CR Muse: Gala Dalí and the Art of Partnership


This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

The role of the muse is often misunderstood. One is not simply a passive model to an artist, offering inspiration by simply existing. No, the role of muse is often far more involved in an artist’s process. They are active participant, in a way that is not unlike modern creative collaborations. This is no better exemplified than with Gala, wife and muse of Salvador Dalí, who was such an integral part of the painter’s career that he often signed both their names onto his paintings. Her role in his career was so important that without her, he may never have found the success he achieved at all.

“[She probably] saved me from becoming an authentic madman,” Dalí once said of her. By all accounts Gala kept the artist focused on his work. She also acted in part as his manager, overseeing his business and the sales of his art, thus securing his financial status as one of the most successful artists of the 20th century.

Of course, she played a part in his paintings as well, appearing as the subject in Portrait of Galarina from 1945, and Galatea of the Spheres from 1952, among numerous other works. Even without her name in the title, Gala is a recognizable figure in many of his paintings, her trademark hairstyle (shoulder-length, curled at the ends, and pinned back off her face with a beret) making her an icon of Dalí’s catalogue.

But Dalí wasn’t the only artist in Gala’s life—nor was he the first. In fact, “Gala” wasn’t even her given name. Born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova in Russia, she nearly became a schoolteacher until tuberculosis changed her life forever. She was sent to recover in Switzerland where she met the poet and surrealist Paul Éluard. They married in 1917, though it later became an open relationship that involved the German artist Max Ernst. She left them both when she met Dalí (who was a decade younger than her) in 1929.

Much like her first marriage, Gala’s personal life was not confined to Dalí. She was famously free to conduct affairs, as well as support (both financially and emotionally) up-and-coming artists, making one wonder just how far she actually veered into the role of patron, and even mentor. If creative incubators existed in the mid-20th century, she surely would have run one.

In a way, Gala’s role as a “muse” has almost transcended her time with the artists she knew, extending her legacy to become a muse in a more general sense. Her approach to life—in which she sought to explore her desires with an independence that flouted social norms for women at the time—continues to feel like a radical move for women today. Her general pursuit of freedom remains inspiring to young women today.


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