Dalí Theatre-Museum: A glimpse into Dalí’s mind

To look at a Salvador Dalí painting is to wonder about the mind that painted it. A visit to the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain, gives visitors a chance to look into that mind.

That doesn’t mean, though, that you will understand Dalí’s thinking any more than you did going in. I certainly didn’t.

The outside of the building is dark red, with gold-colored bumps (actually a fat human figure from close up). Along the top is a row of large white eggs taller than a person. Between the eggs are a series of statues on pedestals painted gold.
the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain

It’s called a “theatre-museum” because it was built on the ruins of a municipal theatre, and was entirely designed and decorated by Salvador Dalí himself. He certainly was a theatrical character, so this project suited him.

Wow moments in the Dalí Theatre-Museum

Entering the museum, the first “wow moment” was in the interior garden. In the middle of a small space with a few trimmed hedges stands a vintage car – a Cadillac, I think. A large naked woman wearing a Roman headdress poses stiffly on the hood. The car’s interior looks positively nightmarish: the “people”  seem to have been frozen in place and time, engulfed by creeping ivy.

Two human figures. On the right, a man who has no arms and a big empty hole in his chest, edged with snail shells. On the right, a female figure, naked, with only one arm. She looks at the man and has her hand in the air: red-painted fingernails. Both figures are surrounded by vines.
the passengers in the car in the Dali Theatre-Museum

Looking around, I noticed the trunk of a palm tree (I thought), followed it up with my eyes, expecting to see palm fronds, and saw that it was topped by a large ship, about the same size as the car, hanging over me. Gold, blank-faced, naked statues looked down on me from the walls above. Nightmarish indeed. Are we above ground or under water?

The next major space is inside, and its size and complexity forced me to stop and study its details. The ceiling drew my attention first. Its references to Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel ceiling again seem to indicate nightmares, as does the enormous wall painting: a human torso, missing a face.

On the wall, niches hold statues. Above, hanging from the celing, the two hands (God and Adam's) of the Sistine Chapel. On the wall next to the hands, a figure with a white beard reaches out toward the hands.
a detail of the ceiling of the Dali Theater Museum

The Galleries

After those massive, immersive artworks – whole spaces in which viewers literally enter the work – the rest of the museum seemed positively tame.

Don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of surrealistic, hallucinatory images, but their smaller scale (paintings, jewelry and installations) couldn’t affect me in the visceral way those first two spaces did.

A human bust, on a pedestal, seen from the side. It has gaping holes for eyes, a nose that extends around and back through the hole, a curled thing like a ram's horn on the side of its head. The white hair forms a sort of ponytail on the back of the head that extends into the neck and out the mouth on the other side. It entends much farther than the tongue (which also sticks out). At the end of the "hair" is a spoon, that seems to hold a tiny lute. The figure has rock on its head.
This painting is titled “Portrait of Pablo Picasso in the Twenty-First Century”. It is one of a series of portraits of genius.

The Dalí Theatre-Museum exhibits 1500 of Dalí’s works, ranging from his early works in impressionist and cubist style to the classic surrealistic pieces he moved to later. It was all fascinating, though the small gallery rooms could have been better organized. I would have liked to see the paintings in  chronological order, so that I could see Dalí’s development as a painter. Instead, the paintings are arranged haphazardly, as far as I could tell, with an early cubist painting next to a masterpiece of surrealism, for example.

A sculpture of a woman from just under her breasts and up. She is naked, breasts exposed. Around her neck is a band with a human figure on it who appears to be jumping. An ear of corn sits on either shoulder, hanging in front like pigtails. She has ants crawling on her forehead and down to her mouth. On her head is a long horizontal loaf of bread: a baguette. On top of that is a carved scene: two men, both looking down, one holding his hat in front of him. It is not clear what they are looking at.
Notice the ants on her face. And what looks like dead birds on the wall behind her.

Fragmented women

One room gave another glimpse into Dalí’s mind. Entering the dimly-lit space, I could see what looked like one of his famous lip-shaped sofas in front of me. To the left, I saw a sculpture on the floor resembling huge nostrils. Above the nostrils hung a pair of abstract paintings or photographs. Dangling from the ceiling all the way to the floor were two bundled tangles of light yellow strands.

Joining the line across the room, I realized what all of this was: the line led to a small staircase up, then a small staircase down again. At the top, people were stopping to look through a large lens, down at the lip-shaped sofa.

The sofa is part of an installation called Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used as an Apartment. Again I wondered at Dalí’s mind, that could create such a thing.

