So real

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Bernard Adams welcomes comprehensive examinations of the life of Salvador Dali in a large biography and two television programmes

There are very few artists whose names conjure up an instant and totally individual image of their own. Salvador Dali is one of them (Bosch, Constable and Van Gogh would be others on a personal list). Dali has created a series of 20th century icons - of which the soft watch is the most famous. He is parodied in cartoons, much imitated in ads, and is not a stranger to the greeting card industry. So fresh insights into this most famous of the surrealists are welcome.

There are plenty - some hilarious, some alarming, some saddening - in what might be termed a media Dali Week. For example, it is fairly widely known that Salvador Dali was, in playground parlance, a wanker. "The Great Masturbator" (1929) is one of his most famous paintings. What is 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 about Dali's life. They are presented - perhaps "galvanised" would be a better word - by Ian Gibson, Irish hispanist and distinguished biographer of playwright Federico Garc!a Lorca. Gibson's new biography, 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 book contains an unusually lavish number of paintings and photographs (38 colour, 109 black and white). The two films are like quirky, entertaining videos which nicely complement the book's long, detailed, authoritative enquiry 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 comb as fine-toothed and conscientious as Gibson's has been passed through the life.

We follow as Gibson trails around indefatigably. We see one witness literally on her deathbed and unable to communicate; another, 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. Not surprisingly, as the films progress, the biographer's shirt can be seen to have liberated itself from the back of his trousers as he sets off on yet another interview.

Gibson, and the director of the films, Mike Dibb, nevertheless succeed in adjusting and enlarging our picture of Dali. 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 and 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 Garc!a 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 express 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 painter, Yves Tanguy, his morbid, molten, nightmarish style - full of long perspectives, soft watches 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". He shocked his fellow painters in Barcelona with an outrageously insulting lecture, he participated with relish in Bu$uel'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 even than Hercule Poirot and striking staring-eyed poses on demand.

The downward slide really began when he went to America 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 woman of how as a youthful model she was slyly abused by Dali.

Desperately Salvador declared: "The only difference between me and a madman 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 show business 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 had been to him. The old man was by now speaking very unclearly, but Gibson says 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 best paintings there but the place has a spirit of youthful mischief - with the lip-shaped sofa and the crazy wedding car with the 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, Faber and Faber Pounds 30

The Fame and Shame of Salvador Dali Omnibus - October 20 at 10.40pm and October 21 at 10.25pm

Life of Dali Radio 3 - four-part series of readings from the book by Ian Gibson starting October 20 at 9.05pm

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today