Paint what you do, it’s the way that you do it: The (not so) secret sex life of Salvador Dali
In a previous blog, I briefly overviewed the influence that the Catalonian surrealist artist Salvador Dali had made on psychology (based on a couple of articles I had published about him earlier in my academic career – see ‘Further reading’ below). In that blog I briefly mentioned some of the strange aspects in his life relating to his sexuality and sexual desires but did not go into any details. In this article, I delve a little deeper into Dali’s sexual psychology and concentrate on some of the more extreme aspects of his life. I’m certainly not the first person to do this given that there are various online articles covering similar ground such as ‘Five sadistic and depraved secrets of Salvador Dali’, ‘10 depraved secrets of Salvador Dali’, and ‘17 unbelievably weird stories most people don’t know about Salvador Dali’. In a nutshell (and if you believe everything you read about him), Dali didn’t like sexual intercourse, was ‘addicted to masturbation’, was a sexual voyeur, was obsessed by buttocks, had an interest in necrophilia, was sexually attracted to Adolf Hitler and hermaphrodites, and was a candaulist (i.e., he liked to watch his wife have sex with other men).
The first observation to make concerning Dali is that he had little interest in sexual intercourse. All Dali’s biographers make reference to this because this was something that Dali admitted himself (for instance in his book The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali). In Ian Gibson’s (1998) biography The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali, it notes that Dali had been fixated on his unusually complex sexuality since his teenage years. Dali wrote that:
”For a long time I experienced the misery of believing I was impotent…Naked, and comparing myself to my schoolfriends, I discovered that my penis was small, pitiful and soft. I can recall a pornographic novel whose Don Juan machine-gunned female genitals with ferocious glee, saying that he enjoyed hearing women creak like watermelons. I convinced myself that I would never be able to make a woman creak like a watermelon”.
It was in his teenage years that Dali acquainted himself with the pleasures of masturbation even though he had a fear that it would cause homosexuality, impotence, and madness. However, sexual self-gratification became his primary (and many biographers allege only) sexual activity he engaged in throughout his life, often in front of a mirror. It’s also been noted by many authors that Dali “associated sex with decay” and that the roots of this association were due to his father’s strange form of sex education (such as being shown sexually explicit photographs of individuals with advanced, untreated sexually transmitted infections that Dali described as “the color of hell”). After viewing the pictures of grotesque genitalia, Dali started to associate sexual activity with decay and putrefaction (which came to the fore in his paintings). In his 1942 autobiography (The Secret Life of Salvador Dali) he even claimed that he became interested in necrophilia but was then later “cured” of it (but to what level his interest spanned is unknown). Dali had many obsessions including a deep fascination of buttocks (both men’s and women’s) as well as many phobias including female genitalia and a fear of castration (and appears to be the basis of his infamous painting The Great Masturbator). As a 2014 article by Jackie Fuchs noted:
“These fears and obsessions – along with a lifelong fascination with ants – became recurrent motifs in his paintings. In ‘The Great Masturbator’, Dali’s first significant work, a woman believed to be Dali’s future wife Gala rises out of a downward-facing head, which is suspended over a locust swarming with ants. The positioning of the woman’s mouth next to a thinly clad male crotch suggests fellatio, while the trickle of blood on the male figure’s thighs reflects Dali’s castration anxiety (see below)”.
A 2011 online article in Living in Philistia by Joshua White makes other allegations about Dali’s early childhood saying that he might have been sexually abused by one of his schoolteachers and that he might have had an incestuous relationship with his sister (although I’ve found little evidence of these allegations):
“[Dali] later pinned his ‘impotence’ on his father, as well as his mother, and naturally Dali went on to fantasise of sodomising his dying father. This also might explain the direct kind of gynophobia Dali later developed. It has been suggested that he was molested by a teacher who used to have Dali sit on his lap while he stroked him. That would explain the artist’s lifelong hatred of being touched. The subject of twelve of his early paintings was Dali’s sister Ana Maria, a number of which tellingly depict her from the rear, which has led some to conclude that the relationship between them may have been incestuous. The sex life of Salvador Dali was not a common one to say the least”.
