sound. Plush benches are arranged round the oval, Gala decorated the alcoves. In summer social life took place in the patio, it is accessible via a labyrinth, consisting of whitewashed rocks. Halfway in the tunnel there is a little corridor branching off to the summer dining room.
With the patio and the pavilion Dali created an architectural garden of earthly delights.
It is dominated by a U-shaped table out of slate and a winged rhinoceros head which soars below the ceiling like a putto. The square window cutout with view over the bay is framed by dried flowers that create the illusion of a framed painting. In summer this was the place to have dinner or an aperitif. Going ahead through the tunnel, one reaches the olive grove and the pigeon loft decorated by Dali with crutches of hayforks. Clay pots are integrated into the wall of the pigeon loft in order to increase the wind noise of the Tramuntana like resonating bodies. On the top of the terraced olive grove there is a monumental lying sculpture of Christ Dali pieced together with rubble and finds.
Opposite to the summer dining room there is a low-rise opening in the wall of the labyrinth one can step out of into the patio. The patio is entirely enclosed by whitewashed walls and rocks, thus being sheltered from the wind, the floor of dark grey slate creates a great contrast to the dazzling white enclosure. Eye-catching are the olive trees that are planted in huge cup-shaped plant pots, hidden in the niches of the rocks there is the sculpture of a wash-basin and the torso of the statue of Ilissos by Phidias.
After crossing the patio one will find another door in the wall on the opposite side that opens to the swimming pool and pavilion. The phallus-shaped swimming pool was inspired by the gardens of the Alhambra, including a miniature lion fountain and water shoots. A little canal branches off the pool and ends in front of the Pirelli fountain and the lips sofa in garish pink. Between olive trees a Bibendum guards the scene. At the end of the swimming pool there is the pavilion in oriental style with an elephant skull, a polyester lion, and the beacon of the lighthouse at the Cap de Creus taken out of use.
The visit at the Casa Museu Dali reveals Dali’s visions and obsessions like a condensed Surrealist painting and appears like a kaleidoscope of the 20th century, blending Classicism, Surrealism, Kitsch, high culture and folk art to a total work of art, embedded in a magnificent landscape. Dali has always been dedicated to protect the haven of his childhood with its untouched nature, it’s owed to him that Cadaqués escaped architectural eyesores. On The Weaning of Furniture Nutrition, painted in 1934, he has immortalized the fisherwoman Lidia. In a view from the rear she is sitting on the beach with her legs stretched out, in her fleshy back there is a window cut out which is propped up by a crutch and opens the view to the solitude of the calm bay. Today there are hundreds of yachts anchoring.