(By Antoni Ribas/Ara) “I want my museum to be like a single block, a maze, a great surreal object. It’ll be a completely theatrical museum. Visitors will leave feeling as if they’ve had a theatrical dream”. These are the words Dalí used to describe how he would like his Figueres Teatre-Museu to be.
This project –Dalí’s last major work– began in 1961 but, after many vicissitudes, it wasn’t finished until 28 September 1974. During the days leading up to the grand opening, Dalí “directed, instructed, painted, gave interviews, posed for the cameras, talked to the mayor and got everything ready; exhausted, on the eve of the big day, he laid down his cape at ten in the evening and sat down on it”. This is how Figueres-born historian Josep Maria Bernils chronicled the intense process of the Teatre-Museu’s inauguration. As the Dalinian museum turns 40, we recap some of the key aspects.
A crowd magnet
The Teatre-Museu is one of the main assets for the tourist industry of Costa Brava and last year it saw a record number of visitors. The figure has grown exponentially since records began to be kept, a year after the Gala-Dalí Foundation was created: in 1984 it received 297,753 visitors and was already regarded as one of the most popular museums in Spain, only trailing behind the Prado in Madrid; last year, the Dalí Museum had 1,333,430 visitors. In 1989, the year Dalí died, the museum attracted over 1 million visitors for the first time ever (to be precise: 1,169,532). Having said that, its first years were far from easy.
In his biography of the artist, Ian Gibson states that in the early years tourists used to leave upset by the lack of original artwork, but by 1980 it had already become Spain’s second most visited museum. In fact, when he first started working on the project, it seems that Dalí wasn’t especially bothered by its lack of original art. He stated that he wished to exhibit replicas that would be even more beautiful than the original works and that the ruins of the old Teatre Municipal in Figueres –due to house the museum– didn’t need any work. At the time, the Catalan artist also said that he would exhibit works that he would paint in front of the public. “From a theatre that could hold 400 people, we went on to have a museum that could draw over 2,000 visitors every week. And Dalí was willing to turn it into the world’s art Mecca”, noted Josep Maria Bernils.
Rather than the Ministry of Fine Arts, it was the Ministry of Housing that was in charge of building the Teatre-Museu. Due to their inaction, Dalí himself travelled to Madrid to meet General Franco and then-prince Juan Carlos, with a view to kick-starting the project. Work began in October 1970. The newscasts at the time made a point of saying that the Ministry of Tourism had included the Teatre-Museu in its plans of touristic promotion.
The idea of promoting an area with a cultural site became popular all over Spain in the following decades. According to a study by the University of Girona, in 2013 the financial impact of the Dalí museums on the Empordà region amounted to €181m. Also, the Teatre-Museu has been extended several times. In 1984 the rooms in Torre Galatea became part of it; in 1990, so did Dalí’s personal residence and in 1994, the old Fonda Condal. In 2001 a new exhibition hall was opened: Dalí Jewels, designed by Òscar Tusquets.
The creation of the collection
Dalí’s first exhibition ever was in the hall of the Figueres Teatre Municipal. Dalí had also been christened in the church opposite. The spot was chosen for Dalí’s museum for those two reasons. The bulk of the artist’s original work arrived at the Teatre-Museum a few years after it opened its doors, even though Dalí donated “The Bread Basket” –which he dearly loved– and “Fish and Window” –a still life in the moonlight– while work on the centre was still in progress.
The artists’ main donations date back to 1983, when he made one to the Figueres council and another to his Foundation. Besides these donations, the museum shows works from the Dalí estate, that was split between the Spanish Ministry of Culture and the Catalan government, and some of the over 300 works that Foundation has acquired since 1991. In total, the institution holds over 4,000 works by Dalí and other artists from his personal collection. Over 1,500 of them are currently exhibited. Despite all his generous gestures, Dalí remained a controversial figure during the early years of Spain’s new democracy. In 1979, the Figueres city council tried to change the name of the Plaça Gala i Salvador Dalí back to its original name (Plaça del Teatre), but the plan fell through.
The great works
Dalí created several works specifically for his Teatre-Museu. The artwork exhibited in the Dalí museum provides a complete overview of the artist’s career, from the early academic beginnings to the holographic pictures that he experimented with in the 1970s. But the reason why the Dalí museum is unique compared to other artists’ monographic museums –Joaquim Ros de Ramis was the architect who renovated the Dalí museum and also built the Picasso museum– is the way Dalí took over the space and left an example of his limitless creativity in every corner.
Some of the most outstanding elements are the geodesic dome that covers the building and the large format installations that Dalí created for the museum, both outside and indoors: the monument to Catalan philosopher Francesc Pujols, the sculptures in homage to Meissonier, the painter; the rainy taxi, Gala’s boat, the fresco painted on the ceiling of Palau del Vent and the Mae West room.