Books: Shame, shyness and self-obsession in new Dalí monograph

Ian Gibson on Surrealism as an escape and the façade of eccentricity


Dalí’s strange life and stranger career rises in fascination again, and Ian Gibson’s gift for passionate insouciance sorts the wheat from the chaff. There’s a lot of both.

Dalí’s last decade to 1989, soured from sordid fiscal deals, pathetic from illness, contrasts with the vivid and zany earlier life, as amoral as a child’s.

Pathologically shy, his brilliance lay in transforming this trait and its phobias into art and artifice. Mr Gibson’s title refers to Dalí’s so un-Spanish tendency to blush with shame in public as a youth as well as his being “party to fraud” in mass-production of sub-Daliesque prints in old age. The shame-game, goaded by alter ego Gala, his wife, the most enigmatic figure in the book, enabled Dalí to draw bedazzled, often vacuous “disciples” into his fantastical, kitschly tawdry “court”. He resembled more a petty princeling of the seedier reaches of the Italian Renaissance than the artists of the twentieth century.

Dalí needed the surrealists as much as they needed him: his self-obsession wanes so that his works then (1929-38) have a suprapersonal validity: too many others are just personal exorcisms—so why should we care? Mr Gibson visits Dalí’s surviving friends, relations, “servants”, patrons, and even enemies.

The finest sections are Mr Gibson’s scrutiny of the landscapes Dalí used for sources of the haunting settings for the molten watches and various polymorphous perversities; art and life conjoin. Also excellent is his presentation of Dalí in the “Surrealist vortex” wherein Dalí’s “hand-painted colour photography” won over even the prurient Breton. It could not last, Breton eventually convening a sub-Stalinist show trial to shock Dalí into political conformism. Dalí brilliantly upstaged his accusers by a ploy of suffering “flu” such that even the pompous Breton was forced to laugh. This energetic sense of the ridiculous is Dalí’s saving grace and in an art world so often stifled in its sense of smug self-importance (“Sensation” take note!), his Trickster’s ability to laugh at his own pretensions while desperately bolstering them, which Mr Gibson charts with skill and tact, gives results that are painfully funny, laughably sad.

Ian Gibson, The shameful life of Salvador Dalí (Faber and Faber, London, 1997), 764 pp, 109 b/w ills, 38 col. ills, £30 $40 (hb only) ISBN 0571167519

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The shame in Spain'