Cretinisation

Lorna Scott Fox

  • The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali by Ian Gibson
    Faber, 764 pp, £30.00, November 1997, ISBN 0 571 16751 9

Modern artist as con-man: Salvador Dalí. The phoniness of Dalí’s work from the late Thirties until his death in 1989 coincided with the period of his greatest notoriety and wealth. He threw political and aesthetic principle to the dogs, becoming a born-again supporter of Franco and a fervent monarchist in order to ensure his security after the defeat of the Spanish Republic, and spent the rest of his life as a salon jester of cosmic pretensions.

The irony is that everyone except the critics loved the product. Dalí offered what so many of his contemporaries couldn’t or wouldn’t: classicism, with an illusionistic surface that testified to hours of labour and extraordinary technical virtuosity; lots of traps and surprises within the image; and enough morbid erotics to seem daring and profound. How many posters of Sleep are being pinned this minute to student walls? Dalí’s manipulations of ‘image’ in every sense make rewarding study for anyone still interested in the relation between the art and the life. He made a speciality of concealment and revelation in both areas, but as his investment in the world changed, so did his painting, shifting from the nervous intricacy of the Twenties to an opulence as facile as the epigrams about his moustache.

This biography gives him his due as a remarkable writer. The memoirs and essays offer more in the way of perception, deception, bravado, and indeed perversity, than do the paintings: one problem for the biographer is that Dalí said it all, quite wittily, himself. Gibson does the exhaustive job of slotting every fact into place for the first time, dispelling a few confusions and taking us up to the last days, with the wrangles between Spain and Catalunya over the legacy of what was by then a ghastly, petrified human monument. Gibson’s title is his thesis, which compounds a critique of Dalí’s ideological sell-out with a diagnosis of repressed sexual shame. But Dalí the traitor and couch case has been common property for years. This book adds no major critical or psychological insight to the work of the great specialists like Rafael Santos Torroella or Dawn Ades, let alone to the artist’s self-assessment as an impotent, infantile perverse polymorph and a bit of a monster. Take the 1942 autobiography, The Secret Lift of Salvador Dalí, written to seal his rebirth into the post-Republican family of power. It was self-serving and mendacious, but not in the usual sense. Dalí exaggerates his stupidity at school and his cruelty to others, dwells on his shyness and sexual inadequacy, and suggests explanations for his megalomania: being the only rich kid at his school is one; trying to prove that he wasn’t his dead brother of the same name is another.

He was born in 1904, nine months after that brother’s death, in the Catalan town of Figueres. His mother died when he was 17; his father, a robust Republican notary, immediately married her sister. In his infancy the father embarrassed him to the point of trauma (wrote Dalí the Freudian) with various displays of grossness; later on, he detested his son’s chosen mate, Gala. The painter was to take elaborate revenge in a series of works about an ogre called William Tell, Dalí’s variation on the Oedipus complex in which the father takes the active role. But it was the more obvious 1929 sketch of the Sacred Heart, on which was scrawled ‘Sometimes I spit for pleasure on the portrait of my mother,’ that led to an eight-year break with the bewildered family: after all, both parents had been proud and encouraging of their oddball son. Little Salvador was very spoilt indeed, and already liked to dress up as a king. Yet he was crippled by timidity. He tells of fits of crazed giggles in the face of exposure or embarrassment (this went on right into his courtship of Gala Eluard), and how he blushed with ‘mortal’, ‘insurmountable’ shame at the drop of a hat. Boys’ buttocks, a woman peeing, voyeuristic arousal of any sort, would set the child off, as would the presence of those he considered elegant society people. Shame and pride, pretty much interchangeable for Dalí, were evinced in the same way: as a student he blushed scarlet before Alfonso XIII when a glance was interpreted as ‘proof that the King had singled me out among all the others’.

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