Among the many pleasures of visiting Spain, art lovers especially revel in the ability to witness a millennium’s worth of the world’s greatest masterpieces. Two masters stand out—famed modernista Antoni Gaudi and surrealist Salvador Dali. The former was an architect and the latter a painter, and their work seems dissimilar at a glance. But Gaudi’s influence on Dali, and the fact that both created work that shattered conventional ideas of what art could be, link them in art history as Spain’s rebellious artists.
Gaudi: The Singular Saint
Gaudi was part of the modernistas, Catalan modernists who believed art played two roles: to defy bourgeois conformity and to create change in society. Gaudi created works that elevated the influence of nature in the man-made, reflected his faith, and resist rules of symmetry and restraint that had previously defined “good taste.”
Born in 1852, he studied architecture but never managed to impress his teachers. He had the last laugh, as he designed the otherworldly Sagrada Familia Cathedral (a work still in progress!), the vividly tiled Parc Guell, countless mansions, and even the ornate signature streetlamps of Barcelona. Seven of his creations are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Unfortunately, his face was not as easily recognized as his buildings. In 1926, after he was struck by a streetcar, he was mistaken for a beggar and couldn’t convince a taxi to take him to the hospital. When a policeman finally removed him from the scene, he was left at the pauper’s ward, and his friends couldn’t find him until the next day. But as a display of solidarity with the poor, he refused to be moved to better conditions.
He died there a few days later, and the outpouring of grief was profound: it was reported that half of Barcelona’s citizenry donned black and took to the streets on the day of his funeral.
Dali: The Surreal View
Salvador Dali was born a half-century after Gaudi, and by the time he was studying art, the influence of the modernistas was waning. Expelled from art school, he threw himself into experimenting with cubism and dadaism, and met kindred spirits in Miro and Picasso. It was in Surrealism, a movement which revived and reframed the values of the modernistas, that he found his visual language.
With the melting clocks of his most famous work, “The Persistence of Memory,” he put surrealism on the global map, joining the pantheon of Spanish masters. He was exhibited in Paris and New York and beyond, and held a special affinity for the US: The artist lived in the states during World War II, worked on a scene for Albert Hitchcock, and even appeared in a US film commercial.
His time away from his native Spain allowed him to escape controversy at home. Dali was a staunch supporter of fascist leader General Francisco Franco, who he said brought “clarity, truth and order” to Spain. Despite the limited success of his paintings in the final decades of his life, he was indeed seen as one of the most important artists of the century.
A few years before he died, Dali was asked to write the foreword to a biography of Gaudi. In doing so, he paid tribute not only to his predecessor but to his own work, and he wasn’t a bit modest in his assessment. He wrote, “Gaudi is a genius; so am I.”
Learn more about these fascinating artists during our new France & Spain: History, Culture & Wine small group trip.