When Salvador Dalí fell in love with Gala she was married to the French poet Paul Éluard, while the Spaniard was on the brink of gaining recognition for his visionary talent. It was three years before Dalí would paint his memorable work, The Persistence of Memory. Perhaps Gala had an innate ability to spot undetected talent, for she had become a constant presence within the Surrealists’ group and, for a few years, indulged in a ménage à trois with Max Ernst and Éluard. Her sexual liberty had become legendary, as she befriended so many of the Surrealists, and her affairs continued even after she married Dalí in 1935. Her new husband didn’t seem to mind them.
Many of Dalí’s peers had blamed Gala for the Spaniard’s loss of artistry and his focus on commercial art during the last part of his career. As his agent, Gala was in charge of the finances and she assumed that role very seriously. While her greediness may have contributed to Dalí’s decline, some are quick to forget that she was there for him when he was still unknown and that she was an integral part of his meteoric rise to fame.
Dalí worshipped Gala – she was his muse and the love of his life. He painted her frequently, often in religious contexts, like Virgin Mary in The Madonna of Port Lligat. Galatea of the Spheres is one of the many portraits Dalí did of his wife, in this instance depicting her head and shoulders as fragmented into spheres that seem to float in space.
The fragmentation indicates Dalí’s fascination at the time with nuclear physics and the revelation that matter was made up of atoms. He explored these concepts (usually coupled with religion) in many of his paintings, declaring those years his nuclear mysticism period. In his Anti-Matter Manifesto, Dalí explained this new approach to art:
“In the Surrealist period, I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world and the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud. Today, the exterior world and that of physics has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr. Heisenberg.”
While the spheres that make up Gala’s head reference the atom as the smallest constituent unit of matter, amassed as a microcosm, the three-dimensional suspension of the spheres also reminds me of a galaxy of planets (a macrocosm). It is a touching portrait of Gala, bearing the grace and serenity of a Renaissance Madonna. By blending fundamental physics with the affection Dalí held for her, the painting suggests that she infused the physical reality around her with love or that love is as much of a building block as the atom.
Now, you may be wondering why the title says Galatea and not Gala. Dalí called her by many affectionate names and, in this instance, he is referencing the Greek legend of Pygmalion, the Cypriot sculptor who fell in love with the statue he carved out of ivory, which he named Galatea. With Aphrodite’s blessing, the statue came to life when Pygmalion kissed her lips and the two of them then married. By calling her Galatea, Dalí was recognizing Gala’s beauty and perfection, attributes one would find in a flawless, Greek statue, while also alluding to the interrelatedness of love and creation as the foundation of their relationship.