Surreal life drama

The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali

January 30, 1998

The melting timepieces, perhaps inspired by the degustation of some camembert cheese, "persist in memory" just as Salvador Dal!'s title said they would. A painter without technical peer in the 20th century, Dal! has been despised, pitied and scorned as a pervert, a clown, a charlatan. The thumbnail sketch reads: a surrealist who revitalised surrealism, sold his soul to America, played the main chance politically and ended his life victimised by his managers while indulging in highly erotic Arabian nights until illness and death drew down the curtain on the Dal! show.

With vigorous persistence, Ian Gibson, the noted authority on Spain and author of the first fully documented life of Lorca, has produced a rewarding biography of Lorca's great friend, Dal!. Perusing Spanish newspapers, interviewing anyone who would talk to him (including the daughter of Gala and Paul Eluard, as well as the transsexual Amanda Lear, Dal!'s companion in the late 1960s), scouting the documents in the Dal! Foundation, absorbing the contents of unpublished diaries, commenting closely on scores of the paintings, Gibson has created a tome that impressively enhances our knowledge of Dal!, even if it does not resolve many of the doubts and questions that hover about its enigmatic subject.

At the close of a century that no longer has any sense of forbidden knowledge and routinely invites the intimate confession of child abuse and rape on television, Gibson has carte blanche to enter into the "secret" life of his protagonist with a frankness that would have met with Dal!'s unqualified approval. Decades before the advent of American confessional TV, Dal! was informing anyone who would look, listen or read of the pleasures and shames of masturbation and voyeurism.

Indulged as a child, Dal! controlled his environment by means of a terrible temper, inherited from his atrabilious father. A dreamy, suggestible, impractical boy with a pathological fear of blushing, he was obsessed with bottoms (he later considered himself the best-ever painter of the female posterior). It was a childhood of painful repression that never allowed him to separate sex from shame and guilt. His father kept on top of the family piano a book on the ravages of venereal disease, replete with photos. Perhaps the rotten donkey on the piano in Un Chien Andalou harks back to this image. Dal!'s father, the notary of Figueras, was a tyrannical figure, touchily proud of his son, thoroughly vindictive and highly opinionated. One day he arrived late to their summer home, exited the taxi, shouted "I've crapped", and making no attempt to hide the evidence walked into the house in full view of the neighbours. The Lugubrious Game preserves the incident in the male figure whose buttocks are stained with faeces and blood (Dal! had a violent fear of latent homosexuality). Over 50 paintings in which somewhere in the busy canvas a father figure holds a little child by the hand speak to Dal!'s long unfinished business with his father.

In unpublished diaries of 1919-21, Dal! writes that he was determined to be a genius, and in love with himself. In Spanish literature, he predictably made the acquaintance of Valle-Incl n's divine Marques de Bradom!n, a character inspired in part by Barbey D'Aurevilly, the French decadent who believed it his duty to trample on bourgeois moral standards. At the same time, Dal! was a Marxist recommending to his friends the dour, no-nonsense Basque novelist P!o Baroja, whose favourite adjective, farsa, would have been applied with lightning speed to Dal!.

Dal! carried his morbid shyness to the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, where he was bowled over by the outgoing Lorca, and the ferocious Bu$uel. He chose to partake of the camaraderie in his own terms, and everyone, beginning with Rafael Alberti, himself an artist, recognised that Dal! with a brush in his hand was a special individual.

The story of the Dal!-Lorca friendship has caused much speculation. In Spain it was common knowledge in the 1980s that Gibson was writing the biography of Lorca. On January 15 1986, Dal!, with three years of life yet left, summoned Gibson to the Torre Galatea. The painter's once-handsome face festooned with plastic tubes, he began in an urgent mixture of Catalan and Castilian to impress upon Gibson that Lorca had felt an intense physical passion for Dal!, that the latter had tried to respond but could not and that Lorca had instead made love to Margarita Manso, a thin boyish student from Valladolid, whose existence and echoes in Lorca's poetry Gibson documents. The truth and Dal! were not close companions, but Gibson argues convincingly that Lorca never ceased to influence Dal!, that his lectures and conversations in New York, Paris and Barcelona abound with references to the ill-fated Andalusian poet. His failure to cherish Lorca sufficiently, Gibson thinks, may have been Dal!'s greatest tragedy.

Gibson claims that Dal! was one of the first serious artists to make onanism a principal theme of his work. From The Great Masturbator until the arrival of Gala in his life, Dal! did many paintings rendering in one guise or another a figure Gibson calls the ashamed adolescent, a young man with half-hidden face, a finger inserted in his skull, surrounded by camouflaged genitalia. Dal! discovered Freud at the Residencia, read him with religious intensity and thus had a model for his plan to depict the subconscious (his own, of course) on canvas. In London in 1938, Dal! spent an hour with Freud, quietly sketching him, while the master talked with Stefan Zweig. Not known for his friendliness toward the surrealists, Freud paid Dal! the compliment of looking carefully at Metamorphosis of Narcissus, and thanking Zweig for introducing him to this "young Spaniard with his ingenuous fanatical eyes".

Gala, Dal!'s muse/witch, hovers over nearly half the book. The promiscuous petite Russian, the Sybil of the Steppes, ten years older than Dal!, married to the surrealist poet Paul Eluard, was as "sexually shameless as (Dal!) was ashamed". She turned Dal! from a voyeur to an activist. Her appetite for money and men was insatiable. Dal! perversely cast her in the role of the Virgin in several of his famous paintings, but he also executed her portrait, one breast exposed, with an insight that shows he could have been a formidable portraitist in the tradition of his beloved Vel zquez.

If after 700 pages, the reader still fills unsure about Dal!, the blame does not necessarily attach to Gibson. Dal! had many faults: unfaithful to his friends, he ditched Lorca and Breton, and refused a loan to Bu$uel when the latter was down and out in Hollywood; he was a consummate showman with a brilliant and ruthless imagination, who saw at once, in Gibson's telling phrase, that America was his oyster; he sought to incorporate new scientific discoveries into his paintings (DNA molecules proliferate; what would he have done with cloning?); on his deathbed he listened to Tristan und Isolde and was reading Erwin Schrodinger's What is Life?; he could spend $3,600 at Trader Vics to feed his androgynous entourage. Dal! led a shameful life, but he was also a paradoxical figure: the maddest of the mad, or the sanest of the sane, as Cervantes observed about another enigmatic personage. After contemplating Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Freud said: "In classic painting I look for the subconscious - in surrealist painting for the conscious". Is it that simple?

Howard Young is professor of romance languages, Pomona College, Claremont, California.

The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali

Author - Ian Gibson
ISBN - 0 571 16751 9
Publisher - Faber
Price - £30.00
Pages - 764

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