Biography of Gala Dalí
Childhood and Education
Gala Dalí was born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova to parents Antonine and Ivan Diakonov. She experienced early family disruption when her father abandoned his wife and four children to search for gold in Siberia. She was just ten when they learned of his death, leaving the family in dire financial straits. Shortly after his passing, however, Gala's mother set up home with a wealthy lawyer. This was considered a scandalous act according to the Russian Orthodox Church which forbade remarriage and barred her from attending all future services.
While Gala's domestic situation improved financially, the new family arrangement was not to the children's liking and the new home was filled with friction. Gala was the only one of the siblings to get along with their de-facto stepfather, although later in life she would claim that both he and her older brother sexually abused her. In fact, Gala did not get along with her brothers and sisters and, according to her biographer, Tim McGirk, "was ridiculed by her siblings because she was so clumsy in the many lessons of tennis, riding, ice-skating, ballet, and rowing" that their new domestic set-up gave them.
Gala received a good early education which included attending a finishing school for young ladies in St. Petersburg. However, her frail health prevented advanced study and in 1912 she developed tuberculous and was sent to the Clavadel Sanatorium in Switzerland to recuperate. It was there she met a fellow patient named Paul Éluard (then Paul-Eugène Grindel). The pair fell madly in love and she introduced the besotted Frenchman to the works of the great Russian authors Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was in fact Éluard who gave Elena the nickname Gala and described her, as the budding poet he was, as "the woman whose gaze pierces walls". Éluard's love for Gala merely whetted his ambition to become a famous poet and she encouraged and inspired this fragile youth to pursue his dream. By April 1914, however, Gala and Paul were well enough to return to their respective homes in Moscow and Paris, and though they considered themselves betrothed, the young lovers were temporarily parted.
In 1916 Gala bid her family goodbye and moved to Paris where she lived with Éluard and his parents. World War I was raging and Éluard had already been drafted into the army as a medic and infantryman. Following a near fatal gas attack, however, he had spent most of 1915 in hospital suffering from a range of ailments, including bronchitis, cerebral anaemia, and even a chronic appendicitis. Éluard pined for Gala and was determined to marry her. His mother gradually warmed to Gala although his father was not so easily won over by this sophisticated young Russian. Éluard and Gala, who had by now convinced her mother's husband to cover her fees to study French at the Sorbonne, married while he was on leave from the army in February 1917. To everyone's dismay Éluard immediately announced his intention to go back to the front line just two days after the ceremony. A month later he was hospitalized once more, this time with incipient pleurisy. Good news soon followed, however, when Gala gave birth to their only child, Cécile, in May 1918.
Gala never fully bonded with her in-laws, and not at all with her daughter, who she left in the charge of her grandparents at any opportunity. Gala always knew she would never be a conventional wife and mother and told Éluard, "I'll never have the appearance of a housewife, I'll be a proper coquette (bright, perfumed and with manicured hands). I'll read a lot, a lot. I'll work in design or translation. I'll do everything but have the air of a woman who doesn't exert herself ".
After the war, Gala and Éluard struggled to make ends meet as he began his poetry career in earnest. Neither artist nor poet herself, Gala still followed Éluard as he joined the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. Included in this new circle of friends was the artist Max Ernst who met with the couple while vacationing at a Dadaist colony in 1922. Ernst became so taken with Gala that he left his wife and young son, moved in with the couple and their daughter in their French apartment when she became his muse and sexual partner. As theirs was an open marriage, Éluard joined in the tryst but eventually tired of their ménage à trois and was relieved when Ernst moved out of the apartment.
Gala's sway and influence over the men of the Surrealist circle was in fact so great that some started to perceive her as a threat. According to author Agnish Ray, the leader of the movement "[André] Breton himself is said to have seen [Gala] as a rival, resenting her and her relationship with the other artists of the collective ". Indeed, there was something about Gala that attracted the men in Éluard's circle including Ernst, Man Ray, and Giorgio de Chirico with whom she also had a brief affair and who, according to the art critic Raphael Minder, later "asked her to become his agent". While he never painted her, according to McGirk, de Chirico did, "give Gala two untitled canvases, which she valued among her favorites ". Pablo Picasso was also intrigued by Gala. McGirk wrote, "some say that Gala had an affair with Picasso, but there is no evidence to corroborate this. However, in a rare display of magnanimity, Picasso, who was as noted for his frugality as he was for his womanizing, once let Gala have her pick of any painting in his studio. Gala was canny enough to have understood Picasso's mean streak, and to the artist's great relief, she marched straight to the smallest canvas and said, 'This is the one I want.' They remained friends long after ".
