Gala has long been considered equal part muse and monster. It was said in Surrealist circles that if an artist had produced good work then they must have been in love with her. Married first to the poet Paul Éluard, her lovers included Max Ernst before she met and fell in love with Salvador Dalí with whom she was to spend the rest of her life. But her formidable personality riled other members of the group. André Breton despised her, and Luis Buñuel apparently loathed her so much that he once tried to strangle her.
As Dalí’s success intensified, Gala became known as a megalomaniac mistress of hype, obsessed with money and a string of young gigolos. Although there is undoubtedly some truth in this, an exhibition at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona is attempting to show that the salacious stories which have followed her have tended to obscure the fact that she was an innovative creator in her own right. Much more than a muse, it suggests she was in fact a conceptual artist and performer ahead of her time who played a vital role in the creation of Dalí’s creative project.
Born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova in 1894 in Russia she was given her nickname by Éluard who she met in a Swiss sanatorium when they were both 17 and recovering from tuberculosis. It was with Éluard that she first realised her capacity to nurture talent. She would encourage him in his poetry and wrote the preface to one of his earliest volumes, tellingly under a pseudonym. “She decided to play an invisible role even if that role was important, both in the work of Éluard and the work of Dalí,” says curator Estrella de Diego.
She participated in Dalí’s project as performer of the works he was painting – Estrella de Diego
The couple had an open marriage and Éluard took pleasure in introducing Gala to new lovers including Ernst who left his wife to join the couple in a sometimes fraught ménage a trois. Ernst included her in his 1922 painting of leading figures within the Surrealists, Les Rendez Vous des Amis, the only woman among a group of men. Gala stares out of the canvas with the leonine eyes which proved capable of mesmerising men well into her 70s.
Ernst and Éluard may have loved her but Breton saw her as a rival who stole some of his power over the men in the group. His aversion was an undeniable contribution to Gala’s bad reputation, especially after her break up with Éluard.
That break up was in many ways Éluard’s fault as it was he who introduced her to Dalí on a trip to the Catalonian town of Cadaqués in 1929. He undoubtedly thought any romance would be a temporary affair but Gala’s infatuation would prove to be enduring. She had an uncanny ability to see beyond the strangely handsome young man’s hysterical laughter and scatological humour, which had proved wearying in the extreme to the other guests.
Dalí later claimed she could see he was a genius. But beyond that, he acknowledged, she wanted “something which would be the fulfilment of her own myth. And this thing that she wanted was something that she was beginning to think perhaps only I could give her.”
Her decision to abandon the rich and successful Éluard for the impoverished Dalí throws doubt on her image as simply a money grabber. As de Diego says “Why would someone who was only worried about money and fame, who lived with the most incredible poet in Paris, go and live with someone who was no one at the time? Maybe because she thought she could express her creativity with Dalí.”Gala traded a chic Parisian apartment for a primitive stone hut in the Catalonian fishing village of Portlligat. Consolation came in the shape of the local fishermen with whom Gala obtained the sexual gratification that Dalí, with his revulsion towards conventional sex, was unable to provide.
Here the two embarked on what MNAC director Pepe Serra sees as a “collaborative project,” which was to last their entire lives.
Many have seen Gala as the creator of Dalí, who in Serra’s words was “his own greatest work,” but de Diego believes her role was more than this. Gala “participated in Dali’s project as performer of the works Dalí was painting,” she says.
Over the decades Dalí painted her repeatedly – as a giant head smiling serenely in a barren landscape, with a lamb chop resting on her shoulder like a military epaulette, as a fractured Raphaelesque Madonna, or calmly opening her shirt to reveal her left breast.
“It is very difficult to imagine a passive Gala just sitting in a chair and obeying Dalí as he tells her where to put herself or what dress to wear,” Serra says. “At the very minimum they decided together.”
Dalí’s awareness of her creative role is evidenced by his decision to sign many of his works Gala- Salvador Dalí, a fact which many found incomprehensible at the time but which de Diego and Serra think is more understandable to contemporary audiences used to collaborative projects.
Although she generally preferred to hide behind the role of muse, Gala’s input is more evident in The Dream of Venus, arguably one of the earliest examples of installation art. Created for the World Fair in New York in 1939, it is a Surrealist dream world that people entered through a pair of women’s legs before being confronted with a series of bizarre tableaux vivants against a backdrop of paintings by Dalí.
Her behaviour could certainly be outrageous
A series of photographs show Gala discussing the project with Dalí, working on the costumes and even helping to install various sections. “She could have been the model for Dream of Venus, but she decides to be the artist,” says de Diego.
As Dalí’s fame and fortune grew, Gala was constantly by his side, their life a never-ending round of carefully choreographed appearances which all formed part of the “Dalían project,” as Serra calls it.
But Dalí’s success led to him being seen as a commercial sell-out by the Surrealists who gave him the contemptuous, anagrammatical nickname Avida Dollars. Gala’s love of gambling and lavish spending on young men was blamed for the couple’s apparently insatiable craving for money.
Her behaviour could certainly be outrageous. She had Dalí sign thousands of blank sheets on which forgers created fake Dalís which she then sold for huge profits. And she did not take kindly to rejection by potential lovers, even if the young man in question was the teenage son of Max Ernst whose parent’s marriage she had destroyed.
But a very different side to her can be seen in Púbol Castle, which Dalí gifted her in 1969, and Serra sees as a “Surrealist object,” in its own right. “The castle is austere and almost empty apart from a few paintings and details,” says de Diego. “It has the touch of somebody who is dispossessed and, I think, you know, this is Gala’s style to a certain extent.”
It may come as a surprise to those more familiar with the muse and monster narrative but as de Diego says: “It’s easier to repeat non-stop ‘Gala was horrible and guilty of everything wrong Dalí did,’ than to sit down and revise her character.” Perhaps it is time we did.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.