Sixty years ago today, one of the 20th century’s less likely encounters took place when Spanish artist Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala were granted an audience with Pope Pius XII.
Dalí, spurred on by his obsessively ambitious wife, was on a charm offensive to win favour in the Church as well as with the Franco regime in Spain. The first step in his plan was the recently completed painting The Madonna of Port Lligat (pictured above), which Dalí brought along for Show and Tell with the Holy Father. The modestly scaled work depicted the polyamorous Gala somewhat incongruously as the Holy Virgin. What a cosy trio: the Surrealist painter, whose previous works included the painting The Profanation of the Host and blasphemous collaborations with filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and his nymphomaniac wife shooting the breeze with the Supreme Pontiff. Their conversation went sadly unrecorded, though Dalí reported that Pius was taken with the Madonna.
That Dalí, at once the most famous and least orthodox of the Surrealists, should have met with the Pope was the final straw for André Breton. The man whose autocratic control of the movement had earned him the title “Pope of Surrealism” demanded an apostolic monopoly. Though the communist Breton and the increasingly reactionary Dalí were never political bedfellows, this breach of the Surrealists’ radical anti-clericalism was an affront too far.
It was around this time that Breton labelled Dalí with the disdainful anagram Avida Dollars, but it was in fact Gala whose avidity so sullied the artist’s reputation.
Art historian John Richardson writes witheringly of la Gala in his book Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters. “To know her was to loathe her” he claims, labelling her variously a “virago”, “Spider Woman”, “ancient harridan” and “one of the nastiest wives a major modern artist ever saddled himself with”. Others were less kind. (But would Gala have been so defamed for the scope of her conquests had she been male? It seems unlikely.)
Gala, born Elena Dmitrievna Diakonova in Russia in 1894, married the French poet Paul Éluard in 1917, though she was too much woman for just one man and had a string of other lovers. Eventually the pair settled on a three-way arrangement with the German Surrealist Max Ernst.
In 1929 she met the then largely unknown Salvador Dalí, and their fates were – for better or for worse – ever after intertwined. Dalí, whose only major relationships to date had been with the poet Federico García Lorca and his own hand, was mesmerised by the dominating Russian.
They married in a civil ceremony in 1934 (Pius apparently turned down Gala’s plea for a divorce from Éluard during their brief encounter). It seemed almost everyone, including Dalí’s father and much of the artist’s circle, disapproved of the union. Dalí immortalised Gala in some of his most important works, Gala encouraged Dalí’s weakness for degrading publicity stunts.
In the later years, however, Gala pressured Dalí to maximise income at the expense of artistic integrity, and unleashed the flood of works whose sole input from the artist was his signature. Gala, according to Richardson, needed cash to keep her younger lovers, her enormous sex drive undiminished by age.
Gala died in 1982, though not, as she had wished, in the village of Púbol, where a tomb was prepared for her and Dalí. The fact that she had instead died, inconveniently, in Port Lligat, led to a last and appropriately surreal ride: she was propped up in a car as if still alive and driven there.
Dalí, devastated, lingered miserably for another 6 and a half years, exploited by hangers-on who made Gala look like Florence Nightingale.