Gala Dalí’s Irrepressible Legacy

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Eric Schaal, Salvador Dalí and Gala working on the “Dream of Venus” pavilion, 1939© Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018. Image Rights of Gala et Salvador Dalí reserved

The wife and muse to husband Salvador demonstrated that she was much more than either of those things, as a Barcelona exhibition shows

Women, in general, have been hard done by when it comes to the history of the Surrealist movement. Often relegated to the status of wives, lovers, and/or muses – cast in ancillary roles, written about and remembered only in the context of providing support, sex and stimulus to the Great Men around them – it’s only been in more recent years that we’ve seen an explosion of interest in their lives and, crucially, their work. From Lee Miller to Valentine Penrose to Leonor Fini, it’s a rich time to focus on these often extraordinary female artists and writers who history so often reduced to passive vessels.

Among their number, Gala Dalí – wife and inspiration to Salvador Dalí, and the subject of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Art of Catalunya titled Gala Salvador Dalí. A Room of One’s Own in Pùbol – merits a closer look too. Of course I’ve just defined her by both her marital status and her muse-hood. But in the case of Gala Dalí both aspects take on a particular significance. 

Gala Dalí – birth name Elena Ivanovna Diakonova – was born in Russia in 1894. Growing up in a family of intellectuals, in 1912 she was sent to a sanatorium in Switzerland to recover from tuberculosis. There she met the French poet Paul Éluard, who first nicknamed her Gala. Five years later they married, and had a child together. This was to be the first of many significant encounters with men of the avant-garde (others including German Surrealist Max Ernst, who lived in a ménage-a-trois arrangement with the Éluards for some years; Man Ray, who photographed her; and André Breton, who professed in later years to despise her). She’d leave an impression on all of them.

In 1929 she met Salvador Dalí in Cadaqués, Spain: the then-unknown artist, ten years her junior, describing her as initially unimpressed by his “professional Argentine tango slickness” of appearance. He was sent spinning by her presence, and the two soon grew close. She left Éluard for him, the couple officially marrying in 1934.

Seminal Moments

Gala was by all accounts a forceful, driven, complicated woman – one who would come to completely shape and influence her husband’s output over the course of their partnership. By the early 1930s he’d famously sign his works with both of their names, professing that it was “mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures”.

Her presence is felt everywhere in Salvador’s drawings and paintings. Her face and form appear in numerous works: as a series of characters (the Madonna, Galatea of the Spheres, Gradiva) and in any number of passing moments and curious scenarios (staring in a mirror, just before waking from a dream, with two lamb chops resting on one shoulder).

However, she didn’t just exist on canvas and paper. Gala also frequently acted as his agent – pulling on both unconventional methods (tarot card readings about Salvador’s future) and more practical approaches (negotiating with galleries to secure favorable deals) to eventually cement her husband as one of the leading names of Surrealism.

In 1969 Salvador would gift his wife Púbol: a private Catalan castle she’d come to fill with mementoes and references to her Russian origins, the place stuffed with clothes, books, and family photos. There was just one proviso. Her husband could only visit on receiving written invitation from Gala. This is the Woolfian “room of one’s own” that the exhibition references; a space that seems to embody some of the tensions surrounding Gala in its balance between self-led independence, and control.

Defining Features

Google Gala Dalí’s name and any number of striking photos will come up. With her carefully pinned, instantly recognisable hair, and her penchant for brimmed hats, wide-legged trousers, well-tailored dresses, and designers including Dior and Schiaparelli, Gala always cut a dash. Many of the photos depict her alongside her husband: the two of them making for a striking duo as they lie entwined, or lean against railings in matching fur coats, or swim together, or pose with Salvador’s artworks like stiffly held puppets.

In one image Gala models Schiaparelli’s iconic shoe hat (inspired, apparently, by a photo Gala took of her husband balancing a woman’s shoe on his head) – looking perfectly nonchalant as she stares at an inanimate bust sporting the same design.

She’s AnOther Woman because…

In a now often-cited 1998 essay for Vanity Fair, art historian John Richardson rattles through an impressive gamut of gendered insults, by turns labeling Gala Dalí as a “demonic dominatrix,” “ancient harridan,” “virago,” and “one of the nastiest wives a major modern artist ever saddled himself with”. His blistering misogyny feels rightfully – and laughably – dated.

By many accounts Gala Dalí was an undoubtedly difficult person – albeit one whose more undesirable qualities (ambition, drive for money, voracious – often openly declared – desire) would merit much less scrutiny were she not female. She was also someone who carved out room for herself in creative spheres that remained particularly hostile to women; a keenly intelligent individual who managed to both exist as a ‘muse’ and resist the limitations of such a label; who inhabited any number of roles, images, and responsibilities. She also had her own creative pursuits – allegedly preparing a novel, though the manuscript has never been found.

In the press release for the museum’s exhibition, director Montse Aguer describes her thus: “Gala, an elegant and sophisticated woman, acutely aware of the image she wanted to project. Gala, the focal point of mythologies, paintings, sketches, engravings, photographs and books. Gala Salvador Dalí.” It seems an apt summary of a woman who still exists partly in fragments – written about, painted, photographed, endlessly discussed – but who made sure she’d be entirely, wildly unforgettable.

Gala Salvador Dalí. A Room of One’s Own in Púbol is at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, until October 14, 2018.