The role of the artist's muse almost took on new meaning with Gala and Salvador Dalí. The pair first met in 1929, while Gala, then thirty-four years old, and ten years Dalí's senior, was vacationing with her husband and daughter at René Magritte's residence in Cadaqués, Spain. At first, she did not take to Dalí's strange ways and his nervous habit of breaking into long fits of laughter. However, the pair walked and spent time alone together and she discovered that his mannerisms stemmed more from social awkwardness than rudeness and both acknowledged their strong attraction. It is thought that Dalí's 1929 painting, The Accommodations of Desire (featuring seven enlarged shore pebbles), was directly inspired by the couple's first walk together.
Gala stayed on with Dalí in Spain while Éluard returned home with their daughter. While Éluard hoped this, like her previous relationship with Ernst, would be a passing phase, he soon realized it was something more lasting. The art historian Estrella de Diego (quoted by Minder) noted that Gala "found few allies among women" and that one, the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim, had dismissed her as no more than "a money-grabber". But if Gala was driven by money, Diego asked "why did she abandon the established Éluard and the glamour of Paris for Dalí, a young painter living in a village?". Indeed, Éluard had been left a significant inheritance by his father but Gala was, according to Miralles, "beginning to feel bored" by their relationship while at the same time being "genuinely struck by Dalí's talent".
Dalí had by now attracted a small following - especially considering his "automatic" collaboration with filmmaker Luis Buñuel on the scandalous short movie Un Chien Andalou (1929) - but he was yet to make any sort of meaningful commercial breakthrough. Miralles stressed the point that "One must not underestimate the sacrifices Gala made to be with Dalí. Despite her love of money, she left her wealthy family in Paris, swapping a luxury apartment for a shack on the beach. They had no running water, no electricity, no heat, and no stove. It was Gala's job to maintain Dalí's morale, to pose for him, to dress him, to soothe him and comfort him, and to barter for bruised fruit at the market, making their few pennies stretch".
Almost from the first moment they met, Dalí pursued Gala and she happily assumed the role of his muse and agent. As McGirk explains, "Gala threw herself into the promotion of Dalí. Through her writer friend, René Crevel, she arranged an introduction with a rich young art collector, the Prince de Faucigny-Lucinge " who became one of his early patrons and encouraged other young buyers to collect his work. In 1930, Dalí painted the first of hundreds of paintings and drawings featuring Gala. Before long, he even started signing works with the joint signature "Gala Salvador Dalí". Gala also knew how to encourage Dalí in his work and did not shy away from delivering harsh criticism when needed. As McGirk put it, "her criticism could be devastating, her praise lucid and from the heart ".
It was during this period that Gala and Dalí first made the acquaintance of the fashion designer Christian Dior. Gala was becoming instrumental in raising her husband's profile in Paris and between 1931 and 1933 she helped her husband exhibit in Pierre Colle's small gallery which was part owned by Dior. By now Gala had devoted herself completely to Dalí and his career. She divorced Éluard in 1932 and become Mrs. Gala Dalí in a civil ceremony in 1934. She also abandoned her daughter completely, leaving her in the sole care of Éluard. The newlyweds became co-dependents and she even allowed herself to be dressed by her husband. Gala also participated in his Surrealist performances including their "rebirth as a couple" from a giant egg. Not everyone was happy about this relationship, however. Dalí's father and sister disowned him and while he was reconciled with his father in later years, his sister never accepted their relationship.
Even though Gala and Dalí were inseparable, her libido was not fulfilled as Salvador did not take to the physical sexual act: "I tried sex once with a woman and it was Gala. It was overrated" he said later. Throughout their relationship she would have several extramarital relationships with younger men, often leaving her husband at home in Port Lligat while she sailed off in a boat to cavort with her lovers.
In 1934 Dalí's painted Portrait of Gala with Two Lamb Chops in Equilibrium Upon Her Shoulder in which his wife is shown against a surrealist landscape with her eyes closed and two lamb chops placed on her shoulders. This was one of the numerous portraits Dalí painted of Gala over his career though here Dalí's thinking is at its most oblique. McGirk's reading of the painting seems highly plausible, however, when he suggested it might have "represented his misplaced desire to cannibalise Gala "; that is, to be able to completely "consume" his wife. Certainly, Gala was exerting a hypnotic-like influence over her husband.
