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’.

The adolescent feared that his penis was too small to do the job as real men doubtless did it. He bad also been put off the vagina for good by a picture-book on venereal disease that his father kept on top of the piano (evoked by the rotting donkey on a piano in Un Chien andalou), and never got over his horror of physical contact. Having discovered masturbation, he more or less stuck to it, with a predictable measure of guilt. But while he later turned his difficulty with maths into an obsession with atoms and DNA, or his shameful (as he saw it) shyness into extreme exhibitionism, he never sought to disguise his impotence, seeming more than happy to expound on this guilt in painting, writing and conversation. Talking to Playboy in 1979, he referred complacently to The Great Masturbator as ‘a face completely extinguished vitally by so much masturbation: the nose touches the ground and has a horrible boil’. He added that Gala had helped him refine his technique; she was also the only woman he could come inside (this part of the interview is not in The Shameful Life, which tends to play down whatever conventional sex life Dalí may have had). Otherwise, ‘a little voyeurism, accompanied by masturbation, is quite enough.’ It sounds like an understandable preference for a light lunch.

In 1922 Dalí obtained a place to study art at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, but he might never have been more than a blushing wanker with vengeful fantasies of fame, had he not been lodged at the most progressive student hall in Spain: the Residencia de Estudiantes. Built on Krausian ideals of liberal austerity, the Residencia also aspired to an Oxbridge collegiate atmosphere. It differed from Oxbridge by offering as much culture as sport, but there was compulsory tea-time, commemorated in a sweet García Lorca sketch, ‘The Desperation of Tea’. Lorca had been in and out of the Residencia since 1919; when Dalí arrived, he had produced a play and a book of poetry and had just organised a flamenco festival with Manuel de Falla. Luis Buñuel had been there even longer. He had recently switched from industrial engineering to entomology and was active within Ultra, a belated Futuristic movement enchanted by French Modernism; only later was Buñuel to champion a grimmer, ‘Spanish’ version in opposition to Gallic effeteness. Gibson is good on ‘The Madrid Years’, knowing the material backwards from his fine book on Lorca, whom he admires as ‘the most charismatic Spaniard ever born’. His aversion to Dalí is nearly the equal of that admiration: ‘Dalí could never be accused of a lack of boastfulness – he had almost superhuman tenacity in the pursuit of his interests.’ Or: ‘Dalí’s view of human relations was basically that other people were there to be used.’ Dalí himself said as much and worse – he wasn’t a turn coat when it came to disdain for bourgeois codes of moral conduct.

All the same, what emerges in Gibson’s account of this decade is the inner struggle of a character still not quite formed, tormented and affected, compensating for weakness with political hatred and intellectual rigour. Some fascinating work was done in the course of the decade, and the illustrations provide a welcome chance to discover those early efforts pointing in a dozen directions that were later aborted. From the vicious squiggles of the cartoons to the diligent Cubism and the occasional forays into realism, Dalí was as awkward and derivative as a hungry young artist should be. Visually speaking (for the monotonous ‘meanings’, if such they are, have been done to death), there was a spiky ungainliness or irritability that was gradually to be dissolved as though in a rich puddle of oil. Between 1927 and 1929, when Miró, for example, was paring down, Dalí’s attempts at synthesis (always in tension with his love of painstaking illusion) succumbed to feats of grandiose, fantastical representation: revolutionary at first, they later became all too stable exemplars of the ‘personal style’ the dealers demanded – an art of impact, strangely at odds with the complex, shifting depths it pretended to explore.

