Dali’s House In Spain

Dali’s House In Spain

Dalí House Museum, Port Lligat. Cadaqués, Spain.

March 1999 (published in the Guardian)

Apart from a benign looking stuffed polar bear festooned with walking sticks, necklaces and a fishnet lamp the first thing you see on entering Salvador Dalí’s house in Port Lligat is one of his famous sofas, modelled on the lips of Mae West. But instead of shocking pink PVC, this one is made of green flowered chintz with matching chair and curtains, a combination which is oddly, wierdly domestic.

The sofa is typical of the house, reflecting a playful, cosy side of Dalí and his wife Gala, strangely at odds with their profligate, decadent image. The house, which was was their main residence for over 40 years, is totally idiosyncratic. It is like walking into an Escher drawing. What began as a tiny fishing shack mushroomed into a bizarre labyrinth of white rooms all different shapes and sizes, with balconies, mezzanine floors, twisting passages and secret stairways, a physical manifestation of Dali’s dreams. Windows are cut into the walls at whimsical angles suddenly revealing postcard views of blue sea and rocky hillside, or down into a fireplace. It’s like falling down the rabbit hole, at any moment you expect the white rabbit to appear, or at least the artist himself, moustaches twirling, his paintbrush ready to transform reality. Walls, shelves and tables are adorned with a deranged cornucopia of masks, dolls, feathers, fans, statues, skulls, stuffed birds and found objects, stones, shells, dried flowers, pieces of driftwood, a complete Dalinian iconography.
Today the building sits like a magic fortress on the rocky shore of Port Lligat, a ziggurat of wedding-cake white walls and burnished terracotta roofs stepped down to the sea. Giant white alabaster eggs adorn the roof, dark green cypresses stand sentinel, and on the shore are the gaily painted fishing boats that have continued to ply their trade throughout the artistic invasion of their remote little bay.

From 1930 onwards the Dalís spent six or seven months of the year here, escaping to luxury hotels in New York and Paris during the chilly winter months. Port Lligat is a tiny fishing harbour in a rocky cove across the peninsula from the Catalan fishing port of Cadaqués, where Dalí spent his childhood holidays from Figueres. He always loved to paint here, inspired by the hallucinatory rock formations of Cap Creus, “exactly the epic spot where the mountains of the Pyrenees come down into the sea, in a grandiose geological delirium.” as he himself put it with typical hyperbole in his autobiography, “The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.” The rocks have been scoured and sculpted by the fierce Tramontana wind into the “the protean and fantastic” forms so often painted by Dalí. “The Spectre of Sex Appeal” (1932) is one of many paintings which show the rocks and the seascape clearly, the landscape of his childhood a recurring backdrop for his paintings.

Cadaqués, like Ceret and Collioure just across the border in France, was a favourite artists’ retreat. Picasso and Derain came in 1910, invited by Ramon Pinchot, the Catalan Impressionist artist, who also made a great impression on Dalí. A proto-Surrealist Pinchot family diversion on a moonlit night with a calm sea was to take out a grand piano in a wide bottomed boat, to be played by musicians in full evening dress, with tame swans floating by. Both pianos and swans became key symbols for Dalí. Lobsters were another, not surprisingly since the equally surrealist fishermen of Cadaques held a traditional service in honour of their saint in which they tied live lobsters to the altar and watched their claws dance slowly to the music by the light of the church candles.

It was in Cadaqués that Dalí first met Gala in 1929. She arrived with her husband, poet Paul Eluard, but stayed with Dalí, to become the combination of muse, mother figure, sexual and artistic collaborator that Dalí seemed to crave. Gala was a tall, intense Russian woman, strong and powerful, who appreciated Dali’s extraordinary potential as an artist and was determined to exploit it. She was sexually voracious and exhibitionist, shocking the Catalan locals with her bare breasts and assignations with the fishermen. Dali himself was essentially a voyeur, and it is unlikely their relationship was ever consummated in any conventional manner. Gala became a creature of myth, loathed by many for her cold, selfish behaviour, and in later years she was to become virtually nymphomaniac in her pursuit of younger men, but for most of their life, she succeeded in satisfying Dali. He was completely enthralled by her, and undoubtedly she played a key role in his ability to explore his mad, inspired psyche through his painting.. (“The only difference between me and a madman,” Dalí liked to say, “ is that I am not mad.”)

