“A Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dalí”: A Creative Documentary

By on June 27, 2015

The nearly one-hour 1967 documentary A Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dalí — by director Jean-Christophe Averty and narrated in English by Orson Welles — was shot on location at Dalí’s home in the seaside village of Port Lligat, outside the small Spanish/Catalan town Cadaqués, along the Costa Brava in northern Spain.

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It’s probably one of the more informative documentaries on his life, and one of our best opportunities to see his the rocky coastline which Welles’ narration asserts was the inspiration for a number of the famous Dalí paintings.

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Welles, who calls Dalí a “prince of paradox” at one point, is the perfect disembodied voice to accompany us on our journey into Dalí’s semi-private world. His home at Portlligat (sometimes Port Lligat), started off as a small fisherman’s hut, but became Salvador Dalí’s main residence in 1930, and Dalí continued to add and change and make modifications the home that he kept there for the rest of his life. Today, only eight people can visit the house at a time, but here’s an interesting video tour shot much later than this documentary (the interior shots begin around the 1:30 mark):

About Dali’s house, the author Joseph Pla once wrote: “The decoration of the house is surprising, extraordinary. Perhaps the most exact adjective would be: never-before-seen. I do not believe that there is anything like it, in this country or in any other…. Dalí’s house is completely unexpected…. It contains nothing more than memories, obsessions. The fixed ideas of its owners. There is nothing traditional, nor inherited, nor repeated, nor copied here. All is indecipherable personal mythology…. There are art works (by the painter), Russian things (of Mrs. Gala), stuffed animals, staircases of geological walls going up and down, books (strange for such people), the commonplace and the refined, etc.”

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The documentary is also very much like a tour of the creative process that is behind his remarkable body of work. Welles offers up details of Dalí s emergence as an artist in the 1920s, and his important contributions to Surrealism in the 1930s, all the way up into the present day, in the 1960s. One of the most remarkable things about it is hearing Dalí’s actual voice, which is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.

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There are typically Dalí- esque touches here and there throughout, with many references to what was happening in the countercultural sixties at the time: we see Dalí wearing a hippie wig; we see Dalí ecstatically playing a piano filled with cats; we see Dalí throwing fistfuls of feathers into the air with a plaster rhinoceros head in a wheelbarrow at two children dressed as cherubs follow behind; we see Dalí and his wife Gala emerging from giant eggs (she refused to appear with Dali in later films made about him), spraying milk, “symbolic blood,” and “symbolic fish’ across the Mediterranean beach; we see an elaborate “happening” in which Dalí encloses himself in a clear plastic dome to “paint the sky.”

There’s also an appearance here by the world’s first black supermodel, Donyale Luna, who made subsequent appeareances in documentaries like Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London, and The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, and in the films Skidoo, Fellini Satyricon and as the title character in Salomè, as well as pictorials and layouts in the pages of Playboy and probably hundreds of fashion magazines.

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You may have seen a number of sequences that have turned up in later Dalí documentaries, but this so-called “creative documentary,” originally made for French TV, (some sources online say it came out in 1970) is the original source.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.