Some of the emotional contradictions of that decade, which had their parallel in the formal contrasts then to be found in his work, are traceable in The Secret Life. Dalí, it appears, knew he was worth a hundred of his new friends at the Residencia, and merely wondered what he could get out of them; further on, he admits that ‘every time they came to fetch me from my room I thought I was going to faint’. But the relationships he developed with gang-leaders like Lorca, Buñuel and Pepin Bello, who detected a promising Cubist behind the sullen provincial eccentric, soon had him joining in post-Dada pranks, becoming more aggressively Marxist and learning to drink and dance. Underneath he seethed with insecurity. ‘During this time I knew several elegant women on whom my hateful cynicism desperately grazed for moral and erotic fodder. I avoided Lorca and the group, which grew to be his group more and more ... I glimpsed the torture that envy can be.’ The discovery of Freud and Lautréamont offered solace and pain. Freud’s ideas led him into ‘a real vice of self-interpretation’ (Dalí is disparaging when you least expect it) and the character of Maldoror became disturbingly associated with Lorca as a destructive magnet.

By 1925 Lorca was crazy for him. Dalí ‘must have found himself in a quandary, for, if he was hugely flattered by his attentions, he had a ferocious resistance to admitting the possibility that he, too, might be homosexual.’ Gibson chronicles their relationship in detail: two highly contrary characters, each able, in his distinctive way, to recognise and absorb the other. Lorca’s ‘Ode to Salvador Dalí’ generously saluted the painter’s fears, his ‘desire for forms and limits’.

You ask for the ancient light that lodges in the brain
Without descending to the mouth or heart.

And Dalí, carried away by Lorca’s emotional force, apparently adored him as ‘viscous and sublime, quivering with a thousand fires of darkness and of subterranean biology’. They travelled, played and plotted together, and Lorca’s head, sometimes casting the shadow of Dalís, appears in many paintings of the period. But Dalí gradually hardened himself against Lorca’s demands and his example, retreating from the poetic temptation with the scepticism Lorca’s ode had evoked – the cold lucidity which Dalí, recalling the estrangement, referred to as his ‘premature anti-splendorous old age’.

In 1927 Dalí co-wrote an Anti-Art Manifesto lambasting the Catalan establishment for its flaccid, reactionary classicism – ‘for us, Greece is in the antiseptic creases of the female golfer’s pullover’ – and months later lectured in Sitges on the need to abolish folk dance and artists, celebrate stressed concrete and baths, and have ‘a clean face, that is, free from patina’. It was Buñuel, actively hostile to Dalí’s ties with his ‘disgusting’ former friend Lorca, who now seemed to offer the attitude to art and life that suited Dalí: sombre, intransigent, iconoclastic. In 1928 the painter sent Lorca a critique of the Gypsy Ballads, objecting to the book’s Christianity and local colour, urging him on to greater modernity. At the same time the letter warmly defended Lorca against the kind of parody that’s still rife today: ‘I love you for what your book reveals you to be, which is quite the opposite of the idea the putrescent pigs have spread about you, that is, Lorca the bronzed gypsy, with black hair, childlike heart, etc.’ By the end of the year, however, Dalí and Buñuel were planning the script of Un Chien andalou, a Surrealist film of profoundly Spanish cut in its anti-lyrical violence and carnal black humour; it was also full of childish gibes at Lorca. References to homosexuality, to Lorca’s unpublished writings, to his youthful quirk of acting out his own death and resurrection in front of friends, the disparaging title itself, all found their mark. Lorca, who was in New York when the film came out, is reported to have said: ‘Buñuel’s made a little shit of a film called Un Chien andalou – and I’m the dog.’

