Art Interview Interview

Most of the world know Salvador Dali for his bombastic eccentricity – such as taking his anteater for a stroll through Paris, filling a Rolls Royce with cauliflowers and delivering a lecture in a deep-sea diving suit – however, 88 year-old carpenter Joan Vehi saw a different side to the artist. A more personal side away from Dali’s public persona, one based on mutual respect and friendship.

The relationship began in 1952 when Salvador Dalí met Vehi in Cadaqués, a small fishing village in Catalonia. Vehi became Dalí’s carpenter. He made the frames for the artist’s canvases and built furniture for the artist’s home-slash-studio in the next door bay. As Vehi became trusted within the Dalí family circle he began to photograph the private life of the painter. The pair developed a close friendship which lasted 35 years and has been documented closely by Vehi.

Amongst the incredible collection of over 1,500 previously-unseen images are snapshots of Dalí among the surrealist interior of his home and his relationship with Gala and visitors such as Niki de Saint Phalle, Richard Hamilton and Marcel Duchamp.

In the wake of the current Dalí/Duchamp exhibition at the Royal Academy, Vehi’s work offers an alternative presentation of the painter. The photographs reveal the man behind the theatrical facade; as Vehi describes below, “a very simple man, a man just like me or you.”

Often overlooked, the seaside village of Cadaqués was Dali’s home, refuge and muse for more than 40 years. It is the backdrop for Dali’s paintings as well as Vehi’s photographs. In his autobiography Dali recalls an emotional and physical connection to the Catalonian land. He writes of his first sexual awakening on the seaside rocks which recur in his famed works such as The Great Masturbator and The Persistence of Memory. Thus, it was the ‘genius loci’ of Cadaqués and its surroundings that greatly shaped the identity of the artist: ‘I made myself upon these rocks, I formed my personality here, I discovered my love, I painted my work, I constructed my home, I cannot separate myself from this sky, this sea, these rocks.’

Dali’s home in Cadaqués was the place where he painted the majority of his works from the1950s and was the house where Vehi would walk to each day and work alongside the artist in his studio. The structure was formed from a series of fishermen’s cabins, designed as a labyrinthine-like womb. The painter said, ‘I wanted it to be very small- the smaller, the more intrauterine…I wanted only the exact proportions required by the two of us’. Living in isolation Dali and Gala escaped the ‘lubrications of Paris’, devoting their time to work.

Now a museum, the structure includes a phallus-shaped swimming pool and Dali’s studio restaged, as well as handcrafted furniture by Vehi himself. It is through Vehi’s lense that the everyday life of Dali is revealed. Talking to the photographer we dispel some of the myth around the artist and come closer to understanding Dali as an individual.

Dali dressed as ‘Dali’ at a Cadaqués festival by Joan Vehi

‘It was there [Cadaqués] that I learned to impoverish myself, to limit and file down my thinking…A life that was hard, without metaphor or wine, a life with the light of eternity.’ – Salvador Dali

India Ayles: What carpentry work did you do in Dali’s house?
Joan Vehi: When I was 22, after being introduced to Dali in town, I began to build furniture and make the canvases in his studio. I was given loose instructions from the artist when building the furniture. For example, he commissioned a table in his living room that he wanted to be circular with a star in the middle. I then made designs and carved it from local wood in my own style. The table now has a diamond snail clock given as a gift from Charles Lewis Tiffany on top of it. When making furniture both Gala and Dali had separate visions for the house – it very much depended on who it was for. In general they tended to furnish their own private spaces. Gala’s Oval Room, which is a semi-spherical ovoid (inspired by Dali’s design for a night club in Acapulco), was decorated with her own belongings and choice of furniture. I also made all the artist’s canvases. Dali was very particular and did not trust anyone else to do the job.

India: What was your first impression of Dali?
Joan: He was a very simple man, a man just like me or you. When I first went to work there I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary or eccentric even in how he dressed.