An online article by Mateo Sol also alluded to Dali’s poor relationship with his parents. On one occasion Dali exhibited an artwork in which he wrote “Sometimes, I spit for fun on my mother’s portrait.” His father asked him to publicly apologise but Dali declined to do so. Following this incident, Dali sent his father a condom in the post (into which he had added his own semen) with a short note that simply read: “This is all I owe you”.
Dali’s wife and muse Gala (born in Russia as Helena Diakanoff Devulina) appears to have dominated Dali from their first meeting in 1929 (figuratively, psychologically, and arguably sexually given that almost no physical intimacy took place between Dali and Gala). It’s also generally agreed among scholars that Dali was a virgin when he married Gala (at least heterosexually) and they remained married for 53 years until Gala’s death. Gala was ten years older than Dali and had many sexual conquests before they married. Gala might perhaps best be described as a ‘swinger’, and at the time she met Dali was married to Paul Éluard (the poet) who both adhered to the sexual philosophy of ‘free love’.
Many biographers describe Gala as a highly-sexed nymphomaniac. Éluard and Gala were constantly sexually unfaithful to each other and (according to some accounts) encouraged each other’s infidelity. Gibson’s biography recounted Dali and Gala’s ‘mutual degradation’ of each other and Dali became some who tolerated all her extra-marital lovers. According to Zuzanna Stranska in a 2017 article in the Daily Art Magazine, Dali bought Gala a castle in Púbol (Girona) in 1968, but Dali was not allowed to visit without Gala’s written permission (and described in Joshua White’s article as Gala’s “fuck-nest” rather than a ‘love-nest’). It was here that Gala entertained her younger lovers.
It’s also been claimed that Dali had a homosexual relationship with poet Federico García Lorca (but has never been verified). It’s been alleged by a number of authors that Lorca twice tried to seduce Dali (and Dali said “Lorca tried to screw me twice”). Lorca was shocked when Dali married Gala because (according to a 2009 paper in the PsyArt Journal by Zoltán Kováry) “he was convinced that the painter had erection only with a finger in his anus”. Although Dali claims never to have had a relationship with Lorca, it appears they did have one sexual liaison because Dali wrote that: “I tried sex once with a woman and it was Gala. It was overrated. I tried sex once with a man and that man was the famous juggler Frederico Garcia Lorca. It was very painful”. Dali also wrote that:
“Deep down I felt that [Lorca] was a great poet and that I owe him a tiny bit of the Divine Dali’s asshole. He eventually bagged a young girl, and she replaced me in the sacrifice. Failing to get me to put my ass at his disposal, he swore that the girl’s sacrifice was matched by his own: it was the first time he had ever slept with a woman”.
According to the article by Joshua White, Dali was arguably more homosexual than heterosexual. He claimed that:
“[Dali] developed a penchant for persuading youths to drop their trousers and masturbate as he watched. He hoarded thousands of photos with many different lads. There has been a long speculation over the exact sexuality of the exhibitionist painter. We might be able to trace the misogynistic, or more accurately gynophobic, tendencies of Dalinian art down to Dali’s fear of a particular part of the female anatomy. To put it more bluntly, Salvador Dalí was a self-professed worshiper of the female posterior. The extent of this obsession drew the concern of his fellow Surrealists, he denied he was coprophagic one minute and in the next instance would state ‘true love would be to eat one’s partner’s excrement.’ Perhaps we should keep in mind that the Catalonians are a very scatological people, for it is custom before eating to exclaim “Eat well, shit hard.” The specific preference he had was for hermaphrodites, which he never encountered and only ever fantasised about. Not masculine or feminine, androgyne was the order of the day”.
