Enigmatic Dal

Different strokes

Giridhar Khasnis remembers the irrepressible Spanish artist Salvador Dalí  on the 25th anniversary of his death

  

Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí Domènech died 25 years ago, on 23rd January, 1989 — after a debilitating illness had long-isolated him from the outside world.

The quintessential surrealist, who painted visionary dreams and hallucinatory landscapes with melting watches, spindly-legged elephants and swarming ants, left an indelible mark on the world of art. “The secret of my influence has always been that it remained secret,” he once boasted. On another occasion, he famously declared: “Each morning when I awake, I experience again a supreme pleasure — that of being — Salvador Dalí; and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí. There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.”

For a person who virtually ruled the art world and enjoyed life to the fullest, Dalí’s last years were dreadful. Even by 1970s, his eyes had become weak and his hands were shaky. “I could not help feeling sorry for the seedy old conjurer with his rhinoceros-horn wand, leopard skin overcoat and designer whiskers, not to mention his surreal breath,” recalled John Richardson, who was once a vice president of M Knoedler & Co, New York, a dealing firm of Dalí. “‘The Wizard of Was’, as someone called him, was all patter and very little sleight of hand. His virago of a wife and the creepy, conniving courtiers in charge of his business had reduced Dalí to a mere logo, a signature as flamboyant as his moustache.”

Painful years

When the King and Queen of Spain visited him in 1981, Dalí had looked very battered, depressed and clearly in poor health. His wife Gala was reportedly feeding him with excessive doses of Valium and other sedatives. Ten years elder to him, Gala held an iron grip on Dalí’s life ever since they married in 1934. He was infatuated with her; he frequently portrayed her in his paintings. Gala (real name: Elena Ivanovna Diakonova) was earlier married to French poet Paul Eluard, one of the founders of Surrealism. She is said to have taken many lovers almost till the end of her life; and Dalí was not unaware of her affairs. He came to despise Gala later in his life, but could barely function without her.

Gala died on June 10, 1982, aged 87, leaving a deeply affected Dalí, who started hallucinating; his depression worsened and he would be found sobbing constantly and spending “hours making animal noises”.

The last five years of Dalí’s life were spent virtually as an invalid, made worse by an uncontrollable trembling of the right hand and unbearable mood swings. “He screamed and spat at his nurses and lunged at their faces with his nails,” recalled Richardson. “To annoy them he would soil his bed. He would take a pill only if an attendant would promise to share it or take one too. His incessant use of an antiquated bell push attached to his pajamas very nearly caused his death when it triggered a short circuit, which set fire to the bed.”

When he eventually died, aged 85, he was buried in the Dalí Theater-Museum in his home town of Figueres, in Catalonia. “Dalí had once assured me that he was going to have his body refrigerated in the hope of resurrection,” remembered Richardson. “However, he ended up, like Gala, embalmed, pacemaker and all.” Dalí himself had once bragged: “If someday I die, though it may never happen, I hope that the people in the café in Figueres will say, Dalí has died, but not entirely.”

Influential painter

For all his pranks and eccentricities, very few artists in the 20th century could match Dalí’s exceptional talent and influence on art. “No artist yet unborn will achieve the same kind of relation to the 21st century that he did to the 20th,” wrote art critic Robert Hughes (The Guardian / 13 March, 2004).

A child sensation, Dalí had held his first and successful solo exhibition when he was just 14 years, in Paris. He quickly became a much-talked-about artist and an international celebrity. By the time he was 32, he was on the cover of Time magazine.

While his paintings of Crucifixion and other Christian themes like The Last Supper were exceptionally composed and presented, his obsession with the female body, dreams, violence and death resulted in some of the most incredible images of his time. He titled many of his paintings curiously; one of them was scandalously called Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of my Mother (The Sacred Heart) / 1929. Another one Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening / 1944.

Among his most memorable paintings was The Persistence of Memory — a tiny 10-inch by 14-inch work — which had melting watches hanging on tree branches and elsewhere. “His Lobster Telephone is one of my favourite works,” remembered American artist Jeff Koons. “I have a postcard of the lobster telephone in my bedroom, so I look at it daily, and I never get tired of it.”

One of Dalí’s greatest and most frightening anti-war paintings was Soft Construction with Boiled Beans - Premonition of Civil War (1936). “With this single painting, Dalí moved into the territory of (Francisco) Goya,” observed Hughes. “This monstrous Titan is the most powerful image of a country’s anguish and dismemberment to issue from Spain (or anywhere else) since Los Desastres de la Guerra. And every inch of it, from the sinister greenish clouds and electric-blue sky to the gnarled bone and putrescent flesh of the monster, is exquisitely painted.”

Brickbats

It was not that all of Dalí’s works were exceptional and universally appreciated. In fact, he had a strong army of detractors. Novelist and critic George Orwell, known for his influential works like Animal Farm (1984) and Homage to Catalonia, argued in 1942 that Dalí’s paintings “are diseased and disgusting, and any investigation ought to start out from that fact.”

When it came to his personal attributes, Dali was a dreamer, rabble-rouser and theatrical performer. He did not hesitate to do anything to maintain his celebrity status. Not for nothing was he variously described as an obsessive and boasting narcissist; pretentious, whorish old fanatic; a rapacious self-publicist and purveyor of kitsch and clowning, eye-flashing and mustache-twirling public figure always in search of fame and fortune. Fed up of Dalí’s bizarre lifestyle and pronouncements even his father disowned him.

“Dalí spent much of his life promoting himself and shocking the world,” wrote Stanley Meisler (Smithsonian magazine / April 2005). “He relished courting the masses. He loved creating a sensation, not to mention controversy. Publicity and money apparently mattered so much to Dalí that, twitching his waxed, upturned mustache, he endorsed a host of products for French and American television commercials. Diffidence was not in his vocabulary.”

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