`A Sower Of Unease'

 

There are very few artists whose names conjure up an instant and totally individual image of their work. Salvador Dali (1904-1989) is one of them.

Dali has created a series of 20th-century icons - of which the soft watch is the most famous. A new biography to be published next month provides plenty of fresh insights - some hilarious, some alarming, some saddening - into this most famous of the surrealists.

An example: it is fairly widely known that Dali liked to masturbate. The Great Masturbator (1929) is one of his more famous paintings. Not so widely known is what he once did with the product of his manual labours. When his bourgeois, patriarchal father offended him - perhaps just being there was enough - young Salvador bagged up a small sample of his sperm and threw it at his Dad. This incident is described with unholy glee by an octogenarian friend of Dali's, Maria Luisa Gonzalez, in the first of two lively 50-minute Omnibus films for the BBC about Dali's life. They are made by Mike Dibb and presented - perhaps "galvanised" would be a better word - by Ian Gibson, Irish Hispanist and distinguished biographer of Federico Garcia Lorca. Gibson's new biography for Faber, The Shameful Life Of Salvador Dali, is the basis of the films and provides a chance to reassess what might be called "The Dali Phenomenon".

Both the book and the programmes concentrate on the life rather more than the work - although the biography contains an unusually lavish number of paintings and photographs (38 in colour and 109 in black-and white).

The two films are like quirky, entertaining videos which nicely complement the book's long, detailed, authoritative inquiry into Dali's strange psyche and disturbing career. In fact, the programmes are in part about the process of biography, and its limitations - showing the gaps and uncertainties which still lurk even after a toothcomb as fine and conscientious as Gibson's has been passed over the life.

We follow as Gibson trails around indefatigably. We see one witness literally on her deathbed and unable to communicate; another, the singer Amanda Lear, certainly knew Dali but may well have been a man when she did - although she denies it on camera; and the dubious guardians of Dali's finances in his old age are confronted - sometimes smiling, sometimes sinister but usually managing to deflect even Gibson's most direct questions.

Gibson, and the director of the films, Mike Dibb, nevertheless succeed in adjusting and enlarging our picture of Dali. (Both, incidentally, did Spanish at TCD in the 1960s.)

First, the strange psyche: little Salvador was the second child of that name born to his mother. A much-loved older Salvador died at the age of 22 months. Not surprisingly the new one was protected, indulged and became spoilt. Evidently little Salvador would leave his turds around the house in the most conspicuous and inconvenient places he could find. He fought with his father - an impressive image of bourgeois solidity in some splendid archive clips - and eventually broke with him forever when, after his mother died, he felt he had to insult her memory. As a boy he was exceptionally shy and remained so - however hard he tried to mask it with exhibitionist overkill.

From very early on he loved painting and he was set up in a little studio on the roof of the family house in Figueras. He began with quite conventional townscapes. Both the book and the film make plain how much of the landscape at Cadaques, right at the northern end of the Costa Brava and where he holidayed each summer, seeped into the texture of his paintings. The shape and feel of the strange, extravagantly holed rocks on the shoreline is rendered in picture after picture.

It was at Cadaques that Dali began to confront - painfully slowly - the possibility of sex with people other than himself. Federico Garcia Lorca visited most summers in the mid-1920s and tried hard to make Dali his lover. But Salvador, although greatly attracted to Federico, was terrified of homosexuality. And not long afterwards he met Gala, his nemesis. She was 10 years older than Dali, of Russian extraction and according to one description in the film "ugly and with small cat's eyes". Sexually experienced and at that stage married to the poet Paul Eluard, she initiated Dali and remained the only person with whom he could have any kind of whole-hearted sexual relationship.

It was at this time - the late 1920s and the early 1930s - that Dali's talent burned most brightly. His paintings expresses the poetry "both terrible and sweet" of the then immensely fashionable Freudianism. Although it's clear that he owed a good deal to another surrealist, Yves Tanguy, Dali's morbid, molten, nightmarish style - full of long perspectives, weird crutches and images of putrefaction - gained him an enormous amount of attention.

Unfortunately fame and Gala happened at much the same time and she was particularly interested in the rewards of his celebrity. She tried to accelerate the fame-machine as fast as she could. Dali became, probably with her encouragement, "a sower of unease" - and not just on canvas. He shocked his fellow painters in Barcelona with an outrageously insulting lecture; he participated with relish in Bunuel's films Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or - rotting donkeys, breast-fondling and eyeball-slitting et al. He fell out with both the communists and the surrealists - who couldn't stomach his declaration that he liked railway accidents "where the third-class passengers suffered most".

Dali began to become a walking photo-opportunity - wearing a diving suit (in which he nearly suffocated) while giving a lecture in London, waxing his moustaches to much higher altitudes than even Hercule Poirot and striking staring eyed poses on demand. The downward slide really began when he went to the US to avoid the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and stayed there for 10 years.

His paintings became increasingly repetitive, his pronouncements sillier, his relationship with Gala more and more of sham as she let loose a voracious appetite for lovers. He made feeble attempts to reply in kind, and in the second Omnibus film there is a sadly comic description by a dignified American lady of how, as a youthful model, she was slyly abused by Dali. Desperately Salvador declared: "The only difference between me and a mad man is that I am not mad." He took to something which he called "nuclear mysticism" and he even became a fan of General Franco. In his Secret Life autobiography he said: "At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing ever since." He had taken a fatal step across the line between showbusiness and art.

The rest of the story is unedifying. Dali settled at Port Lligat, around the corner from Cadaques, and Gala in an inland castle at Pubol.

By the 1970s their life began to implode. Dali began signing blank sheets of paper, which gave a series of plausible minders a chance to get rich. Parkinson's disease set in and ultimately a form of paranoia. This, incidentally, was the state of affairs, when Gibson met Dali in 1986 for the first and last time.

Somebody had been reading him the Lorca book and Dali was keen to explain to Gibson how much of a soul-mate Federico been to him. The old man was by now speaking very unclearly, but Gibson tells me that he formed the strong impression that Dali was asking him to write his biography. The result is an impressive book, which is particularly strong on Dali's family background (Gibson had to learn Catalan to probe this) and on Andre Breton and the surrealists. The later years, when Dali lived in a climate of fear, are more sketched in. Guns were toted as his entourage built a wall around him.

But at least when he died one of his final wishes was granted: he is buried under a slab right in the centre of what is perhaps the best monument he has left behind - the Dali Museum at Figueras. There are few of his major paintings there, but the place has a spirit of youthful mischief - wild murals, a lip-shaped sofa and the crazy wedding car with a fountain inside - which makes it the kind of museum which it is well worth leaving even the Costa Brava beaches for. In its crazy way it's quite a fitting monument.

The Shameful Life Of Salvador Dali by Ian Gibson is published by Faber and Faber on November 2nd. £30 in UK.

The second Omnibus programme of The Fame And Shame of Salvador Dali is on BBC 1 tonight at 11 p.m.

Life Of Dali, Radio 3, four-part series of readings from the above by Ian Gibson is running on BBC Radio 3.