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Salvador Dalí as you've never seen him

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It may seem excessive, but there are three museums commemorating the life and work of Salvador Dalí in the northern area of Catalonia not far from the French border, but what was his life if not excess? The museums are a little off the main American tourist routes in Spain, but they are well worth the trouble to find. The three brim with art and kitsch and reflect the many sides of the artist. Here is a look at them.

FigueresThe Dalí Theater-Museum is in Figueres, fitting because the artist was born here in 1904 and died here in 1989. About 800,000 people each year visit the museum in Figueres, a town of 35,000 about 15 miles south of the border on the main highway from France to Barcelona.

The creation of the Dalí repository evolved in a classically Dalí-esque way. In 1960, the mayor of Figueres asked the artist to donate a few paintings to the town so the local museum could feature a special Dalí room. The painter, in an expansive mood, promised instead to donate enough paintings to fill a whole museum and proposed transforming the ruins of the municipal theater, destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, into a Dalí museum. The museum would be on the site of his first exhibition, mounted when he was 14.

The mayor and city council agreed to the proposal but soon hit some snags. Dalí insisted that the city stage a promotional bullfight fiesta with a sensational ending: A helicopter would lift a dead bull as a sacrificial tribute to "the verticality of Spain." City officials agreed — reluctantly — but were relieved when bad weather scotched the helicopter and bull show.

Dalí also managed to slow the construction. He told city officials that he had decided to fill the museum with photographs of his paintings rather than the originals because photographs "are better than the original works." Mayor Ramón Guardiola Rovira wrote later in his memoir, "The general feeling was that he was crazy." When the Ministry of Culture in Madrid heard about the photos, it stopped funding the project. Dalí relented.

The theater-museum of Dalí opened in 1974. Dalí had said he wanted his museum to be like "a great Surrealist object" that would make people "leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream." Although it has many distinguished Dalí paintings, the building seems more like a Surrealist experience than a museum. It has the air of a manic fun house in a wild theme park.

The highlight of the museum's atrium is a Cadillac that shakes and rains inside whenever you put a euro in a slot.

One of the most popular rooms features an odd assortment of furniture, including a fireplace shaped like a nose and a sofa shaped like ruby lips; when you climb a stand and look at the room through an optical viewer, the space turns into the face of the actress Mae West.

The ceiling mural in another room depicts Dalí and his beloved wife, Gala, showering gold coins upon the countryside. The main chamber of the museum is a great hallway covered by a transparent cupola and guarded by a huge painting of a bare-chested giant, a slice of its torso cut away.

Dalí is buried in a crypt beneath the main chamber. (Although he had long said he wanted to be buried alongside Gala in Púbol, the city of Figueres and museum officials insisted he had changed his mind in his last weeks and had asked to be buried within his museum instead. That change infuriated some friends who feared that a weakened Dalí had been manipulated by those who wanted to keep the artist's body in the town of his birth.)

After the museum was built, Dalí bought an adjacent building with a tower that once formed part of the medieval wall of Figueres. He painted the façade pink, pockmarked it with small sculptures of breads, festooned the roof with large sculptures of eggs, and named it the Torre Galatea in honor of his wife. (Dalí lived in an apartment within the Torre Galatea during the last years of his life.)

The tower, now the headquarters for the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, can be admired from the outside but not visited.

The Gala-Dalí Foundation exhibits Dalí-crafted jewelry in a small annex to the theater-museum. The jewelry includes some of his most fantastic creations, such as "The Royal Heart," a 1953 brooch of gold, diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, other stones and a mechanism that makes the brooch's heart beat.

Port LligatDalí's home, which attracts 90,000 visitors a year, is about 20 miles from Figueres — but it can take an hour or more to drive there. You must descend a narrow mountain road from the high plain, deep down to the village of Cadaqués.

The way offers wonderful vistas of a craggy coastline that Dalí often depicted in the background of his paintings. Once in Cadaqués, with its delightful statue of Dalí, you can find a small road to tiny Port Lligat less than a mile away.

Dalí and Gala bought a small hut here in 1930 and expanded their home by buying the neighboring homes of fishermen, connecting the houses and adding more structures on top until the whole contraption metamorphosed into a large, gleaming white villa with Dalí-sculptured eggs on its roof.

After World War II, Dalí would spend much of the year painting in Port Lligat, taking off for a few months to go to Paris and New York for promotion and parties.

It is hard to imagine anyone but Dalí and his wife living in a house so cluttered with personal symbols and what seems like outrageous junk. An enormous bejeweled stuffed bear, carrying a lamp, greets you in the foyer. There are nude statues and mannequins everywhere, gigantic sun umbrellas, walls crammed with photos and magazine covers celebrating the couple, and portraits of Stalin and other celebrities who, like Dalí, were noted for their mustaches.

The outdoor patio features advertisements for automobile tires, empty bottles in the mold of bullfighters and a sofa fashioned like Mae West's lips.

There is even a pretentious oval room where Gala received guests, who were seated along the curving walls.

