Is this the most unusual museum in Europe?
The Dalí Theatre-Museum in Spain stands as one of the strangest museums in all of Europe.
Salvador Dalí’s bizarre self-curated collection is the master statement from the famed surrealist. Best known for his unusual paintings of melting clocks and eccentric lifestyle, Dalí’s vision was grand — and the striking red fortress topped with giant eggs paints an intricate picture of the famous artist.
Located in Figueres, the eccentric Spaniard’s hometown not far from the border with France, the museum is housed in what was Dalí’s local childhood movie theater. After the theater was burned to ruins during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, Dalí teamed with the city in the 1960s on a plan to rebuild it into a grand temple to showcase his works.
Filling the former theater with some of his most unique works, such as paintings that seem to transform from different vantage points like “Lincoln in Dalívision,” and others which are only visible through secretly placed mirrors, Dalí was able to design his very own museum.
The surrealist funhouse opened to the public in 1974 and today makes for a worthy day trip.
Less than an hour train ride outside Barcelona, the Figueres Museum-Theatre offers a respite from the more heavily touristed museums in Spain. The establishment marks the central stop on the the Dalínian Triangle, a route of three significant locations where Dalí lived and produced art, all along the Catalonia region’s Costa Brava.
Also on the Dalí’ tour: Castle of Púbol, a medieval building located 20 miles south of Figueres, which Dalí renovated as a palace for his wife Gala and the Salvador Dalí House-Museum, 20 miles east of Figueres, in Portlligat (Cadaqués), where he and Gala kept a private coastal residence and workshop.
Said to be the location of his first publicly exhibited art at age 14, the riveting Theatre-Museum is adorned in Dalí’s personal history. Even casual fans of the artist should pay a visit to the main museum for a true taste of Dalí’s surreal perspective.
Dalí’s eternal vision
Visitors first enter the Dalí Theatre-Museum through a circular open-air courtyard — originally theater seating — and in an instant, they’re transported into Dalí’s imagination.
Parked in the center of the space is Dalí’s personal black Cadillac positioned underneath “Gala’s Boat”: An upside down suspended sailboat painted with blue condoms raining down, mimicking drops of water.
Golden Oscar-esque statuettes fashioned from full-sized mannequins line the surrounding walls of the rotunda. Their arms raised, they appear to be eerily celebrating the creation below.
A glass geodesic dome, meant to resemble the eye of a fly, covers the former stage. Located beneath this is Dalí’s grave. In fact, this is where his funeral took place in 1989, and remains his (sometimes) final resting place.
In 2017, his body was exhumed from the crypt as part of a nearly decade long failed paternity case brought by a fortune teller named Pilar Abel claiming to be the surrealist master’s daughter and sole heir. Exactly the kind of publicity Dalí himself would have reveled in, the bizarre episode revealed the artist’s trademark mustache shockingly remained intact nearly 30 years after his death.
In a 2017 radio interview, Narcís Bardalet, an embalmer who assisted with the exhumation, described the mustache “[like clock hands at] 10 past 10, just as he liked it. It’s a miracle,” further explaining “the mustache is still there and will be for centuries.”
Keeping watch over the front entrance is a diving suit he nearly suffocated in while delivering a lecture in England. With his goal to “dive into the depths of the human subconscious,” according to writer Jackie De Burcathe’s “Salvador Dali at Home,” the artist was forced to pry his helmet free using a billiard cue he also just happened to be holding at the time.
Dalí’s personal treasure trove
Not only does the Theatre-Museum contain the largest collection of Dalí works in one place, but in the artist’s self-named, red velvet “Treasure Room,” are his most prized productions, paintings chosen for a variety of personal reasons.
Also on display is Dalí’s occasionally contentious relationship with his idol Picasso. While the men would eventually become contemporaries, they clashed over politics; scholars can see this in their art.
While Dalí took to spending more time in the United States, even appearing on the cover of “TIME” in 1936, Picasso remained a communist from the end of World War II until this death. The mocking “Portrait of Picasso,” painted in 1947, leaves little doubt of Dalí’s feelings on the matter. The unflattering visage positions a deformed Picasso atop a pedestal with drooping facial features. Dalí even went so far to label Picasso a “destroyer of art.”
Danielle Johnson, a professor of art history at New York University, explains this may have been part of Dalí “trying to surpass [Picasso], and go beyond him, and develop his own extremely unique identity.”
“In the 1940s Picasso was still considered to be a major figure to go beyond. Dalí was really interested in publicity and developing his own persona. This could have been part of that,” Johnson explains.
Despite his public criticisms of the elder Picasso, Dalí’s reverence never completely faded and they eventually reconnected later in life.
And the award goes to…
One of the main focal points of the Theatre-Museum is the Mae West room — a space that transforms into a visage of legendary movie star Mae West, with paintings on the wall making up her eyes, a fireplace nose, red-lipped couch and flowing blonde curtains for hair. From a platform overlooking the living room layout, West’s famous face takes shape.
Dalí’s passion for film is also on display in his collaboration with Walt Disney Studios, the animated short “Destino,” which screens at the Theatre-Museum. Production on the short began in 1945, though it wasn’t completed and released until 58 years later in 2003 when it was re-discovered by Disney and produced by a team of 25 animators using the original storyboards.
Surrealist Sistine Chapel
Another notable site-specific installation is “The Palace of the Wind Room,” including the stunning “Central Panel of the Wind Palace,” the large-scale ceiling painting depicts Dalí and Gala seemingly floating out through the roof towards a glowing crescent moon. The room also contains tapestries and a gold-painted orangutan skeleton standing watch eerily in the corner.
A permanent special exhibition features jewels and coins, demonstrating how Dalí transported surrealism into new forms of wearable art: “Ruby Lips” made with pearls for teeth are made of natural rubies and 18 karat yellow gold; “The Eye of Time,” a diamond-encrusted eye-piece clock; “Royal Heart,” a mechanical beating gold heart with jeweled crown and inset with a pulsating ruby center, was created in honor of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
In describing how he envisioned the collection, Dalí once proclaimed “I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be [a] totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.”