Coloring art history, going beyond facts, leaves a stain on the record. Yet embellishment is the very premise of a new exhibit at the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona. The show, titled “Gala Salvador Dali,” looks at the painter's many portraits of his wife and contends that she was the key force behind his work. Exhibit curator Estrella de Diego told Agence France-Presse, “She collaborates, comes up with ideas and thinks like Dali.” Such talk will sell tickets, but it sells the painter short.

A born Surrealist

Dali's Renaissance-y style that makes dreams look real was his alone.

So was his imagination and penchant for the bizarre that marked his art from the start. A full year before he met Gala, he created his signature surreal imagery in Luis Bunuel's film “Un Chien Andalou” (The Andalusian Dog) later seen in his paintings. Surrealism gave him his impetus, not Gala. His flouting of logic created a new reality – his, not hers. He said it himself. His love of excess, of the bizarre, was in his DNA. He claimed an Arab bloodline. In other words, he came that way.

His own man

His biographer, Meryl Secrest, made the same point in her 1986 book about him: “To call Gala the source of Dali's existence, to say that she discovered him, and molded him single-handedly, is to misplace the emphasis.” No man, she went on to say, as plagued by all the fears to which Dali so freely admitted to, could possibly have let down his guard and allowed “a fierce little presence into his life.” Certainly Gala was no wallflower.

Before Dali, she was married to the poet Paul Eluard and while married to him was also involved with other artists like Max Ernst. New York Times arts writer Annette Grant noted in 2005 that Andre Breton, who led the Surrealist movement, saw Gala as a destructive influence on these artists.

Second opinion

But to be fair, while it seems clear that Gala didn't create Dali, she didn't destroy him either by dragging him into the spotlight.

He was a self-publicist from the start, writing in his diary as a youth that he was going to be a genius admired by the world, and even if despised, he'd be a genius admired by the world. He called himself “The asker, the inciter, the calculator.” As Secrest put it, Gala might have put her hand on his, but he was the one who did all the choosing – including the way to make a lot of money.

Reportedly, Dali didn't get rich selling his art. It was his merchandising: shirts, fabrics, ties, cognac bottles, calendars, ashtrays, bathing suits, and, my favorite – gilded oyster knives. Gala can't be blamed, then, for famously saying that she'd believe Dali a success when one of his works could be found on sale at Woolworth's.