Salvador Dalí grins. Cast in bronze and standing on a concrete base, he is impeccably dressed, leaning on a walking stick with one leg loosely crossed over the other. Sporting his distinctive curled moustache, he still looks like something from another time entirely. But maybe he isn’t grinning. Perhaps his expression is as hard to decipher as the imagination from which his images were created. Maybe he is just making fun of his own presence, as it suggests his own surreal legacy.
Cadaqués is unimaginable without Dalí. They used to call him “crazy” because he allowed himself the freedom to break with convention. He has made the bay and the small town nestled on its shores world famous, his figure appears in countless photos and posters still hanging on the walls of local establishments and, to this day, he is frequently the topic of conversation at restaurant tables and bars. Thanks to Dalí, this former fishing village with its white houses and red brick roofs was transformed into a favourite destination for artists, including twentieth century greats such as René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp and Richard Hamilton.
Today, it is known as the centre of Dalí worship and the most beautiful town on the Costa Brava. It was here that Dalí spent his summer holidays as a child, running through narrow streets that wind up steeply from the picturesque bay. It was here that he decided to settle in the 1930s, buying two fishing huts and converting them into an apartment and studio in the neighbouring bay of Portlligat. He found his source of inspiration here in the national park’s bizarre rock formations of the around Cap de Creus.
Located north-east of Barcelona, close to the border with France, Cadaqués is a relaxed, two-hour drive away in the new E-Class Cabriolet. The region still attracts young, aspiring artists. Some of them moved here years ago and stayed, others see Cadaqués as an essential stop on their journey towards an international career. Peering into the studios, you could be forgiven for thinking that surrealism had never gone away – living on in its sleepy Mediterranean bubble.
The German artist Daniel Zerbst, 42, loves the freedom that Cadaqués offers him. Wearing light-blue sunglasses, he drives along the promenade with the top down, waving to friends and fellow artists. “They’re used to seeing me on my bike,” he says, laughing with a Dalí-like mischievousness at the surprised expressions that greet him. He strokes the soft, red nappa leather of the instrument panel. Freedom may just be a word, but sometimes it’s almost palpable.
Zerbst came to Cadaqués in 1995, aged 20, keen to escape the confines of life in Brunswick and the idea of his parents, who wanted him to be a teacher. He had completed an apprenticeship as a goldsmith and attended a college of art. He didn’t see his future in the classroom. So Zerbst left for Spain, first making a living working on construction sites, as a waiter, as a painter. He painted day and night, learned the language. He rarely wakes up before ten in the morning, he explains, calling himself a “night owl”.
After his drive, he indulges in a cup of coffee and rolls himself a cigarette, sunglasses still perched on his head, shirt still unbuttoned. It is as if time were melting just like the clocks in Dalí’s famous painting. Zerbst is now sitting in his favourite café down at the port. The “Casino” café boasts seven-metre high ceilings and windows almost as tall. It has wooden tables and a long bar at which the friendly barista will serve you with the best café con leche in town for only 1 euro and 50 cents. “I don’t see myself as a classic surrealist,” explains Zerbst, whose impressive studio is located on the second floor of the old Dalí museum, just two minutes’ walk from Casino.
Close to 40 of his paintings hang on the walls there, most of them rendered in an earthy grey. One painting series stands out from the rest. The title of the series, painted in greenish blue tones and several metres long, is “Analogue Cyber Frieze”. It is set in an archaic landscape, either before or after civilisation. We see Star Wars analogies, shy aborigines, and Joseph Beuys feeding a fawn. The settings in Zerbst’s paintings continually alternate between utopian and dystopian, and we are never sure whether we are looking at the past, present or future. He calls his art “magical realism”. “Everything I paint is, or once was, real. Nothing is entirely made up.” He already has an idea for how to incorporate his recent cabriolet experience into a painting, but he’s not willing to reveal any more about this just yet. “Inspiration is a form of magic,” is all he will say.
