20 June 2009

The Teatre-Museu Dalí

the architecture and archive

Miriam Jordan and Julian Jason Haladyn

We arrived early in the morning in Figueres, Spain; we had spent the night on a train and got little sleep. It was therefore all the more dreamlike when we came upon the Teatre-Museu Dalí, a surreal mirage at the end of a street, a majestic pink building dotted with triangular loaves of bread and topped with giant eggs. Our reason for visiting Figueres was specifically to see this museum, designed by the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí to house his artwork, his extensive collection of art – which is displayed as the context for his work, and his crypt. But, more than simply a site that contains Dalí’s artwork, this structure is, as the guide book for the museum notes, ‘a Dalinian piece, a work to which Salvador Dalí, with his typical stubbornness and thoroughness, devoted thirteen years of his life’1. In other words, the museum can be seen as a grand architectural-scale work of art that Dalí produced to present his work in a context that reflected and embodied his artistic interests and motifs.
The Teatre-Museu Dalí was constructed out of the ruined Teatre Principal, an auditorium built in 1849 by the architect Roca Bros, which had been virtually destroyed at the end of the Spanish Civil War; all that remained was ‘a dramatic semi-circular shell of blackened stone’2, which Dalí incorporated into the building of his museum. Although Dalí proposed the idea in 1960, the project was not realised until 1974 when it finally opened to the public. This project represented a significant accomplishment for Dalí, whose ambition to establish a major collection of his work, specifically within his home country of Spain, and his home city of Figueres, was of the utmost importance to him, particularly in terms of the manner in which the location serves to contextualise the artist and his work.

From the moment of our arrival, we entered a Dalinian world; the landscape of the surrounding countryside was like that of so many of the artist’s surrealist depictions and the abundance of pomegranates served as an appropriate frame for Dalí’s kitschy museum, an architectural fantasy that appears to have emerged from the artist’s strange paintings.
The equally quirky interior of the Teatre-Museu Dalí – walls, ceilings, windows, arches, stairwells – function as a canvas for Dalí’s imaginative artistic vision. He rebuilt the stage of the ruined Teatre Principal underneath a latticed dome, which resembles the compound eye of a fly and designed by the Spanish architect Emilio Pérez Piñero. To link the geodesic dome with the supporting vault, Dalí painted the vault with a red lattice, mirroring the lattice of the dome, on a blue ground. The vault painting bleeds into the supporting walls which Dalí covered with blue paint spatters and draped with several of his giant shaped plywood paintings, made specifically for this location: one wall sports an enormous nude titan with a cube for a head squeezing a blue sheet; another wall bears two gigantic hands draping a white sheet over a fluffy cloud, while countless nude figures spill down the walls to the floor.
Dalí covered the back wall of the stage with a huge painting on canvas copied from his original scenery for the 1941 New York production of the ballet Laberinto for which the artist also created the libretto and costumes. The stage is rebuilt as a fantastical stage-set that displays the inherent drama of Dalí’s artwork to its fullest advantage – a quality that can be found in every detail of the elaborate museological construct.
One of the most significant spaces in the museum is the Mae West Hall, which houses Dalí’s room-sized installation Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used As an Apartment (1974) constructed by the artist with the assistance of the architects Óscar Tusquets and Pedro Aldámiz. The museum visitor can survey the optical illusion created with this installation by climbing a set of stairs and peering through a reductive lens, which Dalí positioned beneath the belly of a plastic camel. From this vantage point, the visitor sees Dalí’s literal transformation of a three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional image of Mae West’s face as a drawing room, complete with the ubiquitous sofa lips, Saliva-sofá (1974), constructed by Tusquets from red spongy material. To claim that we had entered the world of Salvador Dalí, in this case, would be a literal description of the experience of this room.
Through his consistent use of the architectural space of the museum to actively frame his artwork, Dalí constructs an life-sized cabinet of curiosities for the visitor to wander through and interact with. Like much of Dalí’s artistic production, the museum is an erotically charged space that at times disorients and creates a feeling of paranoiac unease through the juxtaposition of architectonic space and artworks made out of eclectic objects. Reprising the organisation of Surrealist exhibitions – for example, Rainy Cadillac, located in the middle courtyard, directly references Dalí’s famous Rainy Taxi from the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme – this museum actively defies visitors’ attempts to make sense of this space in any coherent manner. Instead we find ourselves meandering through countless rooms of cultural objects and historical minutiae; an experience epitomised in the Palau del Vent, a series of three rooms filled with oddities, such as a golden gorilla skeleton positioned next to a giant seashell bed supported by curving dragons, both of which are positioned beneath a tapestry reproduction of Dalí’s famous painting The Persistence of Memory.
As an archive, the Teatre-Museu Dalí represents more than a space provided to passively view Dalí’s artwork and collection, but instead exists as an artwork to be actively experienced and remembered. Ironically, we can only remember it as a dream.

1 J.L. Giménez-Frontín. Teatre-Museu Dalí. Madrid: Tusquets/Electa Guides, 1997. p 9
2 Giménez-Frontín, p 13

Jordan, Miriam and Julian Jason Haladyn. 'Surreality' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Miriam Jordan, Julian Jason Haladyn and On Site review

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