The "hair" fills the left and right sides of the photo. Ahead, on the floor is the lip-shaped sofa. Behind that, the shape of a nose, lit up from inside the nostrils. On the wall behind that: two horizontal paintings that are indistinct, but from this vantage point look like eyes.
Dali’s version of Mae West

On the way to that staircase, by the way, I passed a sculpture in a glass case in a corner that seemed almost an afterthought in that room. I found it very disturbing, yet fascinating: a woman’s head, but with an ear where the nose should be, and a nose where the ear should be. What was Dalí thinking when he made that?

Side view of a whitish sculpture on a black background. It is a woman's head, seen from the side, and where the nose should be, an ear sticks out from her face. Where the ear should be, a nose sticks out.

Were both of these representations of women some sort of comment on women? What was he saying? It seems to me that he reduced them to their constituent parts, rather than seeing them as whole persons. And it’s not even a positive view of those constituent parts.

At the same time, I know that he was very much in love with his wife, Gala. She didn’t treat him terribly well, though, as I learned from my visit last year to the Gala Dalí museum in Púbol. She required him to write her a letter and request permission before he could visit her. She also had a series of much younger lovers that he probably knew about. Did her treatment of him lead him to create these fragmented images?

On the right is the back view of a head, with an arm sticking out straight ahead. It seems to point at the boat standing on top of a pole. Behind that is a large arched window. People are visible inside the building at the bottom of the multi-story window, mostly looking up at the huge multi-story painting on the far wall, which shows a naked torso.
As seen from one of the upper floors, looking over the shoulder of a blank, gold figure: the ship on a pole in the courtyard, and a view into the main hall, with its massive image of a disjointed human figure.

Bringing the children?

I’m generally in favor of taking kids to art museums, but not making them spend too much time in them. I’m not so sure about this one, though. For a sensitive child, some of these images might just be too nightmarish. Also, if you’re particular about your child seeing nudity, you would not be able to avoid it here.

On the other hand, a kid who doesn’t tend to nightmares would enjoy it just for the strangeness of it all. My daughter, who loved art from a young age, would have loved exploring this museum as early as five or six years old.

Something like a harpsichord or old piano is draped with cloth and papier mache figures, all in white. In the center, on top of the piano, a persons head. Above that, another person's head. In front of the piano, a somewhat human shape made of white plaster or papier mache, with a head almost completely wrapped in except for a slit where two eyes peer out.
This one struck me as particularly nightmarish, once I noticed the eyes in the figure in front.

Bringing teenagers

Teenagers, however, are another story.

Besides my husband, I was traveling with three teenagers. One, a girl of 16, found it all fascinating, but felt we spent too much time in the galleries. I asked her for a review as we left the museum:

“I find weird things interesting.”

and

“It’s, like, mystery and mystery for me is fun because I have to figure it out. Once you figure it out in art it’s, like, interesting.”

The other two, boys of 14 and 18, were much less enthusiastic. After the first two bigger spaces, they just lost interest. They quickly found chairs in the big central hall and spent the rest of our visit playing on their phones.

The 14-year-old’s only comment was “I don’t like weird art.”

My son, who is 18, gave it an even harsher review:

“Art? This was the worst I’ve ever seen … horrible … disturbing … wrong.”

Of course, you could argue that Dalí’s art is successful if people find it that disturbing. Should art always be pretty? I certainly don’t think so.

A figure in the middle of the ceiling - God, maybe - in white with the moon behind him seen from below. To the left and right, two other figures, also seen from below, so their feet are outsized. The left-hand-figure seems to be a woman, but without a head. She wears a short red skirt and has bare feet. The figure on the right is wearing blue, but and is also barefoot, but it is also a dresser? It has two drawers opening outwards: once coming from groin height, one coming from waist height.
A ceiling inside the museum.

Visiting the Dalí Theatre-Museum

Dalí Theatre-Museum: Gala-Salvador Dalí Square, 5 in Figueres. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:30-18:00 (but check ahead for any changes). Admission: Adults €14, children €9.

We did not book our tickets ahead, and that was definitely a mistake. We ended up waiting in line – in August in Spain at midday – for perhaps 45 minutes. We managed to keep ourselves entertained, but booking ahead would have allowed us a much quicker entry. Click here for skip-the-line tickets.

The area has three Dalí-related museums. Besides this one, you can visit the Gala Dalí Castle Museum in Púbol, in the house Dalí bought for his wife, Gala. He did all the interior design, including the furniture, and also the garden.

A vague, sandy-looking shape in the middle, with a hint of a woman's form on the left: shoulders to mid-thigh and a hint of women's genitals on the right.
The title of this painting is “Woman-Animal Symbiosis.”

The third is the only one I haven’t been to yet: The Salvador Dalí House in Portlligat, where he lived for most of his life. You have to reserve tickets for this museum ahead of time, and I couldn’t get any when I tried a few days before we wanted to go.

