MAXWELL:  Dissecting Dali

12/13/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



By Ian Gibson

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

Does anyone like the complete Salvador Dali? I doubt it. For me, one who loves Dali’s work, liking the complete Dali, the self-styled “Great Masturbator,” is impossible. To take in large portions of Dali at one time _ or over time _ most people must forgive, forget, ignore and compartmentalize. In other words, you have to work hard to like the Catalan exhibitionist.

In The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali, biographer Ian Gibson offers up 688 pages of exhaustive detail that gives new insight into Dali’s ineluctable descent from greatness and originality to self-promotion and formulaic commercialism. Gibson, debunking and clarifying many of the tales in Unspeakable Confessions, Dali’s autobiography, catalogs the artist’s many demons and nightmares that show up time and again _ often as erotic allusions _ on canvas and other forms.

Dali, who was born in 1904 and died in 1989, was extremely timid, obsessed with male and female buttocks, pathologically afraid of locusts, fixated on his tortured sexuality, crushed that he was ill-equipped for sexual intercourse with women most of his life, pulled into homosexuality, addicted to masturbation.

Thankfully, Gibson salvages that part of Dali’s life that reflects the substantive contours of an existence consumed by too much ego and too much desire for money and fame. “Two-thirds of this book,” Gibson writes, “are devoted to one-third of Dali’s life. Such a structure was not imposed artificially, but shaped itself irresistibly as my research progressed. Dali’s work, after he moved to America in 1940, grows increasingly hackneyed and repetitious.”

Early in The Shameful Life, Gibson uses Dali’s own words to establish the “shame” theme of this work. In Unspeakable Confessions, Dali suggests that he fears blushing (ereutophobia) and hints at his “shame about being ashamed,” two traits that Gibson believes shaped much of Dali’s private and public persona. Gibson claims that, as an adult, Dali was “still the morbidly timid little boy who lost face the moment he felt suddenly exposed.”

Dali, in his own words: “As a child I was very timid, particularly in the presence of society people, of people whose social class was higher than mine. I used to blush terribly when I had to take my hat off to them. During my first visits to Marie-Laurie de Noailles (a formidable Parisian hostess), I was always terrified of committing a faux pas. That’s all changed now: It’s me who intimidates others.’

Another source of childhood shame was Dali’s father, a notary public, who constantly embarrassed his son in public.

Although Dali boasts that, as a famous artist, he had come to intimidate others, Gibson shows that that stance was also a sham, that the artist remained the timid little boy even as an adult. His biggest fear of exposure (shame) came from Gala, his wife. “Gala’s nymphomania, of which everyone in Cadaques was only too well aware, encouraged Dali to surround himself with beautiful people, mainly androgynous in aspect, in order to give the impression that he, too, was sexually active. But Dali wasn’t (having sex) with anybody. He was still, and always would be, the shame-bound Great Masturbator,” Gibson argues.

The biographer’s use of the term “shame” surprises many Dali devotees, for they see in him a man whose misdeeds and words seemingly defied the self-consciousness that causes shame. The author accepts such doubts but explains why Dali’s shame is real: “Shame,” he writes, “is a rare emotion in Spain, where children have been allowed to express aggression and tenderness more freely than in Britain. . . . There are very few descriptions of shame in Spanish nineteenth-century novels or poetry . . . and Dali’s Secret Life, where the author’s feelings of shame as a child is developed in details, is unique in the annals of Spanish autobiography.

“Shame-bound? Few people could have suspected it by the mid-sixties as Dali continued to dazzle the world with his public performances, and Peter Moore (a collector who served as Dali’s agent) continued to make him richer and richer.”

The Shameful Life pulls no punches _ dissecting Dali’s unconsummated love affair with poet Federico Garcia Lorca, his friendship with surrealists Luis Bunuel and Andre Breton _ but it also shows the painter as a sympathetic figure in rare moments. Still, the complete Dali comes through as a despicable creature, who praised Adolf Hitler, supported Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and called for the enslavement of black peoples everywhere on the globe.

For those interested in art history, the real shame, would be to let this book _ filled with color photographs of Dali’s paintings and black-and-white shots of his inner circle of companions _ get away.

For local residents, a good time to read The Shameful Life is right before visiting the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. The book will certainly heighten the museum-goer’s appreciation of Dali’s works.

Those who think that they know the Great Masturbator are in for more than a few pleasant and unpleasant surprises. Many myths are debunked. But many more remain shrouded in the mystery that is Salvador Dali.

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist.