I heard the two women before I saw them. From across a crowded gallery at the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain, their sharp American accents sliced through the background murmur of Spanish speakers. In a room swirling with strange and compelling painted visions of the great surrealist Salvador Dali, they were discussing dietary fiber.
"You need an all-bran cereal," said one. She was dressed in spandex tights, a tank top and running shoes, looking as if she had just finished a 10K. Ordinarily the women's loud talk might have irritated me, but standing as they were before a huge mural of a slumped, bloated and obviously fiber-challenged human figure, they simply became part of the show. Midway through my pilgrimage to discover Dali in his native Catalonia, I was finding that my fellow pilgrims were sometimes as surreal as the art.
During a trip last fall along the Costa Brava, a nearly 100-mile stretch of coastline in northeastern Spain, I found it hard to avoid Dali, who died in 1989. Spain was gearing up for a series of special exhibits and events, continuing through 2004 and beyond, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth in Figueres on May 11, 1904. Three important sites related to the artist are located along the Costa Brava and within an hour's drive of each other -- his seaside house in Portlligat, his wife's castle at Pubol and the Figueres museum. Conducting my own Dali centenary tour of all three, I decided, might give me some insight into an artist whose work, paradoxically, I find familiar yet confounding.
My first stop was the 14th-century castle in Pubol, a village set amid forested hills southwest of Portlligat. In 1969, Dali, then 64, gave the castle to his 74-year-old wife, Gala, as her personal refuge. When she died in 1982, her body was interred at the castle and a demoralized Dali took up residence there until a 1984 fire forced him to move to his Figueres museum, where he died five years later. Since 1996, the Pubol site has been open to the public as the Gala-Dali Castle Museum-House.
The castle's exterior, made of ocher-colored stones and partially covered with ivy, resembles a large, picturesque house more than a medieval fortification. Though decorated with a few Dali flourishes, including a trompe l'oeil "medieval tapestry" featuring a flaming giraffe, and statues of stilt-legged elephants in the garden, it has an austere, empty feel. Apparently Gala wanted none of her husband's baroque excess and chose fusty, somber furniture, such as the tufted, red velvet sofa with thick gold fringe in the Piano Room and the prim, canopied bed covered in deep blue satin where she slept alone.
The sound of recorded music -- Wagner's rapturous "Liebestod" ("Love-Death") from "Tristan and Isolde" -- drew me to a top-floor room where a selection of Gala's haute couture dresses hung behind glass, like headless Mrs. Dalis permanently frozen in time and space. As surging music filled the darkened room, I peered at her beige taffeta Givenchy cocktail dress captured in a spotlight and felt like a voyeur. It was, hands down, the strangest room in the castle.
Two days later, I encountered more oddities at the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, the inland provincial capital of 30,000 about 25 miles west of Portlligat. The artistically gifted son of the town notary, Dali lived in Figueres until leaving at age 18 to study art in Madrid. After later moving to Paris, he developed his distinctive style of painting -- one that relied not on dreams or fantasies but instead used images from the concrete world to illuminate, in an obsessive and oddly logical way, the realm of the spirit.
Opened in 1974, the museum was built on the ruins of an 1849 theater. Dali himself oversaw its creation, designing giant eggs and golden mannequins to crown its parapet, and cramming it with works that spanned his entire career -- from youthful paintings on cardboard and surrealist masterpieces such as "Soft Self-Portrait With Fried Bacon" (1941) to jewelry, holograms, photos, prints and sculptures. The artist also dreamed up site-specific installations such as "Rainy Cadillac," where I induced a rain squall inside a 1941 Caddy convertible by slipping a coin into a slot. Ever the self-promoter -- he once declared, "I am Surrealism" -- Dali is buried in the museum, surrounded by his creations.
The museum bills itself as "the world's largest surrealist object," and if they're talking about the sheer quantity of surreal art and gewgaws, then I agree. Still, the scope and depth of the collection did give me a greater appreciation for Dali's mastery of both realist and surrealist styles, and for his theatrical flair. Time and again, I found myself chuckling at ironic or simply silly works -- a Venus de Milo chest of drawers, for example -- or standing in silent reflection before indecipherable paintings that somehow moved me, such as an unsettling 1933 portrait of Gala amid ruins, a pair of lamb chops balanced on her shoulder. And I couldn't fail to notice the reactions of my fellow visitors. Surely Dali himself would have appreciated the woman singing "Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa" sotto voce as she gazed at Marcel Duchamp's goateed version of Leonardo da Vinci's portrait.
It was in Portlligat that I glimpsed the private life of the flamboyant, highly public artist. Clinging to the rocky shores of a small bay, just north of the pleasant village of Cadaques, the Salvador Dali Museum-House is reached by a tortuous road bisecting a Daliesque landscape of desolate crags and piercing light. Consisting of several fishermen's huts that Dali and Gala purchased, joined and decorated over a 40-year period beginning in 1930, the whitewashed house is a labyrinthine jumble of small rooms, antechambers and blindingly bright patios linked by narrow stairs and passages.
The house manages to feel both intimate and uncluttered, though it does contain a veritable grandma's attic of furnishings. During a roughly hour-long guided tour, which included Dali's studio, the library, the bedroom, an oval sitting room and patios, I encountered everything from a stuffed polar bear and a white plastic Michelin Man to olive trees planted in gigantic coffee cups and a collection of kitschy ceramic Pierrot figurines.
It was the mundane rather than the outlandish, however, that ultimately led me to prefer the Portlligat house to the other Dali sites I'd visited. Compared with the Figueres museum, there was far less to see in terms of art and stage-set decor, but this freed me to concentrate on Dali the man, not his self-created legend. Here was someone who, as a shuffling septuagenarian, replaced his bedroom fireplace with a door to more easily reach his favorite patio; who loved and kept canaries and crickets; who placed a mirror so that, from his bed each morning, he could see the light of the rising sun. Here also was a man with an all-too-human weakness for fame. In one antechamber, cupboard doors are plastered with photos of Dali and Gala hobnobbing with celebrities such as Ingrid Bergman, Picasso, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Franco -- this last a reminder of why post-World War II Catalonia was slow to embrace its native son.
Through a single, everyday object -- Dali's container of Johnson's baby powder, sitting on his bathroom shelf -- I was most able to sense a connection with the house where the artist and his wife had spent so many years. Perhaps it was the homey, personal nature of the object, but it unexpectedly moved me. I can't explain it, except to say that the world is indeed a surreal place when a bit of old powder can do that.
Christopher Hall is a freelance writer in San Francisco.