It was Gala who saw the financial opportunities in raising Dalí's profile overseas. When the couple arrived in America for the first time in 1934 the US press was immediately captivated by the flamboyant European couple who were cultivating the art of self-promotion by staging public appearances and causing a scandal by attending a masquerade ball in New York dressed as the Lindbergh baby and his kidnapper. (The Lindbergh baby kidnapping was a crime involving the kidnap and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., the 20-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh. It was an act for which Dalí later apologized.)
The Italian fashion designer and couturier (and great rival to Coco Chanel) Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the wars. She and Dalí were introduced by Man Ray around the mid-1930s in Paris and the pair started to collaborate, designing a perfume in the shape of a telephone dial, an actual telephone with a fake lobster as its receiver and the so-called Tears Dress based on Dalí's painting Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms Skins of an Orchestra (1936). In 1937 Schiaparelli produced the Shoe Hat which was made famous by Gala. The inspiration for the hat was based on her 1933 photograph of Dalí balancing her slippers on his head and shoulder. The hat was captured for posterity in a photograph by Georges Saad (published in the October 1937 "L'Officiel de la Mode et de la Couture") and Gala herself was shown modeling the hat in a photograph taken by André Maillet the following year.
When the couple returned to America in August 1940 - this time staying for eight years - it was Gala who suggested they head for Hollywood where Dalí was sought out by many celebrities seeking portraits. His own celebrity would rise further by working with the likes of Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock towards the middle of the decade. However, the historian Dan Enos noted that for several months during 1940-41, the Dalís joined writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin at Hampton Manor in Caroline County in rural Virginia. They were guests of Caresse Crosby (she had patented the first modern bra, published first editions by T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, and was heir to a fortune left by a husband who killed himself and his mistress on the realization of their affair had been uncovered) who had dreams of establishing an artist's colony in the grounds of her estate. Enos writes that Dalí "did little to endear himself to his creative colleagues during his stay [and that] Fortunately, both Miller and Nin documented their disdain for Dalí, giving history voyeurs a glimpse into a very unusual scene from the annals of rural Virginia".
Dalí produced several paintings during this time but he also caused outrage locally by designing the sexually suggestive costumes for a Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production of Bacchanale at a local Mosque, and through his design (thankfully never realized) for a statute of Captain Sally Louisa Tompkins, a Civil War nurse and the only female officer commissioned in the Confederate Army, who would be shown "slaying a dragon on a base supported by a 20-foot replica of Dalí's index finger [...] rendered in pink aluminum supplied by [the local] Reynolds Metals, the corporate logo of which was an image of St. George slaying a dragon". But as Nin recounted in her famous diary, it was not the artist so much as Gala that caused most discontent at the Manor. She wrote:
"[Nobody had] counted on Mrs. Dalí's talent for organization. Before anyone realized what was happening, the entire household was there for the sole purpose of making the Dalís happy. No one was allowed to set foot in the library because he wanted to work there. Would [artist John] Dudley be so kind and drive to Richmond to pick up something or other that Dalí needed for painting? Would she [Nin] mind translating an article for him? Was Caresse going to invite LIFE magazine for a visit? In other words, everyone performed the tasks assigned to them. All the while, Mrs. Dalí never raised her voice, never tried to seduce or flatter them: it was implicitly assumed that all were there to serve Dalí, the great, indisputable artist".
In 1947 Dior effectively revolutionized female fashion with the presentation of his "New Look" collection. Gala, who had by now fully earned her reputation as the most influential muse of the 20th century, seized on Dior's style as a way of further cultivating her public image. Indeed, she was instrumental in promoting the "New Look" through her many public appearances with her husband. On September 3, 1951, for instance, one of the most extravagant events of the twentieth century - the "Tiepolo Ball", or "The Ball of Century", as it became better known - took place at the Palazzo Labia, Venice. It was organized by the multimillionaire art collector Carlos de Beistegui who brought together the cream of high society and many great public figures. One of the events main attractions were "the giants" (figures on stilts) who welcomed visitors (following a grand parade) into the entrance hall. The giants' costumes were designed by Dior, Dalí and Pierre Cardin with Gala acting as the mediator between the three men.
Years later, having almost single-handedly engineered her husband's fame, Gala wanted to ensure that no one could gain access to their fortune. When the couple returned to Spain in 1958, they remarried in a religious ceremony because, having been married previously in a civil ceremony, the law dictated that if Gala were to divorce Dalí, or the painter were to die, his family would be legal heirs to his fortune.
