Remembrance of Things Past

Coffeetable Books

December 17, 1999:

The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali

by Ian Gibson

Norton, 798 pp., $45

The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali, touted as the most comprehensive and revealing portrait of the flamboyant Catalonian painter thus far, purports to serve as an antidote to Dali's lifelong campaign of obfuscating certain details of his life and work and reads something like a high-octane detective novel with the ever-elusive McGuffin being the source of Dali's genius. And indeed, the same onanistic juice that splashes out of those melting watches and rotting donkeys seems to splash out of the book as well, with Dali the sacred monster emerging in all his vulgar glory.

Gibson provides a meticulously detailed account of Dali's ancestors and of Dali's own formative years. The reader learns of various events and influences in Dali's early childhood that shaped him in such a way as to give him not only an affinity for surrealistic aesthetics, but instilled in him the will to power that would eventually allow him to dominate -- at least from the perspective of the public eye -- the Surrealist Movement. For example, the shape-shifting optical illusions of the Cape Creus rock formations that Dali explored as a child provided not only the inspirations for many of his paintings, but may have formed the foundation of his artistic vision. The reader also learns that Dali, like Elvis, had a doppelganger, a younger brother also named Salvador, who passed away shortly before his second birthday (before Dali was conceived). As a result, Dali's own birth served as a kind of reaction formation to his parents' trauma over Salvador #1. And so his affluent parents lavished him in the privileges of their class and catered to his every whim.

Gibson states quite baldly in the preface that he's spent the bulk of the book examining Dali's formative years while glossing over Dali's later years, the rationale being that it was in this period that Dali's painting ability had declined, and so his paintings aren't worth examining (although he does a pretty good job of explicating Hallucinations of a Bullfighter, perhaps Dali's last great work). Subsequently, Gibson asserts, Dali's life during this period is less interesting. This seems like a cop-out. If anything, Dali's triumphant transformation into a beau monde lounge lizard with his ocelot on a chain and his staged orgies (he liked to watch) merits closer scrutiny. And so the biography comes off as less than comprehensive: extraordinarily detailed in some areas, sketchy in others. Dali's scam involving selling his signature on blank pieces of paper deserves in itself a chapter or two, but we don't get that here. And Gibson fails to provide us with any clues as to how Dali was able to get his gravity-defying mustache to stand up the way it did.

So the question remains: What made Salvador run? The answer eludes us.

The author does make a half-hearted attempt to run a headshrinking number on the Surrealismo, whipping out a tome on the psychology of shame and applying some of the concepts to aspects of Dali's personality. But he doesn't go much farther than that. How could this well-intentioned biographer let this walking textbook of abnormal psychology off the hook so easily? Why didn't he venture into potentially more fertile territory? Like perhaps the possibility that Dali suffered from multiple personalities or was slightly autistic (which would go a long way toward explaining his lack of emotional involvement that Federico García Lorca chided him for). Gibson also bungles the opportunity to link Dali's sense of shame with his Catholicism and its role in producing one of the great camp personalities of the 20th century. If camp is concealment, then Dali's art could be viewed as an elaborate defense mechanism erected for the purpose of extracting the horrible and holy images that Dali left for all to see. To link all these elements together into a comprehensive theory of Dali as a camp personality would have added an extra degree of understanding of what Dali is all about.

But still, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali easily beats out most of the crud that has been published about -- and especially by -- Dali.

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