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It’s Salvador Dali’s birthday today. The famed surrealist painter would would be 108 had he not died more than 20 years ago.

I can remember Dali from my childhood, seeing him on TV from time to time. I had no idea that he might have been an artist and I don’t recall exactly where I might have seen him back in those days when we had four channels to choose from. He might have been a guest on the Merv Griffin show, or I may have seen him as a twisted, dancing fop on Ed Sullivan. Regardless, I recall only that comically uncool mustache and, vaguely, his pompous and theatrical character.

The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dali, 1931)

Dali is the poster child for that collection of sad bastards whose persona eclipsed their art. It’s the story of Dali himself that gets the most attention and his paintings, some of which were very good and reached iconic status (like The Persistence of Memory, above), are more of an afterthought. He was enormously talented, not only as a painter but also as a Hollywood set designer, architect, sculptor, writer, and photographer. He was also an arrogant prick and a fascist with an ego that, had he lived permanently in the US, would have been big enough for it’s own Zip Code. He cultivated his image carefully and engaged in behavior so weird that you have to wonder if it might have just been an act to enhance his reputation for weirdness. At least I always wondered if it was an act. I hope it was, because it spoke more of madness than quaint eccentricity.

Dali was not well-liked among his peers. He was expelled from the Surrealist movement for his support of the brutal, fascist Franco Regime in Spain. His old friends often turned on him. George Orwell, in a review of Dali’s autobiography, called the artist a “…good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.” He was branded by Andre’ Breton, French Surrealist writer, as “Avida Dollars,” an anagram of Dali’s name that translates roughly into “eager for cash.”

Illuminated Pleasures (Salvador Dali, 1929)

I find Surrealist painting interesting but not captivating and I much prefer the more mysterious and mildly disturbing work of di Chirico to anything Dali ever did. I  have to acknowledge that contribution surrealists made to the blending of abstract thought with representational imagery. We should also acknowledge the inspiration Dali provided to younger artists, among them Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, all of whom took note of how weirdness and self-promotion can render actual talent unnecessary. For providing this inspiration, Dali should be kicked in the nuts.

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