It was around this time that Dalí found religion. As he started to explore religious and mystical themes in his work, he once more turned to Gala for inspiration using her image in a Madonna-like pose in several paintings. Yet, contrary to this image of virginal piety, Gala was finding it increasingly difficult to form any kind of friendships, especially with women. She was also losing huge sums of money in underground casinos in New York and kept an unremitting stream of young lovers. The Dalís' relationship grew more strained. Gala was eager for her husband to increase his output of work and when, in the 1980s a great volume of prints began to be available for sale, some suspected that Gala was signing his name to blank sheets of paper so that they could then be turned into prints without the artist's knowledge. As Miralles observes, to this day "dealers are often suspicious of any of the artist's works created from the mid sixties onward ".
Gala also grew tired of living with her husband's eccentricities who, to appease her, bought Gala a castle in Púbol, Spain. It was a space that was Gala's alone; even her husband was not allowed to visit unless he was formally invited. Citing the co-ordinator of the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, Jordi Artigas i Cadena, Minder describes how Gala wanted the castle to be "a place of silence and nostalgia, designed for a lady looking for her lost Russian youth" and that Dalí "decorated the interior specifically for his wife, encrusting some ceilings with a 'G' coat of arms in her honor". Dalí himself wrote in his Unspeakable Confessions in 1973: "I gave her a mansion [...] where she would reign like an absolute sovereign, right up to the point that I could visit her only by hand-written invitation from her. I limited myself to the pleasure of decorating her ceilings so that when she raised her eyes, she would always find me in her sky".
Gala engaged in several trysts and enjoyed a long-term relationship with a young actor, Jeff Fenholt whom she first saw in a theater version of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973. Gala lavished exorbitant amounts of money on Fenholt (a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, and born again Christian) flying him from America to Spain, buying him a million-dollar-plus home in Long Island, and giving him several of Dalí's paintings as gifts. According to McGirk, when Fenholt sold the paintings at an auction in New York it "was the first that Dalí had heard about Gala's presents to Fenholt and this provoked a terrible fight between the couple ". It was the only one of Gala's affairs that threatened Dalí who, perhaps because of his own advancing age (and remembering Gala was some ten years his senior) became even more dependent on her and could not stand the thought of losing her to a man with whom she might have even fallen in love.
Miralles contends that by now "Gala was almost certainly senile" and that she was "medicating Dalí with concoctions of unidentified drugs and may well have been the cause of a nervous disorder that brought on Parkinson's disease and definitively terminated his career". In February 1982 Gala was hospitalized but Salvador refused to believe that she was ill, even when she was brought home from hospital in a frail state. She died on June 10, 1982. After her funeral - Gala was buried in Púbol, in a crypt designed by Dalí to resemble a chess board - Dalí, according to Miralles, "locked himself away in his surrealist tower in Púbol, Spain, drew the curtains, and refused to eat or drink. He denied entry to his friends and aides and forbade anyone to speak Gala's name. In 1984, two years after her death, a fire broke out in his bedroom under suspicious circumstances, and Dalí was horribly burned. In the hospital, they discovered he was suffering from severe malnutrition, and his staff was accused of negligence. But the truth [...] is that 'after Gala's death, Dalí lost his will to paint or even live'".
The Legacy of Gala Dalí
Gala played a vital role in raising the profile of one of the most important movements of the twentieth century. Having gained access to the art world through her first husband, Paul Éluard, who she inspired and encouraged in his writing, she became the muse for other Surrealist group members, notably Max Ernst. However, it was when she began her relationship with Salvador Dalí that she made her greatest impact on the art world. She herself recognized this, once stating, "See, didn't I do well to spurn Ernst? He won't amount to much, while Dalí, after I got my hands on him - what a success! ".
To her husband she was critic, patron, dealer, promoter, and muse. Her influence over him can be seen in many of his paintings, produced consistently throughout his long career and she was instrumental in creating his legend, especially in America. As the critic Nina-Sophia Miralles put it: "If she was his muse, she was also his mother, a symbolic role that she made real by adding a sinister dimension: Gala abandoned her own child to take care of Dalí instead [...] it was Gala who peddled his canvases from gallery to gallery, who convinced a wealthy art patron to subsidize the lease on their shack, and who, in the wake of Europe's bankruptcy at the end of World War I, conjured up the scheme of defecting to wealthy America and selling his work there [...] Whatever people saw as her spitefulness, she never had any artistic pretensions of her own , and she never spoke about herself or her past, lest it should take away from the Dalí aura".
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
First published on 24 Aug 2021. Updated and modified regularly