So real

17th October 1997 at 01:00
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). Dal 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 Garca 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 indefatiga bly. We see one witness literally on her deathbed and + unable to communicate; another, Amanda Lear, certainly knew Dal but may well + have been a man when she did - although she denies it on camera; and the + dubious guardians of Dal'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 Cadaqus, 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, + extravagan tly holed rocks on the shoreline is rendered in picture after + picture.It was at Cadaqus that Dal began to confront - painfully slowly - the + possibility of sex with people other than himself. Federico Garca Lorca visited+ most summers in the mid 1920s and tried hard to make Dal 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-hear ted 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 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 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 Cadaqus, 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 Dal's family background + (Gibson had to learn Catalan to probe this) and on Andr Breton and the + surrealists. The later years, when Dal 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 DalBy + Ian Gibson, Faber and Faber #163;30The Fame and Shame of Salvador Dal Omnibus + - October 20 at 10.40pm and October 21 at 10.25pmLife of Dal Radio 3 - + four-part series of readings from the book by Ian Gibson starting October 20 + at 9.05pm

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