Gala is a historically fascinating character who gained fame and fortune upon meeting and marrying the artist Salvador Dalí in 1930s. A Russian divorcee, she quickly established herself on the Surrealist scene becoming intrinsically involved in Dalí’s life and his art both as his muse and his manager.
Gala, her real name being Elena Ivanovna Diakonova was Russian, born in Kazan in 1894. A secretive and intuitive woman, not afraid of controversy, she spent her childhood in Moscow and attended university courses at a finishing school in St Petersburg. The daughter of Ivan and Antonine Diakonoff, she had two older brothers and a younger sister. Her father died when she was eleven, her mother remarried a lawyer who was able to provide Gala with the means to a good education. She studied at the Brukhonenko academy and gained high marks, becoming qualified to teach in schools. However she suffered worsening tuberculosis / consumption and in 1912 she was sent to Clavadel sanitorium in Switzerland, an institution which treated patients for the disease which was widespread during the nineteenth century.
It was here that she met and fell in love with the young Paul Eluard, he was 18, she was 19. Their mutual love of literature and culture bought them together; they were both discharged 1914.
Her health back on track, Gala is now officially engaged to Eluard. In 1916 her parents allow her to join Eluard in Paris. Following Eluard’s enlistment during World War I, they marry in 1917. The following year their daughter Cecile is born, Gala’s only child. Eluard had already started making inroads as a poet, and was involved with the Surrealist movement in France, predominantly with André Breton, Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon. Gala was a regular attendee of this auspicious circle of intellectuals.
Around 1922 Gala began a love affair with Max Ernst, indeed, Ernst lived with the Eluard’s for a time in their villa in Eaubonne, north of Paris, in a kind of ménage-à-trois.
Dalí and Gala: the love story
Gala first met Dalí in 1929 during a trip to Cadaques with her family and the artist Magritte and his wife. The Belgian poet and gallery owner Camille Goemans, introduced Dalí to Eluard in Paris. Despite the ten year age gap, the love affair between Dalí and Gala quickly develops.
She follows him to Paris and begins to influence and be part of the Surrealist movement. So powerful and all-consuming was the affair, Gala effectively abandoned her own daughter when she was eleven years old. Cecile went to live with her paternal grandmother in Paris. In a 2014 interview, Cecile says of her mother, ‘After she met Dalí she was not interested in me anymore. She was never very warm (..) she was very mysterious, very secretive. I never got to meet my Russian family. I didn’t even know when exactly she was born’.
Gala married Dalí in 1934 in a civil ceremony; initially the union was rejected by Dalí’s father who did not approve of a Russian divorcee as his sons’ suitor. Gala was Dalí’s muse, he was obsessed with her, she features in many of his artworks. In fact he remarks in his autobiography ‘ My Secret Life’,’ She was destined to become my Gradiva, the one who moves forward, my victory, my wife’.
During 1937 Gala assumes more power in the position of Dalí’s business manager and agent and procurer of artistic contracts. She manages the accounts and negotiates with galleries and dealers. She encourages him to paint and has a huge influence over his artistic output.
They travelled widely in the United States during the eight years spent there in exile, with winters spent conducting business at the St Regis Hotel in New York, summers in California.
In 1948 the pair returned to Europe. Upon returning to Spain, Ana Maria, Dalí’s sister had an acrimonious reunion with her brother and his wife. She believed Gala had denounced her to the authorities during the Spanish Civil war, and she scorns her for stealing her brother affection.
From this date they would spend summers in Spain in Port Lligat and winters in New York or Paris.
Gala was a ‘model’ for Dalí, and on numerous occasions appears in his art, perhaps the most pertinent being the stunning and provocative oil on canvas, ‘Portrait of Galarina’ (1945).The work takes over a year to complete.
Seemingly during the early 1950s, there is some discord between them, Gala takes on a series of younger lovers, her sex drive was reportedly much higher than his, and she indulges her passions whilst he works in his studio.
Despite this, in 1958 they marry in a catholic ceremony at Capela de la Mare de Deu dels Angels in Girona, Spain.
During the 1960s, Gala begins to age, now well into her sixties, she hands over some control of Dalí’s artistic output to his various secretaries.
In 1968 Gala received a medieval castle in Pubol as a gift from Dalí. Ironically Dalí needed her written permission in order to visit Gala in the castle. Between 1971 and the early 1980’s, Gala would spend her summers at the castle; she regards the castle as a retreat and spends ever increasing periods of time here.
According to some reports, in 1973 at the age of eighty, she has an affair with Jeff Fenholt (fifty years her junior) the American singer and actor.
Gala died June 10th 1982, two years prior Dalí, following her worsening senile dementia, and rib and pelvis fractures. She is buried in the crypt of the castle of Pubol, which is now a visitor attraction and forms part of the estate owned and managed by the Gala Salvador Dalí Foundation.
After Gala died, Dalí retreated from public life. Interestingly in early 1982 when he realized Gala was deteriorating, he asked for the construction of two tombs with a little opening between the two, so they could hold hands beyond death.
Dalí says in his book ‘Diary of a Genius’, ‘I love her more than my mother, more than my father, more than Picasso, and even more than money’.