Zerbst’s efforts to distinguish his art from the Surrealism of artists such as Dalí are in no way coquetry. Anyone wanting to be taken seriously as an artist in Cadaqués needs to find his or her own style, his or her own individual perspective on the world. Dalí’s fame and the fact that this former fishing village was once a hub of the international art scene have left a strong legacy. Richard Hamilton once encouraged Zerbst to paint what he saw and not waste his talent by creating paintings that had been done before. Hamilton is “a friend,” he says.
The sun shines through the tall windows at Casino. Sometimes, Zerbst speaks as if he were living the dream. Other times, you can feel his inner conflict, the sense of agitation that keeps him up all night working. He is a calm, gentle, sensitive person. He wears his hair – once blond, now greying – in a ponytail. For his paintings he nowadays makes a four-digit euro amount.
A former favourite haunt of Dalí’s (and, according to the owner, also a place the great painter helped design) is “L’Hostal” restaurant. Dalí is on many of the photos hanging from the restaurant’s walls, often staring wide-eyed into the camera. It is as if, in the next blink of his eye, Dalí is about to take a mental photo of the camera and the scenery behind it. Joaquin Lalanne is a regular at L’Hostal.
“They serve the best fish here,” explains the 28-year old from Uruguay, who moved to Spain in 2009 with an art scholarship. He has lived in Cadaqués since 2010. Many consider him one of the art scene’s rising stars. His last exhibition in Barcelona, at which paintings were priced upwards of €5,000, was sold within one day. Asked about his influences, he cites Raphael, Dalí, Fernando Botero and René Magritte. “But they are giants, I’m just a dwarf,” he says modestly. “My paintings are a mix of pop art, surrealism and renaissance art.”
During the King of Spain’s last state visit to Uruguay, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vasquez presented him with one of Lalanne’s paintings as a gift – the occasion broadcast live on television. “My mum was so proud, she could hardly contain herself,” he laughs. Lalanne likes to laugh. With his tousled hair, unkempt beard, hands covered in paint and disorderly studio, it is clear that Lalanne’s world revolves around his paintings. He is fully booked until next year, and often spends 12 to 14 hours a day painting. “It’s good to get out from time to time, free my head up a bit,” he says.
Lalanne shows us the sights while driving the cabriolet slowly around Cadaqués. These include Meliton, the portside bar where Marcel Duchamp used to play jazz every summer, the house that Richard Hamilton once lived in, and, a little further out, a rock jutting out of the sea (see photo on the left). “That is Cucurucu,” he says. Cucurucu? “The rock features in lots of Dalí’s paintings.” Lalanne, it turns out, is an enthusiastic tourist guide. He stops the car and parks it at the side of the road, then googles Dalí’s Cucurucu paintings. His images, too, sometimes feature the rock, in homage to his idol.
“Dalí immortalised Cadaqués,” he says after a pause, his smartphone showing the Cucurucu paintings as well as the “Tudela Eagle” and “Great Masturbator” rock formations in nearby Cap des Creus that so fascinated Dalí. Lalanne’s fascination, as we drive up to the Cap, is directed at the warm wind he can feel around his neck. He had never heard of the Airscarf system that heats the air at neck-level. “An invisible scarf?” he asks curiously, adding cheekily, “Isn’t that a bit surreal?”
Up at the lighthouse at Cap des Creus, an invigorating Tramuntana wind is blowing. The Cap is part of a national park known for its sometimes bizarre rock formations, shapes that have been formed by the wind and rain. Daniel Zerbst, too, likes to gaze at the rocks in the changing light. “This brutal, edgy, archaic landscape seems so far removed from the rest of the world; it always gives me a sense of calm,” he says. He looks up at the blue, cloudless sky and blinks. NASA recently selected one of his paintings to send into space. Somewhere up there, a spaceship with his ideas on board is hurtling through the cosmos.