Through this link you can find a number of tours that include the museum, some of which also go to the Dali house or the Gala Dali Castle.

Don’t try to see all three museums in one day. This man’s mind was truly bizarre, and too much insight into his mind just might affect your mind, or at least cause nightmares. In any case, driving between the three would cut into your museum time, since they’re all in different towns.

Instead, book a room somewhere nearby and take your time, dipping into his warped view of reality and back out again to enjoy the lovely Spanish countryside of the Catalonia region.

Click on the map below to book accommodations in Figueres:

Have you been to any of these museums? What did you think? Add your comment below!

Text: Dali theatre-museum in Figueres, Spain: A glimpse into Salvador Dali's mind
Image: a sculpture of a woman with ants on her face and a baguette balanced on her head.

Updated June 2021.

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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more...

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Hi Rachel! I love Dali! I was lucky enough to see an exhibit of his pencil sketches a few ago in Prague. Better than that, his work was part of an exhibit here in Seoul that I went to last week. It featured a number of his iron sculptures. They are big, weird, and wonderful. No photos were allowed. Some of his furniture was also on display. He loved those red lipped sofas. Quite a few of the furniture pieces included female anatomy. I didn’t know that his wife treated him so badly. That’s sad! He supposedly adored her. I love his work because it’s so weird and over-the-top. I agree, he’s best in small doses. His Spain museum is on my “to visit” list. Thanks for co-hosting this week. #TPThursday

I like some of Dali’s works. I find others disturbing as you mentioned. I saw some of his paintings at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. Have to say they were very interesting and popular. They were surrounded by tons of people. Some girls were even taking selfies with the paintings.

Hi Rachel,
I wished I had more time to visit the Dali Museum when I went to Figueres, especially after reading your article and seeing all the great images. Unfortunately, I only got to see the statue of Dali. Well, better luck next time. X, Mina

Love the May West exhibit. Crazy

I love Dali and his bonkers imagination. I was sofa shopping recently and came across one that reminded me of the Mãe West room. Great stuff, and I second the recommendation for visiting his home if possible. Well worth it.

Oh this is magnificent, MAGNIFICENT! How quirky and out of this world! It’s worth visiting Figueres just to see this. Thanks for sharing this, I love it!

Dali is one of those artists my students love or hate–no middle graound. I would love to visit this museum. So glad you shared it with us!

Oh, wow! I hope they warn people not to attend the Dali Museum if they’ve taken any drugs!!! I can see people who are high on something really freaking out at some of those exhibits! I would really enjoy a visit to this art museum. Thx for sharing, Rachel.

I’ve been to the Dalí Theatre Museum and found it fascinating, disturbing at times and exhausting. Each piece of work could be examined and studied at length. I certainly agree his work makes you wonder about the man who created it. I was impressed with how many styles of art he worked in.

There sure do seem to be a lot of Dali Museums in the world! I wonder how many exactly. Anyway, they certainly aren’t boring. I enjoyed visiting the Dali Theatre-Museum with you and imagine I might never actually get there in person.

I love Dali, too. I’ve never been to the museums in Spain, but I have been to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. Florida. It’s home of the largest collection of Dali paintings outside of Spain. it’s the entire collection of a couple who became fans of his work early in his career. They collection is well curated and helps you understand his work, which was never pointless.it’s worth the trip if you are in Florida, which is mainly devoid of artistic culture.

On a side note, don’t feel sorry for Dali. Gala!s house was a gift from Dali and according to himself, she had to agree that he would only be allowed to visit by invitation it’s so Dali, mental flagellation

Always been a big fan of Dali, and absolutely love that quote at the top. Definitely sums up trying to absorb his work.

I had been to the museum years ago so your photos and text brought back nice memories…although while no lines to enter, I do remember it being very crowded when we visited.

I’ve been to that museum, and yes, it’s surreal, but I found it more benign, or at least my memory of the Dali Museum at Figueres is of something less scary than it may have felt at the time.
I think the organic shapes of eggs and bread on the outside set a kind of domestic tone but inside, well, it is like being in a dream. Much as you describe, in fact!

This was fascinating to me! I never knew that Dali did sculptures…They are so weird and just so mind blowing.

I think art is not always meant to be pretty and decorative but rather to evoke an emotional response. That to me is the power of art. And these works certainly do that.

Generally if teens have been exposed to art galleries as young children they will be more prone to being interested in them as teens, in my experience. But I guess it is also very oersonal. Many adults don’t like museums either!

Terrific post.
Peta

I love this museum, outside and in–weird, wacky, wonderful Dali! Thanks for including so many images, they brought my visit of a few years ago back to me. I’ve not been to the two others you mention though, but they are definitely on my list.

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