They wanted to stay in Port Lligat so that Dali could paint, and they bought the first barraca, a tiny fishing shack of dry stone walls, in 1930, 21 square metres of space in total, with no electricity and no running water. The one main room, now the entrance hall, was used as a dining room and studio with a mezzanine bedroom accessible by a wooden ladder. A flight of steps led up to shower, toilet and kitchen. “We wanted only the exact proportions required by the two of us and the two of us alone.” Dalí wrote. Then Port Lligat was only accessible by track and everything had to be carried by donkey; books, photos, gas lamps and heaters, easel and paints, and cases of mounted butterflies.

Five years later they bought the next-door cottage, adding connecting stairs and passages, to create a honeycomb of rooms according to their desires, a dwelling which evolved round their bizarre relationship. Although they liked to entertain – and many of the conceits and jokes in the house and garden seem designed to entertain visitors – the house itself never had a guest room. “We talked about being alone, to see what was going to happen between us.” Dali wrote, “How there we were going to build walls in the sun to protect us against the sun, wells to catch spring water, stone benches to sit on.”

Apart from a daily maid and the fishermen who returned each night to Cadaqués, the two were indeed left alone on the windswept cape surrounded by waves and sea. Dalí would work furiously, while Gala planted rosemary and lavender in the garden terraces, gathered her beloved yellow everlasting flowers from the rocky hills around, drying them into wonderful sculptural bunches to hang from the walls and frame windows. They took walks together, swam and sunbathed in hedonistic celebration of nature. Everywhere are displayed stones, chunks of quartz, shells, starfish and sea urchins, the natural treasures they gathered and imaginatively incorporated into the structure and decoration of the house.

Dalí worked according to a strict routine, starting at sunrise, followed by lunch and a short nap, what he called “slumber with a key.” Then he worked till evening while Gala read to him, or they would walk or take a boat out, rowing round the rocky inlets of Cap Creus, observing the curious rock formations transform into Dali’s favourite double images as the perspective shifted.

Together they planned every detail of the house, the stairs, the shapes and location of windows, the views they should frame, sending drawings to the local builder, Emili Puignau, when they were away. They always used local materials: terracotta tiles on the floor, slices of local slate for steps, and locally woven esparto matting (originally used on the roads for carriages) to cover the floors. One mat is ingeniously woven to look like a tigerskin rug. The local method of moulding plaster is used to great effect, and Dalí designed several fireplaces and a baroque barbecue using the technique. The fireplace in the dining room is his design, carved out of the bare rock, formed into niches for fire and logs of wood. They would sit and eat their favourite sea urchins in front of the fire at a carved antique Spanish table, by the light of huge wrought iron candlebra, also designed by Dalí.

They left Spain when Civil War broke out in 1936, only returning in 1948, by which time they had become rich, exchanging the Bohemian cafes of old for the Ritz and Maxim’s. Dalí embraced Franco’s fascist regime, alienating his old Surrealist comrades, and began painting religious subjects in an attempt to reconcile himself with Spanish tradition, the first of which, portrayed Gala, inevitably, as The Madonna of Port Lligat. Dali always remained profoundly attached to Port Lligat and the Ampordan, declaring it was the only place he could really paint, and throughout their absence the Dalís continued to send the builder regular instructions. In 1949 the house was further extended adding a library, with a wooden book case installed above a fireplace, surmounted by three stuffed swans bearing lights on their heads. There was also a new studio with big adjacent windows framing dramatic views of hills and sea. A specially constructed easel was installed, with an ingenious pulley system to enable large paintings to be hoisted to the required height for the painter. Rising from the studio is a beautifully curved staircase shaded by a vast Japanese parasol, and accommodating a myriad objects of inspiration. Copies of favourite paintings include Millet’s Angelus and Velasquez’ portrait of Philip II. Other people’s moustaches were a particular Dalí obsession, and include Velasquez, Stalin and the Mona Lisa.