The home, especially Dalí's work studio, has great windows with breathtaking views of the sea. You can see fishing boats gently rocking on shimmering water. As the quiet, tiny waves lap toward the land, the reflection of the sun makes it seem as though they are carrying flickering lights.

PúbolThe castle at Púbol tells us a great deal about Dalí's love for Gala. He idolized her and became completely dependent on her. His later religious paintings usually feature Gala as the model for the Virgin Mary or some other saint. So much is lavished on her in this castle that you have to shake your head at his penchant for excess.

Gala's castle in Púbol is the most difficult of the three museums to find, yet 85,000 visitors come to see it every year. Dalí refurbished a ruined mansion and its grounds, decorated it to Gala's taste, and presented it to her as a castle in May 1970 when she was 75.

The castle is fitted as if Dalí and Gala were really a royal couple with elegant bright red and blue canopies over the beds. There is even a sumptuous room with a gilded throne for Dalí.

While she was alive, Gala used the castle as a private retreat, staying for a few weeks at a time, especially during summers. Dalí was not welcome unless he showed up with an invitation on an engraved card sent out by Gala. A collection of those cards is on display.

In the attic is an exhibit of Gala's gala dresses — gowns from such designers as Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin and Dalí himself.

The castle has some significant Dalí touches, including a portrait of Gala as an angel guarding her private rooms, but the Púbol's garden is its most Dalí-esque feature.

Dalí sculpted several samples of one of the most striking symbols of his later paintings: elephants that prance on long, spindly legs. He also designed a pool with a fountain that features more than a dozen heads of Richard Wagner, his favorite composer.

Gala served as Dalí's muse, manager, love and psychological support for more than 50 years. When she died in June 1982 at age 87, Dalí, who was 10 years younger, fell apart. He became ill and depressed and could barely work.

Gala is buried in the basement of the castle. Dalí tried to live in the castle for a while, but a bedroom fire ended his stay in 1984. He moved into an apartment in the Torre Galatea in Figueres, where he lived until his death.

*

IN SPAIN, THE COMPLETE Dali

More than a century after his birth, Salvador Dalí remains an enigma, his work suggesting both genius and madness, often in the same piece. To understand Spain's master Surrealist, an aficionado must travel to his native Catalonia. Along the sun-drenched Costa Brava, his spirit suffuses his museum in Figueres and his homes in Púbol and Port Lligat: Rain falls inside a Cadillac, and furniture shaped like pouty lips appears to flirt. Elephants prance, and a beating heart seems to give life to a brooch. It is in these pieces and places that Dalí is fully rendered. It is an extraordinary portrait.

The artist's Surrealist landscape, on view in the U.S. and in Spain

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Barcelona is offered on British, Air France, Lufthansa, KLM and Delta. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $566.

Figueres is 85 miles from Barcelona. Although Figueres can be reached by train from Barcelona, you will need to rent a car to reach Port Lligat and Púbol.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 34 (country code for Spain) and the local number.

SEEING DALÍ IN THE U.S.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has extended its Dali exhibition through May 30. Timed tickets are required. The museum will be open 8 a.m.-10 p.m. (last ticket at 7:30 p.m.) daily. Admission is $20 for adults and $17 for students. Ticket information: (215) 235-SHOW (7469), http://www.philamuseum.org .

SEEING DALÍ IN SPAIN:

In Figueres, the Dalí Theater-Museum is open year-round but often is closed on Mondays. Admission is about $12.

In Púbol, the Gala Castle is closed in winter (although the castle may be open for group visits). Admission is about $7.

In Port Lligat, only a few people may enter the Dalí home at the same time, so the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation requires that you reserve a place by calling 972-251-015. Admission is $10.

For more information, check the website of the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, http://www.salvador-dali.org .

WHERE TO STAY:

Mas Salvanera, 17850 Beuda, Girona, Catalonia; 972-590-975, http://www.salvanera.com , a small inn fashioned out of a 17th century farmhouse near the town of Besalú, about 20 miles from Girona. The farmhouse, which has comfortable rooms and a swimming pool, is 15 miles from Figueres. Doubles from $244, with breakfast.

Hotel Duran, 5 Lasauca, Figueres; 972-501-250, http://www.hotelduran.com , is comfortable and a few minutes from the theater-museum. A double costs about $130 in summer.

WHERE TO EAT:

Els Fogons de Can Llaudes, 972 590-858, Besalú, is in an 11th century Romanesque chapel. Reservations necessary. The cuisine is described as "nouvelle Catalan." Dinner about $50 per person, excluding wine.

In Figueres, try the traditional Catalan restaurant at the Hotel Duran (see above), a couple of blocks from the Dalí Theater-Museum. The restaurant says Dalí's favorite dishes on the menu included thyme soup, lamb chops and a thick Catalan sausage. Dinners from $35 a person.

TO LEARN MORE:

Tourist Office of Spain, (323) 658-7188, http://www.okspain.org .

— Stanley Meisler

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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