Sooner or later, Dalí’s therapeutic interest in Freud was bound to draw him into Surrealism, even without Buñuel’s efforts to return him to the straight and narrow of the avant-garde. He had long been alert to Breton’s campaign for a ‘general crisis of consciousness’, had never stood for any tripe about Art, and was already painting powerful images of ‘unconscious’ desire and guilt (Dialogue on the Beach illustrated so many Freudian complexes that it was rejected, to Dalí’s delight, by the Barcelona Autumn Salon). His journalism had borrowed ideas from Breton’s Surrealism and Painting, and the collaboration on Un Chien andalou observed some of the principles of automatic writing. Even more important, the film was well received and opened doors for Dalí in Paris, though at a first meeting with his heroes he made a poor impression: ‘Maxime Alexandre claimed to remember Joan Miró arriving one day with “a timid little young man, very self-effacing, wearing a suit and a hard collar like a shop assistant, and the only one of us with a moustache”.’ Seizing the moment, he feverishly began ‘a series of works in which, determined to be more Surrealist than the Surrealists themselves, [he] elaborated a symbolic language for delineating, with microscopic precision, his erotic obsessions’. A contract was landed with the dealer Camille Goemans, and in the summer of 1929 the Magrittes, the Goemans and the Eluards all came to stay in Cadaqués, near Cape Creus, whose rocks were the childhood source of Dalí’s fascination with metamorphosing images. Here, he was bowled over by the small-hearted, insatiable Gala, and enjoyed a brief interlude of sexual release. His own metamorphosis was wrought largely by her, or so Gibson argues – and other sources agree. I have yet to see a description of Gala as anything other than the stereotype of the scheming, greedy woman who brings a good (well, promising) man down. Perhaps that’s what she was; at any rate, the Surrealist period was the last time radical art and politics coincided with any integrity in the painter’s life.

Dalí still had anarchistic leanings, although his emotional refuge in hygiene and ascetics had long been obvious. His energy and kooky imagination endeared him to Breton, and gave a temporary boost to the movement when it was troubled by internal dissent and its conflict with the Communist Party. Breton had systematised Dada; now Dalí, a walking case-book with an even deeper urge to discipline, made it his mission to systematise Surrealism’s passive access to the unconscious with the invention of ‘paranoiac-critical thought’ (later, and more ominously, ‘method’). The inspiration came in part from a dotty Cadaqués neighbour called Lidia Nogues, of whom he wrote: ‘She was capable of establishing completely coherent relations between any subject whatsoever and her obsession of the moment.’ The rest was a pure Dalíesque fusion of private madness and the need to exaggerate it for all to see, which reached a peak in 1955 with the deadpan Sorbonne lecture connecting the sunflower, the rhinoceros’s backside (‘a sunflower folded in half’), and the cauliflower as the key to Vermeer’s Lacemaker, all based on logarithmic spirals – a landmark in Dalí’s stated project of ‘cretinising the public’. In the early Thirties, the paranoiac-critical method attracted few converts, being no more than a pompous psychoanalyticism for seeing images merge in and out of one another, as in hallucination or pre-sleep or the rocks at Cape Creus. ‘Recently, by a completely paranoiac process, I obtained the visual image of a woman, the position, shadows and morphology of whom ... are at the same time those of a horse.’ Though never precisely set out, the method was guaranteed to lead straight to the fulfilment of the pleasure principle, uncovering the subversive irrationality that really guides the individual, ‘systematising confusion’ and hastening the onset of world Surrealism.

It gets more problematic when we try to relate this to clinical definitions of paranoia. Gibson has it from Dalí’s cousin that in 1930 or thereabouts he discovered that his grandfather had thrown himself from a window because he thought people were out to get him. ‘It can be argued ... that Dalí elaborated a “method” which, by confronting paranoia through its stimulation, sought to bring the potential incidence of the illness under control.’ This seems a paranoid suggestion in itself. Gibson further speculates that Dalí would have known Freud’s view of paranoia – that it is an attempt to divert homosexual impulses – and concludes that the painter’s desire to harness the unconscious was a way of pre-empting ‘the sexual urge that racked him with anxiety’. Yet The Shameful Life provides no evidence for its allegations that Dalí was terrified of being gay. Indeed, he seemed frank about his ambiguities, and emphasised them in his imagery, like everything else that could impress polite society; as for having a go with Lorca, he simply reported that ‘it hurt,’ so they stopped. In his psychoanalytic angle on shame Gibson can go too far, bordering on prurience. Russell Harry’s failure in 1973 to ask Dalí point-blank about impotence when he had the chance to do so was surely an instance of tact: not ‘one of the all-time botched reactions in the history of television interviewing’. Gibson’s clumsy prying often makes one feel more ashamed on his behalf than on Dalí’s. Most of the embarrassing moments in this book came together in the BBC’s accompanying Omnibus programmes, a sneering, superficial performance in which Gibson was only outdone by George Melly. That said, few would disagree with Gibson on Dalí’s shameful political volte-face.

