Spain is home to some of the most impressive artists, architects and sculptors the world has ever known. The country seems to bring out the wild side in its artists: They typically favor boldness with shape and color over mathematical design rules. The expression of an emotion is much more important to the Spanish than classical structure, which is likely why expressionism and surrealism took such a strong hold here. Take a look at any of Spain’s best-known artists, and you’ll find an element of the surreal in their work. For example, Grecian-born El Greco, who spent much of his career in Spain, distorted and elongated his figures from five heads tall (the actual measurement of humans) to seven, in order to convey grace. Architect Gaudi designed the Sagrada Familia church to look like a forest to reflect the randomness of the natural world – he created trees instead of columns, branches instead of buttresses, and leaves instead of a ceiling. But of all of Spain’s great creators, the two most famous are from the mid-twentieth century: Cubism co-creator Pablo Picasso, and memorably mustachioed Surrealist Salvador Dali.
These two artists are frequently pitted against each other. It’s not hard to understand why – after all, they were contemporaries, they were compatriots, and they were competitors. But despite their similarities, the two had very different approaches to both art and life itself. Picasso tends to receive more attention from the artistic community, whereas many tend to dismiss Dali as only a Surrealist. This is absolutely false: Dali worked in far more than one style. In fact, I would argue that he is truly the greatest artist that Spain has ever produced.
Picasso has received his fair share of praise, and it’s well deserved. His abstract shapes and bold colors conveyed incredible passion and deep emotion at a time when the world was at war, and his breathtaking Guernica is arguably the best representation of chaos and pain to come from the wars of the mid-twentieth century. But none of his works in other periods come close to the poignancy of his Cubist works. True, his Blue, Rose and African periods did produce a few notable pieces, but these are largely only significant because of the impact they had on his development of Cubism (most notably the thick, black lines and facial fragmentation of the African masks).
Dali’s best works, on the other hand, are those that the art textbooks have somehow forgotten. With many great artists, a search through their full body of work results in disappointment. Not so with Dali: anyone who looks into his portfolio will be rewarded with eight decades of work spanning from the incredibly lifelike to the fantastic. Though commonly grouped with the Surrealists, Dali was a member of the group for less than two decades, and was kicked out of the group for being too outlandish. He went on to explore as many arts as he could, eagerly working in sculpture, fashion, film, theater, photography, architecture, and literature, even collaborating on a short film with Walt Disney. Even if you only consider his paintings, the breadth of styles he mastered almost defies believe. From religious triptychs to still lifes and yes, even Cubism, he displayed a remarkable talent for detail that far exceeds that of Picasso (compare his The Basket of Bread to Picasso’s Still Life with Pitcher and Apples). In fact, the details he painted were so accurate that they could be used in place of photographs for 3D technology. One of the only painters to experiment with the technology, Dali created an entire series of paintings designed to be viewed with 3D glasses. He was equally fascinated by science, particularly the Atomic era: He based the works in his Atomic period on the scientific principle that nothing touches on the atomic level.
It is possible, then, that Picasso rose to greater fame because of his subject matter. True, he experienced the war and its aftermath firsthand while Dali moved to America, but a great artist can make a remarkable piece from even the simplest of subject matter. It is Dali’s insatiable creative hunger and desire to push that I think makes him, at least in my mind, Spain’s greatest artist.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!