It’s summer,1984, and a fire has broken out in a castle in Púbol, a small town in the Baix Emporda province of Catalonia, Spain. The fire started in the bedroom belonging to the Marquis of Púbol, better know to you and I as, Salvador Dali. The fire was contained and Dali saved, but those were the last days for Dali living in his precious castle, monument and gift to his wife, who had passed away two years before.
Twenty years later, nearly to the day, here I stand at the door of Castell Gala Dali, and in many ways, it feels like I have indeed stepped back into 1984. Castell Dali is an ancient gothic renaissance fortress, now museum, presented by Salvador Dali in 1969 to his wife Gala, to provide her with a peaceful place to live. The castle is in Púbol is a tiny medieval village in northern Spain, about 125km north of Barcelona, and is about as beautiful, quiet and picturesque as you could pretty much imagine.
As Dali is a local legend in these parts, this building forms part of what is known as the Dali triangle, which includes the Salvador Dali House Museum in Portlligat, the Dali Theatre-Museum in nearby Figueres and this one, the House Museum of Castell Dali, here in Púbol.
Once Dali had purchased the building, he set about completely revamping the interiors it his own his unique way. What is most striking as you make your way around, is that the building is full or ‘Dali-isms’, it’s almost a complete shrine to him; a world of surreal objects and paintings .On first glance there seems nothing distinguishable as belonging to Gala at all in this home. Dali’s larger than life persona consumes this castle, to the point that you could be mistaken for thinking it was he, not his wife that lived here, but in truth Dali was only permitted to visit if he had a written invitation from her. Certainly with Dali living elsewhere ,the castle decor is so full of him in every conceivable way, there would have been little room for Gala to think of anyone else.
The courtyard entrance is leafy ,summary and calming, and was designed this way to remind Gala of her summer holidays as a child. It is warm and inviting to walk through.
The castle experience is intriguing and complex, and as visitors wander through ,what becomes apparent is that the initial overwhelming sense of Dali soon falls away as Gala’s active intervention in the architecture and aesthetic of the castle progressively becomes apparent.
The Coat of Arms Room.
The first room visitors walk through on entering the castle is the Coat of Arms room ,where viewers are met with the image of a large blue thrown , curtained by aqua blue drapery and flanked by two large wooded lion sculptures.
The room is sumptuous and courtly, as if the resident royals have just stepped out of the room. The ceiling appears on first glance to be a renaissance work, but on closer inspection we see surrealist turrets jutting into the sky and a large hole in the ceilings centre – out of which we see the sky above . Interestingly this ceiling was painted in this design at Gala’s request, as she wanted ” a nocturnal hole in the Mediterranean sky from which fall surrealist treasures”. Its reassuring to see her thoughts and creativity start to come out as you move through the castle.
This room is less about surrealism and more about renaissance influences, the designs inspired by the French Chateau de Maintenon, but with a lush blue drapery flowing over….well, pretty much everything. This was the room that caught fire due to a short-circuited nurses bell that one of Dali’s carers over-used, and after Dali’s recovery he ordered the repair and renovation of the room after the fire, from which some original items were retained and others not.
Bathroom and Dresser
The bathroom is one of the more extraordinary rooms of the house, largely because its construction is unlike any bathroom in the traditional sense. This room used to be the kitchen, but certainly Gala transformed the space beautifully and equipped the room lavishly with all the expected furnishings of jewellery boxes, jars and mirrors.
The sloping walls are decorated with stunningly beautiful tiling -Seville tiling of Hercules, a gift from Duke of Medinaceli. The bath features similarly stunning tiles, this time Delft, representing scenes from childrens games. The significance of these themes, are that the tiles origins signify the great masters – Delft tiles for the Dutch artist Vermeer and Seville tiles for the great Spanish artist Velazquez.
The Studio and Dali’s Last Studio
The dining room is light and bright and airy. Connecting to the Coat of Arms room. the floors are dark and highly polished and the room beams above take on a darker wood ,but against stark white walls the room still feels remarkably light ,spacious and airy.There is a long dark wood polished table through the middle of the room and its easy to imagine the colourful conversations and languid summer evenings that were had here.
There is a small cabinet of curiosities in this room, full of tea sets, shells, Russian dolls and an image from Millais – The Angelus 1857-1859. This work is important because this image was very significant, albeit unsettling, to Dali all through his life and became a recurrent motif in his works. There are many small artworks in the cabinet on various scrap objects, most are signed by Dali as gifts to his wife, or, as in one small painting View of Púbol,1973, appear to have been created by Dali on one of his visits to the castle.
In the back left corner of the room there sits a large, white and unusually shaped fireplace. Designed by Salvador from a drawing he did directly onto the wall itself, he recreated the shape of a drop of water before it breaks that sense of curved tension. There is something deeply soothing about the smooth curves of the oversized fireplace.
Towards the opposite back corner of the room and edging towards a little window nook, is a space dedicated to what became Dali’s last studio (from 1982-1984), and where he worked when he moved back into the castle to be closer to Gala’s memory, after she died in June 1982 at the age of 87, and was buried in the crypt in the basement.
The studio easel still holds a copy of Dali’s last ever oil painting: Untitled, Swallow’s Tail and Cellos, 1983. The subject matter is the Cello, his main focus for most of his later works, and in this piece brings together the themes of pain and beauty.
Although two tombs were prepared in the crypt of Gala Castle, after the 1984 fire Dali was moved to his museum, the Dali Theatre-Museum, and it was his deathbed wish was to be buried there in Figueres.
The Castell Gala Dali remains today as it had been left in 1984, a legacy of Dali’s great love of Gala, whom he described as having “built all the successes of my life.”
“ I had to give Gala a setting more solemnly worthy of our love. That’s why I gave her a twelfth century castle in which she reigns, and which I shall not speak of, for I have meant her to be its absolute sovereign, to the point that I go there only when invited by her own hand. It was enough that I decorated the ceilings so that whenever she looks up she finds me in her heaven” Salvador Dali