India: What are your memories of Dali’s lifestyle?
Joan: It was the paintings that were really the primordial essence of Dali. He lead a very strict, simple and regimented life. Dali lived to paint. All the claims that he went out into town every night or had huge parties at the house were not true. Sometimes he attended music festivals in Cadaqués, but only special occasions, usually he kept inside with Gala to work. In the evenings Gala would read to him whilst he painted or Dali and I would discuss the town politics such as his estranged sister who lived in town.

Dali dressed as ‘Dali’ in front of 'The Discovery of America' by Joan Vehi

“What the world knows of Dali is the theatrical Dali. This is not the man I photographed during those years. I captured the intimate version of Dali. My photos are unique as they show a side to Dali that was hidden from the rest of the world.”

India: What was unique about Dali’s painting process?
Joan: I remember when Dali was painting Discovery of America in 1959 – which very large, four by three meters – I had to find a solution for Dali to paint but still in his chair, he would only paint like this. Therefore I made a hole in the floor and metal frame which could move up and down via an electric motor from Switzerland (there was nothing in the village). The canvas was attached to this frame so it could move according to Dali’s sitting position. He was very particular. On finishing a painting I would roll the canvas up and have to slide it through the window onto a cart and wagon for it to be transported up the hill. The work would eventually end up somewhere like America.

India: At what point did you begin to take photographs of Dali?
Joan: As the years went by and I managed to enter Dali and Gala’s circle of trust. Only when I established a friendship with the couple did I take photographs, they were very private people.

India: Did you ever have to ask permission to take these pictures?
Joan: No, never. I think he gave me freedom because he saw that it was for my own personal experimentation, it wasn’t for a magazine or to sell.  For me, photography has been addictive, once I took my first camera to Dali’s house I was never able to stop taking photos. I must have more than 1,500 of Dali and his house, as well as around 600 vintage cameras.

India: Do you think there was a degree of separation between Dali’s private and public persona?
Joan: Yes, let me tell you an anecdote. On occasion Dali and Gala would invite artists and friends to the house, I remember once, a guest told Dali that there were journalists and photographers waiting outside the house. He said, “Señor Dali, the press is waiting for you outside!” and Dali replied, “Oh yes, yes, give me a second I’ll come right down.” The artist turned to the guests and said, “forgive me but now I am going to have to dress as Dali.”  He then swiftly changed into his classic publicity outfit.

What the world knows of Dali is the theatrical Dali. This is not the man I photographed during those years. I captured the intimate version of Dali. My photos are unique as they show a side to Dali that was hidden from the rest of the world.

Dali in Cadaques by Joan Vehi

India: Cadaqués became an artistic mecca in the 20th century: Picasso spent the summer there in 1910, Duchamp made his last ever work in the village and Dali lived there from 1930-82. Why do you think artists were attracted to Cadaqués? What are your memories of the artists who came to visit the house?
Joan: Cadaqués has a special light, which these artists became infatuated with. For example, Richard Hamilton’s paintings and photography capture the mediterranean light that is so unique to this part of the coast. I met all of these artists through spending time at Dali’s house, people such as Duchamp and Niki de Saint Phalle who stayed multiple times. All the guests never stayed in the actual house and it was very rare that they would even be allowed to eat there either. Dali and Gala were extremely private. Only for the surrealist experiments and photoshoots did they enter the house or gardens. I witnessed these rare publicity stunts such as films of Dali being born from a concrete egg or actresses dressed as sea creatures on the painters’ private beach.

In the town all of Dali’s guests were seen as strange foreigners. I remember Andre Masson was there for a month with Dali making work. When Masson would leave and go to the town he was very surprised that no-one in the town bothered to ask him for autographs. Dali was the only one who integrated with the locals. Although he was a famed artist they treated him normally, this suited him as Cadaqués was his refuge. He did not want attention whilst working on his masterpieces.

You can visit Dali’s house as well as Joan Vehi in his studio in Cadaqués throughout the year.