After 1933, with the Communist Party as reactionary as ever, it began to look as though the systematisation of confusion and the cleansing overthrow of the bourgeois order were more likely to come from Fascism. Breton still valued the Freudian nitty-gritty of Dalí’s painting and the starkness of his Surrealist Objects, such as Shoe and Glass of Milk, a piece which involves dissolving sugar lumps and pubic hair in a paste ‘ductile in form and excremental in colour’ – though even he began to see that these were all calculated, post-interpretative compositions, not snapshots of the subconscious tel quel. However, there was trouble within the group when Dalí started exhorting the workers to return to the ‘pristine sources’ of crime, exhibitionism and masturbation. By 1935, he was writing about a popular hunger for spiritual food that could only be provided by Surrealism or Nazism.

Egged on by Gala, high on riches and the adulation he’d always openly craved, vindicated by a couple of trips to America, where self-promotion and overstatement were considered normal, he finally had too much to lose not to embrace the Phalangist cause. A letter to Buñuel mentions the fine things he’d been hearing about Franco, the ‘glorious Caudillo’, even from Republicans and anti-clericals. But it’s in the following letter, also from 1939, that the mystic claptrap about his own theories – at this point, ‘Objective Chance’ – and an imperial, Catholic Spain burst forth. Explaining that astrology, chiromancy and prophetic dreams had persuaded him not to lend Buñuel the money he’d asked for, he went on:

All of this was inevitable given my almost inhuman sentiments of ‘FRENETIC egoism’, that is, the need to control, as long as I live, and with the maximum intensity, every situation (Freud’s pleasure principle) ...

   My present situation is as follows: the overcoming of my William Tell complex, that is to say, the end of hostilities with my father, the reconstruction of the ideal of The Family, sublimated in racial and biological factors, etc etc etc. As a result of this I send everything I can to Cadaqués (whatever I can do in this sense will contribute to my own triumphant self-construction) ...

   Since PARACELSUS (he’s very good!) and NOSTRADAMUS European thought has been in a state of phenomenal decay. What can a humanist doctor like Negrín contribute compared to the PAST, TO ISABEL THE CATHOLIC, consecrated hosts, melons, rosary beads, the truculent indigestions that precede bullfights ...

   SPAIN IS SERIOUS, DESTINED FOR ‘WORLD HEGEMONY’ A SURREALIST ‘ARRIBA ESPANA!’

   Here I’m designing a Surrealist Pavilion for the World Fair with genuine explosive giraffes.

Buñuel must have reeled. In its touching up of the old pleasure principle and dreams of world renewal, while peddling faith and folklore (Lorca’s murder had, of course, made him the object of an overwhelming sentimental regret), the remix of obsessions shows a twisted continuity in the betrayal or commercialisation of all Dalí had stood for. I am still uncertain, after reading this very thorough book, to what extent he was taking the piss. In any event it worked, for while the Franquist regime never got along with certain aspects of the iconography, it couldn’t say no to its own discourse in Dalí’s mouth. Now he really was as hollow as he claimed to feel, no longer an artist so much as the first art star, and the first of any note to work in advertising – a form that still relies heavily on discount Surrealism. For the next two hundred pages, it’s the pop-eyed chap with the waxed moustache that Gibson has to write about: the endless crutches, soft watches and double images (aptly described by Kenneth McLeish as ‘Now you see it and now you see it again’), the demeaning statements and performances, the court audiences for the demimonde at the Hôtel Meurice, the blissful signing of hundreds of blank sheets at a sitting. None of it is very interesting, except as a Faustian fable.