How Dali transformed dough into a surreal slice of life

Why was the artist so inspired by a humble loaf, Alex Leith asks

The first things you notice about the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres are the enormous eggs on the top of the tower. Then you see a thousand yellow protrusions on the maroon walls. Initially, they seem to be flowers, but up close they reveal themselves to be life-sized casts of loaves of bread.

Bread? Why would this painter of the fantastic, the sophisticated and the elaborate cover the building – his eventual tomb – with bread? Why does this most basic food appear regularly in his work? I hope to find the answer in the Dalian triangle, formed by his three homes in Catalonia, all now open to the public.

First stop, Port Lligat, a little fishing cove on the last peninsula before France. The bus from Barcelona coils round a Daliesque range of barren drystone-stepped hills before dropping down into Cadaques. Half an hour's walk over a hill to Port Lligat and the first you see of Dali's house are more eggs on the roof.

The interior gives you a good idea of what Dali was like – a stuffed bear, a dome-shaped room with strange echoes, a mirror in the wall to see the sunrise from his bed and a phallic swimming pool. It's homely, albeit in an eccentric way. In the hallway is a photo of Gala, his wife-model-secretary-muse, and it's clearly the basis for his painting La Galarina. Just a hint of patisserie here. "Her arms are cradled like a bread basket," he said of his work. "The cup of her revealed breast is like the heel of a loaf of bread".

Back into Cadaques, and another hour on the bus back to Figueres, where the Theatre-Museum, redesigned by Dali in 1974, houses his favourite works. Above the entrance four life-sized, veiled statues, their stomachs hollowed out, hold aloft double-sized baguettes. The Bread Basket was painted in 1945 in the week the atomic bombs fell on Japan. "Here we have a picture about which we have nothing to say..." said its creator. "A total enigma!" Then, a contradiction. "My objective was to arrive at the immobility of the pre-explosive object."

I stand back from the painting. Am I getting any closer to an understanding? In the foreground is a real half-loaf in a real bread basket, both painted gold, laid on a plinth. "The basket," the artist later explained, "has become a crown, and the bread represents the unity of the tail and horn of the rhinoceros." I'm none the wiser.

Up in the Galatea Tower the Gala-Dali Foundation's Jordi Fargas speaks more prosaically. "For Dali, as for all Catalans, bread was the fundamental basis of the diet. At the same time it had a religious significance and thus represented the spiritual as well as the tangible." Dali was more offbeat. "Bread," he said, "has always been one of the most fetishistic and obsessive themes of my work." There are loaves of Pan Dali on sale in the bakery near to the museum. They are like the ones on the wall. I buy some for later.

On to the Castello de Pubol, the third corner of the triangle. A train to Flacá, another bus and a mile-long hike in the midday sun to the medieval castle which Dali redesigned for his wife in 1970 when she had sickened of him. They spoke once a day on the telephone but he had to make an appointment to see her.

It's a sad place, evocative of the death of their relationship. In one corner of the kitchen is a bread basket. It holds no bread; there is no need.

Outside the castle, with a long walk ahead, I'm feeling a pang of hunger, and the Pan Dali is still in its bag. But is it a sexual symbol? A religious icon? A portent of death? The last pre-explosive object? I don't want to bite off more than I can chew here. I pull off a hunk, and take a bite. It's slightly stale. I wash it down with water. It hits the spot. I set off down the road.

The Facts

Getting there

Returns from Gatwick and Luton to Barcelona by easyJet from around £90 (0870 6000 000; easyjet.com).

Being there

Casa Dali,closed Mon, €8, booking essential on 0034 972 251015. Dali Theatre Museum, €6.5. Castello de Pubol,€5.5, after 1 Nov group bookings only on 0034 972 488655. More information at www.salvador-dali.org

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