Consequently, masturbation became Dali’s only physical sexual activity throughout his life. While this might be psychologically devastating for most people, his sexual psyche, tortured sexuality, and sexual inadequacy are critical to understanding the great art he produced. It certainly appears he had a great fascination with masturbation. For instance, Brian Sewell, the British art historian, claimed that Dali once asked him strip naked, lie down in the foetal position, and masturbate in front of a sculpture of Christ. Dali’s voyeuristic tendencies have also documented by others, most notably the alleged weekly orgies that Dali used to host which not only catered for Dali’s love of voyeurism but also his candaulism (where he would enjoy other men having sex with his wife). The most infamous story was told by American singer and actress Cher who arrived at Dali’s apartment mid-orgy. She picked up “a beautiful, painted rubber fish. Just fabulous. It has this little remote-control handset, and I’m playing with it, and the tail is going back and forth, and I’m thinking it’s a child’s toy. So I said to Salvador: ‘This is really funny.’ And he said: ‘It’s wonderful when you place it on your clitoris’”.
It has also been claimed that Dali had a perverse obsession with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Most individuals in the surrealist movement were politically left-wing but Dali was expelled for being a Nazi sympathiser (an allegation that Dali strenuously denied). Whether he was a Nazi sympathiser or not, Dali definitely painted a number of artworks featuring the ‘great dictator’ including The Enigma of Hitler and Hitler Masturbating. In his book (The Unspeakable Confessions) Dali also said that he “often dreamed of Hitler as a woman” and that Hitler “turned [him] on in the highest…His fat back, especially when I saw him appear in the uniform with the Sam Browne belt and shoulder straps that tightly held in his flesh, aroused in me a delicious gustatory thrill originating in the mouth and affording me a Wagnerian ecstasy”. An online article by Stephan Roget notes that there’s a good chance that Dali said such things for shock value, but also notes that Dali didn’t appear to have problems with what the Fuhrer was doing in Nazi Germany.
Most Dali scholars believe he was a sexual voyeur and derived great sexual arousal from watching other people (including his wife) have sex. According to the article by Jackie Fuchs:
“[Dali] was attracted to androgynous bodies – women with small breasts and men having feminine lines. Dali wrote of his ‘penetrating voyeur experiences’ during childhood and even titled one of his early paintings ‘Voyeur’.”
Joshua White also noted that:
“Originally [Dali’s] art served as a vent for the eccentricities, fetishes and obsessions that lurked beneath the surface of a shy Catalonian boy. But as he crafted a persona through which he could express these same things with almost the same level of impunity, then the standard of his art went into a steep decline in his later years. The sexual ambiguity, explicit paraphilia and vivid androgyny found so exuberant in Dalinian artwork…The 20th Century leitmotifs of sex and paranoia are conjoined twins in Dali’s work…We find some of the worst nightmares of the 20th Century conjured up by the more sinister works he churned out, while the juxtaposition with sex introduces a sadomasochistic element into the situations portrayed”
Perhaps the best (or worst, depending upon your viewpoint) eye-opener concerning Dali’s alleged sex life was a book first published in 2000 by former dancer and (struggling) actor Carlos Lozano entitled Sex, Surrealism, Dali and Me (and translated into English by Clifford Thurlow; a reprinting of the book in 2004 with new material was published by Thurlow as The Sex Life of Salvador Dali: The Memoirs of Carlos Lozano). Given that Dali had been dead over a decade by the time this book was published it’s hard for any of the stories to be substantiated (particularly as Lozano died shortly after the book was published). After starting out as one of Dali’s nude models, Lozano claimed he became Dali’s young lover and was Dali’s main confidante in the last two decades of his life. Among the book’s revelations were that Dali: (i) orchestrated sex games for his celebrity guests (including the King of Spain, the artist Marcel Duchamp, actor Yul Brynner, and Prince Dado Ruspoli), (ii) was obsessed with humiliating friends for his own amusement and sexual gratification (such as forcing them to strip and then getting them to engage in sexual acts of his choosing) while he masturbated from the side lines, and (iii) forced a famous Hollywood actress to strip naked and crawl through a plastic ‘uterus’ to allow her to re-experience birth.
It is clear from reading about Dali’s various (s)exploits that his sexual behaviour and sexuality were extreme but that much of his early great art derived from his strange sexual psyche. While some of the alleged sexual behaviours may have been embellished over the years, all of the allegations appear to have some truth in them. Many may argue that Dali’s sex life (or absence of it) was as surreal as his paintings, but none of this takes away from the fact that his art is awe-inspiring to many (myself included).
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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