The bedroom is in late megalomania style, with grand Russian samovars, bird cages, heavy inlaid Spanish furniture, dominated by two vast beds with red and purple canopies, bronze embellishments and an imperial eagle at the top. The tidily placed white Dutch clogs add an endearingly incongruous touch. The circular fireplace is another Dalí design, flanked by plasterwork divans, covered in silken cushions. Later Dalí had a door cut in the fireplace so he could get straight out onto the patio. His touch is everywhere apparent; he positioned a mirror so he could see the dawn from his bed and thus be the first person in Spain to see the sun rise, since the Cap is the easternmost point of Spain.

Leading from the bedroom are Dalí’s own bathroom and Gala’s dressing room, which has glass fronted closets completely filled with photos of all the famous people who ever visited them, from Walt Disney and Gregory Peck, to the Duke of Windsor and Marcel Duchamp. Beyond is the cupola domed oval room with its strange accoustics, Gala’s secret refuge. It was based on an idea Dalí had for a nightclub in Acapulco which was never commissioned. A velvet bench runs right round the room, strewn with miniature silk cushions and furry animals. Niches display Gala’s family photos, Russian icons, perfume flacons, enamelled miniatures, busts and statuettes.

White painted walls make a secluded, sheltered patio on several levels around the house, with a double layer of walls creating secret winding passages like a Moroccan souk all the way round. The patio is filled with silvery green olive trees and giant white teacups spilling over with blue flowered rosemary bushes. Above is the Dalí designed dovecote, adorned with wooden pitch forks, and in the outer walls are placed perforated pieces of pottery which echo musically when the Tramontana blows, like a Catalan Aeolian harp.

The patio became the centre of the Dalís increasingly extravagant social life, and this is where they put the summer dining room, a snug narrow white room with a window framing a view of the sea, candles in niches, and a horse shoe shaped slate table presided over by a rhino’s head, and a giant white teapot like something out of a mad hatter’s tea-party. Here Dalí liked to offer his guests lobster in chocolate sauce (a typical sweet and savoury Catalan combination and not as a surreal as it sounds,) sea urchins, and cava, Catalan champagne.

From the dry olive terraces above the house, edged with the dry slate walls which are typical of Cadaqués, the Dalís created a sublime garden, like a mythical Greek hillside under a deep blue sky. A white limestone path was marked out parallel to the sea, the Via Lactia, Milky Way, edged with pomegranate trees, lavender and rosemary, and arriving at a tiny secluded little bay where they could swim and sunbathe naked.

By the 1970s Gala had moved out to her own castle at Pubol, about 30 kilometres away, where she entertained her younger lovers, and Dalí was only allowed to visit on written invitation. His own social life grew increasingly degenetrate, as he became the eccentric mascot of the psychedelic generation, exotically attired in velvet and gold brocade with long dyed hair and lorgnette glasses. His “Court of Miracles” assembled a bizarre pantomime of dwarf hemaphrodites, twins (the perfect double image for Dali) and tranvestites, including Amanda Lear, the sex-change model who became a close chum of Dali. A regular hippie contingent disported themselves according to Dalí’s whims, frolicking in his phallic pool, staging erotic cabarets, posing for him while The Great Masturbator often did just that. The pool which was the centre of all this decadence was added to the patio in 1971. It is ingenious, a narrow channel squeezed into the rocky terrain, with little swans spraying fountains jets across it, and two thrones in a grand pavilion at one end, flanked by fat striped satin cushions. Here too are the red lip sofas, the Pirelli tiles, the Michelin man, the telephone booth, but by contrast with the rest of the house the entire ensemble seems tacky and cliched.

After Gala’s death, Dalí moved to Pubol and never returned to their house in Port Lligat. By all accounts the house was virtually sacked after his death, and many valuable paintings, photos and artefacts were removed, but it is clear from contemporary photographs and the memories of staff and friends that it has been reconstructed with enormous care and accuracy. There are no original Dalís to see here, for that you must go to the Figueres museum, about half an hours drive away, but what endures in the Port Lligat house and its magical setting are the essential elements of landscape, sea, and natural treasures which provided Dali with his unique inspiration. It is hard to think of any other painter’s house which illuminates so effectively the machinations of the artist’s mind.
In some ways the best moment comes when you leave the house and return to the little bay. Look out for the boat with a cypress tree growing through it – part of the joke is that mast and tree are the same word in Catalan. Best of all are the doors of the house, several of which look like abstract paintings; Dalí asked the fisherman, when they had finished painting their boats to use up their paint on his doors and these truly random artworks of daubed colours were the result.